The legendary photographer Martin Parr is no stranger to hot summer days, having spent years traveling the world photographing swimmers and sunbathers for his book Life’s a Beach. But if you ask him what his favorite summer photo is, you might be surprised to learn it’s not all about the sunshine. In fact, as he told The Guardian in 2013, it’s a picture from a rainy day at the Brighton Swimming Club in the UK.
The best photographs of summer are often unexpected. They go beyond the “picture perfect” clichés to capture a little more mysterious and magical. Let’s take a look at fifteen tips, tricks, and tools you can use to take photos that stand out this season. Feel free to follow one or all of them, based on your personal needs and preferences.
Aim for golden hour, but don't rule out other times of day.
Most photographers will tell you to shoot in the hour or so after sunrise and before sunset, when the light is soft and warm. This time of day is a great place to start because the light is directional and easier to control, but it’s by no means the only appropriate time to take photos in summer. The darker twilight moments just before nightfall, also known as “blue hour,” can be equally stunning, and while harsh midday light can pose some challenges, it can be offset with tools like a reflector or a polarizer.
Your ideal light might vary based on location (for example, a dense city skyline might look best in the blue light of evening, while a field of wildflowers could come to life in the early morning) so try visiting the same place at different times of day to figure out your lighting preferences. For up-to-date information on the sun’s position at any given moment, check out The Photographer’s Ephemeris, an app that can help you plan your outdoor shoots ahead of time.
Tap into your childhood memories.
Summer is the season of nostalgia. Remember the smell of sunscreen on the beach, the taste of melting popsicles, the green-gold glow of fireflies at night? What about games of kick-the-can or the feeling of hot sand between your toes?
Try returning to the places you loved as a child, and see if they stir up old memories. Maybe you’ll find a new generation of kids exploring the same dunes where you once searched for buried treasure, or perhaps you’ll discover that everything has changed since you were there last. Revisiting the past can be bittersweet, and that’s okay. Follow your emotions and your instincts to create images that transport us through time.
Hone in on the details.
Often, the most powerful images are also the most specific. Look for the little things: an old Ferris wheel, a rusty swing, a lemonade stand, the unforgettable expression on a stranger’s face. Take advantage of summer textures, from the rough surface of a seashell to the glittery sheen on a piece of fruit. You don’t necessarily have to use a macro lens to capture details, but you certainly can for some of those up-close shots!
Travel off the beaten path.
Summertime is tourist season, so you might have to do some wandering before you find a spot that’s truly unique. Get hands dirty and your feet wet exploring uncharted terrain, even if it’s just a tucked-away corner of your local park. Bring your sleeping back and try camping overnight on the beach to capture the scene after everyone else has gone home, or during a walk in nature, opt to take the road less-traveled.
Please note that if you’re in a wilderness area, sanctuary, or somewhere similar, you should always stick to designated paths for both your safety and the safety of the environment. If you’re ever in doubt, double check with your guide or the authorities. In locations like these, there are plenty of out-of-the-way areas to explore while also following the rules!
Get lost in the crowd.
While secret or unexpected locations often yield magical results, there’s no reason to limit yourself to only these types of areas. Heavy-traffic areas can be just as photogenic as lonely ones, particularly if you enjoy shooting portraits. People tend to let their guard down a little bit during summer, and that means it’s a fantastic time for street photography.
Bring your camera with you everywhere--even on your commute to work--and look for interesting characters as they hurry past, or head to your local beach during the busiest times of day, to capture people of all walks of life sunbathing and splashing around in the waves.
Watch the weather.
Summer photography is not all about sunshine or rainbows. Download a weather app, and look for unusual conditions. A storm on the beach, for instance, can pose a wonderful opportunity for moody landscape shots without any people. Similarly, a rainy day in the city will offer up photogenic reflections. Plan your shoots according to the forecast, and don’t be afraid to try new things.
Please note that weather can pose safety challenges, and it’s necessary to keep your distance from any storms (at least five miles, if not more) and stay abreast of any developments or alerts. If conditions are bad, team up with a photography buddy, and ask an experienced weather photographer to show you the ropes. The National Weather Service has some educational resources to help you get started if you want to get into this kind of photography.
Find the shade.
If the light outside is blindingly bright, look for shade under a tree, a tent, or a building. Usually, the light in the shade will be softer, which is perfect for portraits, though you can also play with shadows on your subject’s face for a one-of-a-kind image. No trees around? Bring along an umbrella to create your own shade anywhere you need it.
Try long exposures for a painterly touch.
Long exposures and seascapes go hand-in-hand, so head to the shore for some sublime images. Slower shutter speeds will transform the ocean waves and clouds into silky, almost abstract swaths of blue, white, and gray. In these situations, you’ll most likely need a tripod and a cable release, and to pack some lens cloths too to keep everything clean of sand and spray, too. We recommend using a neutral density filter as well, as this simple tool will reduce the amount of light that hits your sensor, making it safe to leave the shutter open longer.
Look for pops of color.
#PopsofColor is more than just a popular Instagram hashtag. Even on a dreary, overcast day, a spot of vivid color can take your photography from “blah” to “wow.” Summer is all about bright things--freshly picked berries, beach parasols, pool floats, you name it. Find these color-pop moments out in the world or create them yourself for a dramatic effect.
Use a drone for graphic aerials.
We’re about to see a whole lot of colorful aerials on our Instagram feeds. Summertime seems custom-made for a bird’s eye view, from those rows of beach umbrellas to the crowds of people to those rolling, textured waves. These days, you don’t need to shell out the cash for a helicopter to make images like these. Instead, spend some time mastering drone photography--just make sure you’re following any laws and regulations in your area before you hit the sky!
Consider this: large-format photographer Nicolas Hughes spent fifteen years capturing stunning landscapes within walking distance of his home. If that isn’t proof that you don’t need to plan a faraway trip in order to make beautiful pictures, we don’t know what is. Yes, summer vacations are full of photo-ops, but you might also be able to find something special in your own backyard.
For part of the season, consider limiting yourself geographically; devote one week to exploring the five-mile radius around your neighborhood. Photography is all about seeing ordinary things in new ways, so try approaching familiar parks and street corners as if they were exotic locales.
In the summer heat, it’s essential to keep your backpack light, so choose your gear carefully. Do you need a lens hood to block out the glare of the sun? What about a fill flash for portraits, or those reflectors we talked about earlier? Instead of a heavy tripod, consider opting for a beanbag, a minipod, or another lightweight alternative.
The contents of your bag will vary based on your goal--for example, you’ll choose different lenses for portrait photography than you would for landscapes--so think carefully about exactly what to bring. Don’t forget those spare batteries just in case.
Experiment with gear.
Summer is the perfect time to try something different.If you’re used to shooting with a telephoto lens, why not play around with a wide-angle? Put down the DSLR and challenge yourself to take great pictures using only your phone. If you’ve only ever shot digital, work with film for a few days to see how you like it. You can even use expired film or infrared film to create cool and surprising effects.
Summer is the perfect time to push past your comfort zone. Most days will be hot and muggy, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay cooped up inside. All you need to face the day is plenty of water, appropriate clothes, and sunscreen. To avoid the worst of it, wake up before the sun or head outside after dusk. Research suggests that breaking your routine--and even experiencing a little bit of discomfort--can lead to heightened creativity and sensitivity to your surroundings. Think of summer weather not as a deterrent but an incentive!
Take breaks. It may seem counterintuitive, but scientists suggest that breaks can make you more creative. If you feel stuck, or you’ve been looking at the same section of beach for hours and have yet to take a good photo, carve out some well-earned downtime. Go for a swim or buy an Italian ice. Spend the afternoon with your friends or family, and then return to work in the morning with a fresh perspective. You’ll be amazed at what some downtime can do for your creative eye.
Inspired by the season? Discover your next creative project with one or more of these easy, breezy 30-minute creative classes, perfect for a summer’s day.
For more information on Feature Shoot, click here.