BBC Culture

How to take great beach photos

(Denis Stock / Magnum Photos)

(Denis Stock / Magnum Photos)

Our photo albums are full of seaside holiday snaps – but how to take really good ones? Stephen Dowling investigates what we can learn from the photographers of the Magnum photo agency.

To millions of us, the summer means the beach. We pack promenades of pebbles and sand in our millions, roasting on beach towels and standing knee deep in crowded surf. We trek by bus and train and overheated car to coastal resorts – Brighton, Coney Island, Bondi Beach – or scrimp and save to see the world,for a few short weeks at least, from the vantage point of a deck chair.

On the beach, all human life is on display, and it’s no coincidence that for many of us, our memories of childhood are linked to the seaside. The potential for bright sun meant the camera that might have spent months kept in a drawer saw the light of day; our photo albums all contain faded pictures of us in swimming costumes with fixed smiles.

For many photographers, the lure of the beach is strong. Here people are relaxed, carefree and oblivious to the crowd around them as they snooze or splash. There is an unguarded freedom. For anyone interested in taking candid pictures, the beach is rich with subjects and possibilities.

Many of the leading lights of the Magnum photo agency – one of the most prestigious photojournalism organisations in the world – have been among them. What can we learn from them for the next time we take the camera to the beach?

Quiet humour and common stories
Martin Parr is a divisive figure in contemporary photography; his trademark ultra-saturated colours come from the use of a camera flash, something many documentary photographers frown on. But Parr's rich archive – much preoccupied with English notions of class and leisure – contains many captivating moments. His series The Last Resort, shot in the seaside resort of New Brighton, near Liverpool, in the early 1980s, is one of his landmark projects.

One of the highlights is this shot of a sunbather and child soaking in the rays on a patch of free ground – which happens to be just behind a massive digger. Parr, who used to work as a photographer at the Butlins holiday camps in England, imbues these scenes with knowing humour, putting fragments of life under the microscope and making them appear larger than life with saturated hues.

You might not want to walk around the beaches with a ringflash around your camera like Parr, but a little of his magpie eye for the humorous will go a long way. Beaches packed with people are often full of incongruous comedy; the socks and sandals on a hot day, the sleeping figures under newspapers, the bizarre backdrops behind the swimsuits. Keep your eyes open, and all sorts of opportunities will appear.

(Martin Parr / Magnum Photos)

(Martin Parr / Magnum Photos)

Don't forget late-day light
Constantine Manos is a Greek-American photographer who grew up in South Carolina and who has turned his lens on both the US and his family’s native Greece. His 1974 book The Greek Portfolio contains many ruminative black and white images and is a portrait of a country emerging from poverty, occupation and civil war. But in his 1995 book American Color, Manos partly turned to the beach, and America's love affair with it.

Manos's approach is very different from Parr’s – his photos are full of colour, but it is the warm colour of late afternoon and evening, often using the long shadows cast by a setting sun. It's a good technique to emulate. Brightly coloured beach huts, café walls and golden sand are all beautiful backdrops as the sun dips. Stand with the sun to your back and use that reddish light to add texture and depth  – but be careful not to let your own shadow into the frame, especially if you're using a wide-angle lens.

(Constantine Manos / Magnum Photos)

(Constantine Manos / Magnum Photos)

Black and white has its place
Ian Berry's 1978 book The English is a classic of documentary photography; juxtapositions of class and culture in amid the tumult of 1970s Britain. Berry made his name as a photographer in South Africa – he was the only photographer present during the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 – but frequently turned his lens on his home country during the 1970s. Berry took most of the pictures for The English on a visit to Britain in 1975  and the resulting collection rivals Robert Frank's The Americans as a document of a people and a country frozen in time.

This image was taken in Whitby, North Yorkshire, on what looks to be a typical English summer day – banks of cloud and a stiff wind, with a game old lady dispatching a tennis ball to the boundary during a game of beach cricket. Berry’s expert eye has arranged the scene perfectly, with the beachgoers and the rowboat on the sea beyond adding further layers to the picture. But it's also a scene that probably works best in black and white; the colours on this cloudy day would have been muted. Black and white adds a certain timelessness too, and allows the photographer to concentrate on form and composition without having to balance contrasting colours.

(Ian Berry / Magnum Photos)

(Ian Berry / Magnum Photos)

Walk away from the crowds
The beach isn’t always crowded. There's a peculiarly melancholic feeling to winter images of Britain's cheap and cheerful Victorian resorts –empty souvenir stands, banks of brooding clouds, a stiff wind from Siberia that can almost be felt.

We're so used to seeing sands packed with bathers that seaside solitude can have a powerful emotional effect; look at the work of Bruce Davidson from the early 1960s, with figures tightly wrapped against the cold, trudging mournfully along the beach. Or Elliott Erwitt's superb set of black and white pictures from the French resort of Deauville, his ever-present dogs snuffling in the beautifully deserted acres of sand.

Denis Stock's Beach and Woman shows a moment of isolation on a sunny day; a woman reclines on a deckchair, a paperback in her hand, a line of brightly coloured changing huts arranged in a row like a line of giant gaudy robots. Stock's composition is perfect. There is the hint of a crowd in the distance but it is a coloured blur; the woman feels stark and alone. Aim for the fringes, away from the crowds, who with careful framing will disappear.

(Denis Stock / Magnum Photos)

(Denis Stock / Magnum Photos)

It's not just about the deckchairs

The beach is many things to many people – playground, gym, reading room, nightclub. The sand can serve as a football pitch or a volleyball court, the first stage to market for fishermen hauling their catch from the briny deep, or a meeting place for classic car fans. But a chess club? This photo from Magnum's Peter Marlow was taken on a beach in Latvia when it was still part of the Soviet Union in 1981. Chess in eastern Europe is not just a game for overachieving kids, it's a spectator sport. Study Abbas' images of devotion and ritual on the beaches of India: in his pictures of Hindu devotees offering tributes to the god Ganesh, the beach becomes a temple.

(Peter Marlow / Magnum Photos)

(Peter Marlow / Magnum Photos)

We may all clamour for their heat and energy, but no two beaches are the same. Seek out the things that make them special.

Stephen Dowling is associate editor of BBC Future and has been a photographer for 15 years. He writes a blog on analogue photography.

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