What Are the Ethics of Beach Photography? And Do People Really Care?

Everyone loves going to the beach, right? The sunshine, the sand, and the good vibes; who doesn’t enjoy that type of atmosphere? For photographers, the beach is an ideal spot for making cool photographs. That’s why you see so many portrait and lifestyle shoots shot on the beach. But for candid photography, things become complicated. There are certain ethics one has to abide by, and I’ll cover them in this article.

The Ethics of Beach Photography

As someone with a background in street photography, I veer closer to “anything goes” than “don’t photograph strangers without consent.” Of course, street photography has its own set of ethics, which I stand by and respect. But for the most part, candid photographers couldn’t make the type of images they do if they stopped and asked every stranger if it’s okay make a photograph.

Most beaches are public spaces. So, depending on what country you’re in, the likelihood is you have the legal right to make photographs. But people behave differently on the beach. They do things they would never do in city streets (like walk around half-naked). Bearing that in mind, below are some things I wouldn’t do (and some things I would) when making candid photographs on the beach.

Don’t Get Too Close When Shooting Beach Photography

Street and documentary photography, and photojournalism involve getting into the heart of the action. Photographers get extremely close to their subjects in the hope of capturing some form of emotion and narrative. I don’t think it’s wise to do that when shooting beach photography. People often go to the beach to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. They want to relax and disconnect. Having a stranger candidly making photographs of them will make them uneasy. It can ruin their ambiance and make them feel uncomfortable. That’s not good, especially considering it’s likely they’re on vacation.

Avoid Nudity When Doing Beach Photography

Some people, whether it’s at a nude beach or not, like to get naked when they’re on the sand. They feel liberated or don’t want those dreaded tan lines. Whatever the reason, public space or not, don’t photograph them. Even if you have good intentions, don’t do it. It comes across as creepy any way you try to look at it, and it could land you in a lot of trouble. I think that’s especially true if it’s a child. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with photographing children, but if they’re nude, stay away from it. And that goes for both female and male photographers. The reality is, right or wrong, it’s going to look worse if you’re a man, so save yourself the hassle.

Ask Permission to Shoot Beach Photography

The whole point of candid photography is that it’s unplanned, unauthorized, and unpredictable. So, naturally, asking people permission to photograph them goes against all of that. But beach towns are often tight-knit communities. Keeping that in mind, people will quickly understand you’re a photographer and what your intentions are if you communicate with them.

If you see a group messing around on the beach, say, “Hey, I’m a photographer. Can I spend some time with your group? Let me make some images of you, and I can send them to you.” If they agree, they’ll eventually forget your presence and stop playing up for the camera. Eventually, you can make some candid beach photography, which no doubt they’ll appreciate.

What Do the People Think?

Something I find interesting about ethics is that it’s made by photographers instead of the people photographers impact. Above are three ethics I live by, based on what I think is important to be a good person and a respectful photographer. But what do the people think? After all, they’re the ones impacted most by our actions.

I’m currently in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. It’s a beautiful beach town, a little removed from modern infrastructure, and full of photo opportunities. I spoke to some beachgoers and asked what their take is on beach photography.

I spoke to Mitch, an entrepreneur from Colorado. Answering my question if it would bother him if someone made a candid photograph of him, he said, “No. Not really. In all honesty, I wouldn’t even notice, and if I did, it would not bother me enough to do anything about it. So it’s no problem.”

Alongside Mitch, I also spoke to Jenny, a business analyst from Bulgaria. Answering the same question, she said, “I would be okay with it. If I was in an awkward position or whatever, I might think it was weird, but for the most part, it would be okay. Also, it would depend if I saw them taking photos of others. Then I’d be like, okay, it’s a photographer, I get it.”

Turning to Instagram, I put out a poll asking my followers how they felt about candid beach photography. While I appreciate that Instagram is far from the best source for data analysis, the people responding are human, with valid feelings about the topic.

Of the 118 respondents, 38% said someone making a candid photograph of them would bother them, while 62% said it wouldn’t. 100% of those who said it would bother them were women. And from those who said it wouldn’t, 62% of them were women, and the other 38% were men.

Final Thought

Again, many variables go into questions intended for data analysis. But from the two beachgoers I chose at random and the poll that’s open to anyone, the response suggests most people don’t care about photographers doing candid beach photography.

That doesn’t mean ethics go out the window. Sticking to them will help keep people on our side. But you can at least shoot freely without thinking you’ll experience the worst possible outcome.

What are your thoughts about candid beach photography? Do you have certain ethics that weren’t mentioned above? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host of professional photographers within the industry.