10 Tips for Great Tide Pool Photography, Plus Top iPhone Apps to Have With You

© Jaymi Heimbuch
Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

We are always talking about issues like Nature Deficit Disorder and how getting out into the wild makes us happier, healthier, nicer people. This summer, get your fill of nature by experiencing the beach in a different way. If you're visiting the coast during vacations or even an afternoon outing, instead of hitting the sand for a tan, try scuttling along tide pools and experiencing the myriad creatures that live in this in-between zone.

To get you excited about keeping your eyes keen for wildlife, here are tips for taking better tide pool photos whether you're using a professional DSLR or a point-n-shoot camera. And we're also giving you a heads up about the top apps to have on your smart phone so you can be a citizen scientist as well as a better photographer. I had the pleasure to go tide pooling with the amazing nature photographer Rebecca Jackrel this past weekend. I've only taken my camera to a tide pool once before and was pretty disappointed with my images. I knew I had a lot to learn and Rebecca was generous with her knowledge. I learned quite a few must-do tips that vastly improved the images I was able to get. And here they are for you to try out!

Tips for DSLR Owners

1. Go Early It's best to get to the tide pool when the tide is at its lowest, or even while it is still on its way out. You'll be surprised at the changes within the pools in the short time between the tides, and you'll want plenty of time to look around for different creatures, set up various shots, and simply play and enjoy the area. So definitely head out when the tide is low, even if that means crawling out of bed really early in the morning.

2. Use Your Tripod
Oh sure, everyone says use a tripod. But I tend to prefer hand-holding my camera because it gives me more freedom to go from photographing something up close on the ground to zooming in on a bird overhead or anything else that might catch my eye. However, because it was a very foggy morning, I knew that I'd probably want my tripod at some point. I was glad I brought it because one of the first things Rebecca asked me when we started photographing was, "Why aren't you using your tripod?


Rebecca Jackrel photographing as you're supposed to -- with a tripod!

I followed Rebecca's advice and used my tripod, but as we were leaving I shot a handful of images off the tripod. When I got home it was clear (literally): images of tide pool creatures on the tripod are just flat out sharper, even if you're using a fairly fast shutter speed.

3. A Polarizing Filter Helps... Sometimes
Polarizing filters help cut down on reflections in windows, water and other surfaces when the sun is out, and it's a helpful tool when you're photographing pools. This particular morning, the sky was overcast (a great thing for tide pool photography) but there was still a little reflection on the water. I put my polarizing filter on to cut down on the reflections and it worked really well. However, sometimes it worked too well and took away some great detail that made the image interesting. Here, you can see how great the polarizing filter works for getting rid of reflections:

And here, you can see why sometimes that's not what you want -- the reflection of the starfish in the water is what makes the photograph much more compelling:

4. Bring The Right Lenses
I don't have a wide selection of lenses at home, but I brought two that I thought I'd be most likely to use -- my 70-200mm for catching birds and other wildlife, and my 17-55mm for the closer shots of small tide pool animals. Neither lens worked that well for me since the 70-200mm required me to be too far from the tiny animals, and the 17-55mm couldn't quite get me close enough. Rebecca brought a 60mm macro lens -- like in Goldilocks, it is just right.

4. It's Okay to Move Things Around, If You're Gentle and Considerate to the Wildlife
I am of the mind that a nature photographer captures what is going on in front of her, without disturbing the flora and fauna at all if possible. And for the most part, that remains the case. However, I did loosen up a little at the tide pools after watching a professional conservation photographer whose ethics for protecting wildlife I'd never question. When it comes to the hardier animals, such as starfish that aren't attached to large rocks, it's fine to pick them up and move them around for a different shot as long as you're gentle. We started shooting the starfish as found:

Then Rebecca gently moved it to another position and we got other interesting angles:

However, when it comes to delicate wildlife, look and photograph, but don't touch. Just use common sense, and try to put the animal's and plant's well-being before getting a photograph.

Also, don't touch tide pool creatures at all if you have any sort of sunscreen, insect repellent or other chemical on your hand -- this is toxic to them.
5. Use Live View for Focusing
This might be the best tip I learned all day. Rebecca showed me that manual focus is the way to go for getting sharp images of small creatures. However, it can be tough to get your focus just right especially if you're using a shallow depth of field. The trick to get it just right is to use live view if your camera has this feature. Turn on live view and zoom in as far as you can. Then, use your focus ring to get your subject perfectly sharp. Finally, release the shutter and Voila! A tack-sharp image. It was the only way I could get even close to a sharp image of this nudibranch with my 17-55mm lens, which made me feel like I was a million miles away from the little creature. Even cropped way, way in, it's much sharper than it may otherwise have been:


6. Clean Your Gear Afterward
Rebecca let me know a smart idea for after we got home. She reminded me that while we don't really notice it, there's a lot of salt in the air at the beach, and any gear you are using is quietly collecting that salt. After getting home, use a damp rag to wipe down any gear you had out to remove the thin film of salt that it was exposed to. I probably would have skipped this figuring that as long as no salt water splashed directly on my camera I'd be fine. But I was sure to wipe down my gear when I got home.
7. Don't Forget the Black & White
I love the colors of the tide pools, especially when you have a bright red crab against dark green seaweed and other such lovely contrasts. But there's ample possibility for beautiful black & white photography. Instead of keeping an eye out for lovely colors, keep an eye out for gorgeous textures. Getting contrasts in texture can be as powerful as contrasts in color, and tide pools are filled with every texture you can imagine!


More Tips for Point-N-Shoot Cameras


If you're heading to the tide pools with your point-n-shoot, still follow some of the suggestions above, such as heading out early, using a tripod, being gentle with the wildlife, and cleaning your camera after you get home. But there are a few more things that will help you take better photos:

8. Don't Use a Flash
Be sure to turn your automatic flash off. There's little that will ruin a photo more than a burst of flash to bleach out all the colors and make unattractive shadows. When using either automatic mode or manual mode, you want to make sure that flash symbol has a fat slash mark through it.

9. Use the Macro Setting
Most point-n-shoot cameras have a macro setting, and usually it is depicted by a little tulip or flower symbol. This is a great setting to use when getting up close to something. It lets you focus on a very specific point on a subject and blurs the foreground and background, giving the image a nicer look:


10. Play with Scene Modes
Your point-n-shoot probably has a range of "scene" modes -- they're modes like "portrait," "night," "kids and pets," and so on. For tide pool photography, play around with these modes and select something like "beach," "outdoors," "cloudy" or something representative of the conditions you're in. The extra help from the camera on selecting the right settings for the exposure may make quite a difference in your final images.

Add Your Photos To TreeHugger's Flickr Group

We have a new Flickr group for TreeHugger readers. So after you've spent a couple hours tripping through tide pools following these tips, add your photos to the group so we can see how great they are!

Citizen Science iPhone Apps

If you're taking your iPhone along with you to the tide pools, we recommend these three apps to have handy so that you can identify wildlife and help researchers document species.

1. NOAH
With NOAH, or the Networked Organisms and Habitats app, you can photograph an interesting plant, bug or animal that you want to learn about, send in the photo along with a little info about where you found it, and store it in the species database. You can sort through the database to find out more about the flora and fauna around you, and your uploaded data will be added upon by local experts.

2. SciSpy
With this app, you can participate in a whole community of people interested in the flora and fauna growing around us, and help scientists (the professional kind) discover more within their research projects. Take a photo, upload it, and learn more about what you just saw. Your photo is automatically date stamped, geo-mapped, and classified so the work on your end for contributing is incredibly minimal. Also, you're helping fill the database of information that is used by "real" scientists studying nature.

3. BirdsEye
The BirdsEye app allows birders instant access to eBird, the largest open-source database of bird sightings in Mexico and North America - a project by the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Birders can find out exactly what they're looking at, as well as see a map of confirmed sightings of rare or notable birds, all in a flash while out in the field.

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Tags: Animals | Do It Yourself | Oceans

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