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 smartphone so you can be a citizen scientist as well as a better photographer.

Sunrise tidal pool

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 do you really have to? Yes. 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. But when it comes to getting good tide pool photos, you really, really want to have a tripod. It's not only great for holding your camera steady while you take a photo, but it also helps you get your camera to angles over pools that you just can't get without it. Plus, it's never a bad thing to have a few extra legs to lean on when you're navigating across pools. The quality of images you can get by using a tripod versus not using one shows that this is an essential piece of equipment.

starfish tide pool

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'e photographing pools. Even if the sky is overcast (always a helpful weather condition for tide pool photography), there will still be a little reflection on the water. The polarizing filter helps cut down this reflection. However, sometimes it may work too well and take away some great detail that makes the image interesting. So use a filter but also try images without it, just in case.

4. Bring the right lenses

Both a wide angle lens and macro lenses are great for tide pool photography, depending on what you're capturing. Probably your best bet is a 60mm macro lens. It lets you get just the right amount of the scene with plenty of detail in the object you're photographing. A 100mm macro is also a good bet. However, a fast wide angle zoom like a 17-55 f/2.8 is a great lens to have on hand for capturing more of the scene, rather than specific tide pool creatures.

hermit crabs in tidal pool

4. It's OK 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, when it comes to some of the hardier tide pool species, like starfish and hermit crabs, you can gently move them around without issue. Just make sure you're being very gentle and aware of the animal's needs. But, if you don't know the species or much about what you're looking at, just leave it be. Better safe than harmful. And of course, don't touch any creatures at all if you have any sort of sunscreen, insect repellent or other chemical on your hands as these things are toxic to the marine life.

Nudibranch in tidal pool

5. Use live view for focusing

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 feature, if your camera has it (and most dSLRs do). 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 a nudibranch with a 17-55mm lens, which made me feel like I was a million miles away from the little creature.

6. Clean your gear afterward

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. This will help keep your camera in great condition a lot longer.

Starfish, black and white, in tidal pool

7. Don't forget the black and 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 and white photography. Instead of keeping an eye out for bright 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.

seaweed in tidal pool

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.


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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Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

10 tips for great tide pool photography
The right equipment and technique can elevate the quality of the photos you make at these magical spots.