The Best Camera Lens For Beach Photography: Ultimate Guide
July 19, 2021
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No matter the time of year, a beach is always an excellent location for photos. Although many factors make this setting work well in photographs: lighting and color are just two examples, it's often easy to overlook one important detail - camera lens quality! You may have attempted to recreate a photo you've seen in the past, with little success.
The good news? Aside from other elements like light or composition...It starts with your lens choice! In today’s article, we will provide you detailed insight into why certain lenses excel over others and ultimately the best camera lens for beach photography!
In this article, we're going to discuss:
Best camera lens for beach photography
The ideal beach photo
Why focal length matters
Prime vs. Zoom (and which is the best for beach photography)
Closing thoughts and our recommendations
By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of what makes a lens the best camera lens for beach photography, as well as valuable information to help you going forward.
I'll be honest - the lenses recommended in this article aren't cheap. To most - they're considered quite expensive.
With that being said - I always recommend to either rent or purchase used. Purchasing used can save you 30-50% off the retail price and literally yield the same results as buying new. Other than my camera body - all the glass that I own is used, and works no different than if I had purchased new.
If you're considering purchasing a new lens - do yourself a favor and rent it first to make sure it offers everything you had hoped. You don't want to purchase something at full price to find that it doesn't do what you wanted - you'll then lose money when you sell it. Believe me; I've done it more than once.
Now - if you're buying used... buy fromKEH Camera. They have great service, products, and they've been doing this since 1979. It's so much safer (in many ways) than eBay or used on Amazon. You can also trade in your equipment or sell it directly to them (MUCH higher return than eBay - who now takes 20-30% of your sale in fees). I have been using them exclusively for all of my camera needs for the past 3+ years.
We highly recommend renting from Borrowlenses. They have nearly any lens, body, or lighting setup you could think of - great insurance rates (which I highly recommend getting) - with the best rates in the business. Also, no deposit is required - local shops normally require the retail value of the lens as a deposit. This is a huge advantage... I mean, who has $6000 sitting around for putting a deposit down on a Canon 200mm F/2? Yeah, no need to worry about that with Borrowlenses.
There are two types of beach photos. The first type is landscape. This is when the environment itself is the subject of the photo. These are usually taken at golden hour when orange colors change to pink and purple, and you can see sharp sand in the foreground. On the other hand, you can take a landscape photo if you want beautiful pictures that people love to look at.
The other type of beach photo is a portrait when it is mainly about people at the beach, like wedding pictures or having fun with friends on holidays.
These photos make it seem like you are at the beach. You can imagine yourself there. They'll photos will make your readers feel like they are there and then imagine themselves in the photo instead of whoever's in it.
These types of beach photos are very relevant, have their place, and will be referenced throughout this article.
We've got you covered on both - don't worry!
Let’s Dive Into The Importance Of Focal Length!
Why is focal length so important in beach photography?
I want you to image something. You're on the beach with a beautiful family, couple, single person - whatever first comes to mind. They've paid you a great deal to take and deliver them some amazing beach portraits.
You've been to the location before and know of a great spot along the shoreline next to some jagged rocks where waves crash and the sun sets, glistening off the water.
You direct the family (in this case) where to stand. Again, emphasizing staggering by height. You tell dad and mom to stand at the back - children to stand in the front with the kids holding their puppers ( two adorable Yorkies).
Everything is perfect and ready to go. You're so excited to take the picture and know they'll love it when they see it. You then get in position and look through the viewfinder...
That's when you know something isn't right...
What you see through the viewfinder is nothing you had imaged or posed the client for. So you struggle to try and figure it out (stressed even more by the fact you're trying to figure it out in the middle of a photo session).
What I will say, the most likely cause of this problem is focal length.
Focal Length Is One Of The Most Important Aspects In Beach Photography
Before you decide on composition and lighting, think about your focal length.
For example: if someone is posing, the focal length may not work well for them. You will need to move towards/away/around them to find the right angle. Once you have found that angle, you can adjust their positioning to make the composition and lighting perfect.
You see, beach photos start with the focal length - and all other aspects (composition/framing, lighting, etc.) all work together from that point.
There are many other aspects of photography and lenses that we can consider here, but that's just the basics. I have included the infographic to the right (or below if you're on a mobile device) to explain the focal length better and why it's so important.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering focal length while taking photos on the beach.
Is my angle wide enough? (am I capturing the scene just as I want to)
Am I achieving the bokeh and compression that I want?
Is/will my subject "separate" from the background with this focal length? (during portraits mostly)
*After thinking of those questions* Is there a better focal length for this situation?
Once you answer those questions first - you'll be more prepared for your next and future shots.
Now we'll dive into the difference between prime lenses and zoom lenses, the benefits (and cons) of each. This way, you'll know what works best for you for that perfect beach photo.
Prime Vs Zoom Lenses (At The Beach)
First off, we aren't going to dive too deep into the technical aspect of their differences. What we will cover is:
The basic difference between Prime and Zoom lenses
The difference in ability (what you're able to do)
Pros and cons
So, without further a-do, let's get started!
The Basic Differences Between Prime And Zoom Lenses
It is not uncommon for photographers to be confused by the difference between prime and zoom lenses. Zoom lenses are great because they allow you to change your focal length without changing your position, but this convenience comes with a cost: quality.
Prime lenses have been designed specifically for certain types of photography, such as portraits or landscapes, so it's best to choose what type of lens you need before purchasing one, specifically for beach photography.
To Zoom - or Not To Zoom
This is the question you need to ask yourself, seeing as the major difference between Primes and Zooms is the ability to zoom in and out.
Let's discuss the other major differences.
Primes Are Faster
By "faster," we mean the aperture (or opening/element of the lens) is larger.
This allows for more light and will give you more bokeh or soft/blurriness to your background.
So if shooting beach photos at night is something you're interested in - and nice soft blurry backgrounds are as well - keep a prime in mind when looking for a beach lens.
Zooms Are "Slower" But More Versatile
As stated before, speed or "slow" only relates to the size of the opening/element.
Generally speaking, zoom lenses don't open as wide as primes do. This limits the amount of light that can go through the lens compared to a prime. As a result, you also won't get as much bokeh/background blur.
But, what it lacks in those aspects, it gains in versatility. You're able to zoom in and out. You can reach toward and pull back from your subject without ever having to move.
Prime Lenses Are Sharper
Seeing as prime lenses are a single focal length - there is less glass for light to pass through.
This equates to your images being sharper.
Though the difference may be subtle, this is one of the main reasons high-end professional photographers use prime lenses.
One difference that many photographers never mention - is moving parts.
This is especially important when talking about the best camera lens for beach photography.
You see, a zoom lens has a barrel that turns and an outer element that moves back and forth. This is what allows you to zoom - physically moving parts.
The concern when taking photos on the beach is sand. It's every camera owner's worst nightmare.
On the flip side, assuming you're using an autofocusing prime - you never have to turn a barrel. This is so something you don't have to really worry about.
Pros & Cons
Pros and Cons For Prime Lenses
Shaper than a Zoom lens
The best in low light environments
No major outer moving parts
Can't zoom in or out
Must move closer or further from your subject, physically.
Not nearly as versatile as a zoom lens
Pros and Cons For Zoom Lenses
The king of versatility
Many focal lengths in one lens
You save a lot of money buying 1 zoom lens vs. 3-5 primes
Not as cost-effective as a zoom
The large moving outer barrel
Not as fast as a prime
Not as sharp as a prime
Not as good in low light
The answer to "the best camera lens for beach photography" comes down to what you need it for.
Will you want to take wide shots and narrow shots of the beach and some subjects? What landscapes - do you want just the wide-angle, or would you like closer shots as well?
Or do you like taking close, intimate, personal portraits of subjects on the beach? Do you see where this is going....?
It really does come down to what you need it for and if one will be better for you than the other.
16-35mm For Beach Photography
This is the focal range of many landscape photographers (and real estate photographers). This is ideal for those looking to capture as much of the landscape and beach as possible. Don’t mistake this lens for only landscape, though; you can get amazing wide-angle portrait-style shots with this as well.
Think of weddings/events where you want to capture a lot of the subject's surroundings.
Be mindful of distortion when photographing people on a wide angle lens. Keep them a fair distance away to maintain correct proportions. The closer someone gets to a wide angle lens (anything below 50mm in my option) The more distorted their features become (super long legs, narrow/stretched face/etc.)
Also, be careful not to lose your subject in their environment (if taking anything other than a landscape) - Be mindful that it becomes increasingly easier to lose your subject the closer you are to the lower end of this focal length (below 24mm).
50-100mm For Beach Photography
The lower end of this focal range (50-75mm) is very similar to the focal length our eyes see. This would make it very ideal for those taking portrait shots on the beach while capturing a few of their surroundings while you’re at it.
When you dive into the 85mm to 100mm range, you’re stepping into the semi-telephoto look. This is where you can use compression of the foreground and background to make your photograph more engaging and grounded. You'll also lose nearly all forms of distortion on the body/face (85-100mm). It's a very natural focal range for the face.
This focal length is great for portraits and landscapes (believe it or not). Check out my article on 50mm landscape photography if you're curious!
100mm+ For Beach Photography
For the longest time, I never touched a focal length on the beach longer than 85mm.
I wouldn't say I liked the idea of being restricted to such a deep focal length (I have always shot with primes, for the most part). That all changed when I made it my mission to do 5 consecutive photo sessions with a 135mm prime on the beach.
In the world of portraits - my beach sessions changed completely.
Longer Focal Lengths Are Very Intimate And Deliberate
While you aren't able to capture as much of your surroundings as a wider focal length (standing in the same spot) - your photos become more intimate and deliberate.
There is no question what your eyes should be focused on in the image.
If your composition and editing aren't spot on an onwider angle lens (such as a 24mm) -, your eyes can wander across the picture, not knowing exactly where they should be looking.
With a longer focal length (and lower aperture), there will be zero questions.
This is only achieved with a longer focal length. The same thing can be said when discussing long focal length landscapes (focusing on a single aspect of a scene/landscape).
The Best Camera Lens For Beach Photography Goes To...
The "winner" of this article may or may not surprise you - but countless photographers regard the 24-70mm f/2.8 as the most versatile focal ranges on the planet.
The focal range of this lens hits 4 key focal lengths that are great for not only beach photography - but many others types of photography as well. These focal lengths include:
24mm (for wide-angle landscapes, subject sessions to capture a great deal of the environment, stylized shoots with over-exaggerated features)
35mm (very similar to 24mm, just not as wide, slightly less distortion, an excellent "everyday" focal length)
50mm (regarded by some as the most versatile focal length. You lost a lot of distortion seen at 24 and 35mm. Great for street/natural photography and possibly an "everyday" focal length too - if you want a little more reach and compression)
70mm (Approaching a very natural portrait length - most won't notice the difference between 70mm and an 85 - I've shot many portraits at 70mm with excellent results).
The reason I'm not recommending a prime over this zoom lens is that how versatile it is, how much it'll save you (in terms of money) over 4 different prime lenses, and how much money it can make you (if making money off of your photos is something you're into/interested in).
What Else Can I Use The 24-70mm For?
That's the amazing thing about this focal range - you can use it on nearly everything. This includes paid and no-paid work. Here are just a few other types of photography that you can use the 24-70mm for:
Any portrait session (studio, outdoor, events/indoor, etc.)
Any themed mini-session
And the list goes on...
Most wedding photographers, for instance, will wield two camera bodies. One body will have a 24-70mm - and the other will be a prime (either a 100mm or a 135mm). But 9 out of 10 wedding photographers have used their 24-70mm at every single wedding.
You wouldn't want to use this lens for:
Wildlife (you would need a much longer focal length, like a 400mm or 200-600mm)
Real Estate (not wide enough for most realtors taste)
Any Ultra/Super-wide landscapes
Anything else that you would need distance between your subject (concerts-photographing from the crowd, editorial/reporting, etc.)
As you can see - while a 24-70mm f/2.8 (always opt for 2.8 over an f/4, for better low light performance) may be hefty in price - it pays for itself with what it's able to do. So it's worth every single penny.
Each Major Camera Manufacturer Has Their Own Version
I have included a price chart with the lowest price possible that still maintains the manufactures warranty.
Many of the less expensive versions of the lenses you find on eBay, for instance, do not have a warranty. The ones below do.
I have also included the Sigma version of this focal length for each manufacturer as well. You'll see the price difference (pretty significant) - but don't let that fool you. The quality of their glass is top-notch (I own 3 myself and choose them over major manufacture almost every time).
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM
NIKON NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S (Z mount)
Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN Art for Sony E
Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art Lens for Nikon F (NOT-Z mount)
Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art for Canon
Let's Discuss Some Honorable Mentions! (That Could Save You Money)
It wouldn't be right to announce the winner and leave it at that, would it? NO!
Let's discuss a couple other focal lengths that didn't make the cut for us, but could be the perfect fit for you!
Wait, didn't we announce the 24-70mm, winner?
This is true; we did. But it was the f/2.8. The larger, heavier, and slightly better version.
While the f/2.8 is a stop faster than the f/4 - the f/4 version makes up for it in:
Weight: (+/- 1/2 pound lighter)
Size: +/- 1/3 the length/girth less
Cost: +/- $1,000 less than the f/2.8
Yup - you read that right. $1000 less than the f/2.8 version. Give or take $100.
Image quality is about the same. Autofocus is about the same as well. The major downfall to the F/4 vs. the F/2.8 is the aperture. You'll perform better in low light and have better bokeh/depth of field with the F/2.8 than you will with the f/4.
But again, did I mention you save $1000?
I've included a chart below (like the one above) that includes the best prices I could find. As of writing this article, I will say I was not able to find a Canon 24-70mm F/4 from a reputable dealer. There are Japanese imports - but they include no warranty (I do not include them in my articles).
I have included all of the others (Sony and Nikon)
Sony Vario-Tessar T FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS
NIKON NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S (Z mount)
Canon EF 24–105mm f/4L IS II USM
16-35mm F/2.8 For Beach Photography
This is a great contender for the top spot. You have a zoom range of 16s to 35mm. That’s ultra-wide to wide-angle all in the same lens. You can achieve sharp, amazing landscape shots of the beach with this lens.
The only reason this wasn’t the top choice is practicality and price.
I wouldn’t recommend this lens over 24-70mm because you may find yourself not using the focal lengths below 24mm. Ultra-wide is a very distinct look. It has its time and place in photography, and that’s it (in my opinion).
You’ll find that if you attempt to use this lens with a subject (like a bride and groom) at a focal length below 24mm, your subject will be entirely too small. As a result, they’ll get lost in the photograph. This is very apparent if you shoot at 16mm.
BUT, if you are one of those folks who NEEDS to have that ultra-wide angle in their back pocket - the 16-35 will fit right in.
Not only that - but there is some huge money-making potential in the real estate, commercial, and local business realm with this lens. Personally, I know quite a few people who invested ~$2,000 on the lens and have made hundreds of thousands in return. Let that one sink in.
Sony - FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM
Canon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L III USM
Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED
Now you know I couldn't talk about the F2.8 and not talk about the f/4.
As seen in the previous section, the small difference in aperture is a big plus for those trying to save money on their next beach photography lens.
It's no different for the 16-35.
But, let's be honest, you aren't purchasing this lens for subject separation/bokeh. You want to capture all of those details, So get a lens of this focal range.
Or at least I hope you are...
You can save close to $1000, and you lose a bit of light and depth of field for that.
Sony 16-35mm Vario-Tessar T FE F4 ZA OSS E-Mount Lens
Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM
Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED
Best Prime Lens For Beach Photography: 35mm F/1.4
I was torn between recommending the 35mm or the 24mm. 35mm sits in that sweet spot between 24mm and 50mm. You’ll get very similar results as a 24mm. They’re incredibly sharp lenses, can produce great bokeh (f/1.4 aperture), and are all-around amazing lenses. I’ve taken thousands of photographs on a 35mm prime.
But you don’t get the wide-angle look, in my opinion.
If it's a good or a bad thing, that's totally your call. It's all up to your own personal taste.
But for us, we love the look of a 35mm when capturing "wider" angle shots on the beach, either with or without a subject.
It makes the subject and/or environment so much more real.
I'm sure you've looked at a landscape and thought to yourself that something was off but couldn't put your finger on it. Or you're the one that knows that the wide-angle of the lens is what's causing the image to look so "wonky" (crazy stretched).
That's what the 35mm alleviates. You get a much wider look than a standard 50 or 85mm, but not too wide that the picture ends up looking wonky or fake.
I have included prices/links to the best version from each manufacturer below.
Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens, Lens Only
Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD Lens for Canon EF
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens for Canon EF
Sony Distagon T FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA
Sigma 35mm F1.4 Art DG HSM for Sony E
Nikon AF FX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G
Tamron SP 35mm f/1.4 Di USD Lens for Nikon F
Cheaper 35mm F/1.4 Alternatives
I thought I would include more affordable options for the 35mm f/1.8
The one thing to keep in mind - why these lenses are so much cheaper - isn't that they are cheap. Actually, quite the opposite.
The Rokinon is made of metal (most lenses are plastic bodies) - and it's extremely durable.
The main downside (and the reason it's so affordable) - is that its manual focus. You'll have to focus everything on your own.
This saves a lot of money by not having sensors and motors built into the lens to allow it to do that.
If you feel comfortable with manually focusing (or learning how to do it really well), pick one up! If not, you should look at other 35mm lenses.
Let's Wrap This Up!
As you can see, there are many different types of beach photography. From landscapes to portraits, there is a large need to fill between those types.
That’s why the 24-70mm is the most recommended. You can fill nearly all aspects of beach photography in a single lens. All of this while producing incredibly sharp, bootylicious images.
Leave any other questions, feedback, and suggestions below – we love hearing from you all!
Until next time, take care and stay safe out there!
How can you tell the quality of a camera lens?
Because of harsh lighting conditions on the beach - you'll want to monitor your exposure closely. Leave your ISO at or below 100. Get an aperture setting that achieves the type of bokeh effect you desire - then adjust your shutter speed accordingly. Example: ISO 100, Aperture: 1.8, Shutter speed 1/4000. Go off of this to shoot sunrise and sunset photos (less shutter speed depending on lighting conditions).
How can I protect my camera at the beach?
A wrist strap is a must if you are concerned with dropping your camera. You should also be in a 'defensive' mindset and be completely aware of what's going on around you, and prevent things from happening before they do (playful dogs, people playing catch, etc.) Think of it as defensive driving. A prime lens is also better than a zoom because sand won't affect the zoom barrel - because, well, they don't zoom!
How do you take good pictures at the beach?
This is a very subjective topic - which we will be publishing an article to go in-depth on this topic. But, the rule of thumb, shoot during sunrise or sunset; keep the sun at your subjects back. If the sun is hitting their face, shoot your subject's profile while they're 'lookup up' to the sun. Incorporating the water itself adds to the beach feel.
How do you shoot a beach portrait?
You'll want to shoot at sunrise or sunset - and angle your subject so either their back is to the sun, or the sun is 'kissing' their bad side (a slight 30-45% angle). The angle is great for someone self-conscious about one side over the other - and it's a great way to add drama and shape the face as well. Adjust your settings accordingly for correct exposure, and you'll get great photos!