As a landscape photographer who lives in Florida, I find myself on airplanes a lot. Although I adore the Sunshine State, most of the landscapes that excite my camera are far, far away. This is why finding a killer landscape photography location I can drive to in a few hours is a Godsend.
Jekyll Island is one of the small coastal barrier islands off the south coast of Georgia. It was once the playground of the ultra-rich during the Victorian era but now the whole island is the crown jewel of the Georgia state park system. It is beautiful and quaint…which is why it is now a popular vacation destination. But what interests photographers is a small, 1/2 mile stretch of beach on the northern edge of the Island known as Driftwood Beach.
Over the years, the ocean has nibbled away at the beach in front of an old grove of trees that have gradually succumbed to the saltwater. Now their skeletons litter the beach, which is why some playfully call it “Boneyard Beach.” But by whatever name, the result is a playground for landscape photographers. I recently spent three days there and want to share some tips for other photographers that might get a chance to visit.
Jekyll Island is about halfway between Savannah Ga. and Jacksonville, Fl. and less than 15 miles from I-95. There is an $8 fee to enter the island via a causeway. You have a wealth of options when you decide where to stay..ranging from the luxury of the Jekyll Island Club to AirBNBs and hotels and even a campground. The Island is only 7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide but you will need a car to get around.
Finding the Beach
Driftwood is near the northern point of the Island. Just take BeachView Drive to the north tip of the island. Unfortunately, there are no signs for Driftwood Beach (I suggest you just use Google Maps on your phone…there is excellent cell service). If you pass Maurice Drive, the Campground, or the Horton House, you’ve gone too far.
Parking is easy: there are three free parking areas located alongside the road.
The walk to the beach is less than five minutes. Most of the really interesting trees are within a pretty small 800′ section on the beach. I strongly suggest you scout the area during the daytime ahead of time, so you know which trees you want to photograph when you come back in the pre-dawn morning.
When to Go
Driftwood Beach looks pretty much the same all year, so good photographs can be made in any season. However, sand gnats are a real pest in the summer and can make your experience unpleasant.
Driftwood Beach is really a sunrise and morning location (although Milky Way photography would also be fun).
Do yourself a favor and be on the beach at least 45 minutes BEFORE the scheduled sunrise to catch the most colorful skies. Trust me, I arrived 20 minutes early the first morning, then 30 minutes early the second day, and missed the peak both times!
Some folks like shooting at low tide, others at high tide. Good images can be made at either but personally, I prefer high tide since it ensures that many of the trees will actually be standing in the water (as opposed to being high and dry in the sand).
Obviously, a tripod is a necessity due to the low light.
A mid-range zoom is perfect here. More than 90% of my shots were taken with a 24-70mm on a full-frame camera. You might also bring a 14mm for that occasional wide-angle shot and a macro lens would come in handy for shooting close-ups of the wild patterns in the weathered wood.
If the tide is up, a pair of wading shoes/boots will allow you to get the shots that would otherwise result in you driving home with cold, wet, and wrinkled feet.
A dark ND filter will allow you to make the long exposures (more than 2 seconds) that result in those images with long, silky lines of surf stretching across the beach without overexposing your image. For the best look, wait until the water reaches its high point on the beach and hit your shutter as it starts to recede.
Unless you want the trees to show as solid black silhouettes I’d suggest using exposure bracketing (3 to 5 stops) since the dynamic range can be pretty dramatic. Consider trying some HDR or plan to manually blend multiple exposures.
Try shooting from a few inches over the sand rather than at eye-level. The difference in perspective might surprise you.
If the tide is up, there will be shallow reflecting pools of water that you can use as foregrounds.
There are usually shrimp boats working the coast well before dawn. They can be nice additions on the horizon if you can work one into your composition.
Be aware of your depth of field. If you are working with close foregrounds you will have to adjust your aperture (f/22 or higher) to ensure good focus through-out your image (focus-stacking is another option).
Landscape photographers lust over partial cloudy skies for sunrises and sunsets, but Driftwood Beach has serious photographic potential under nearly any weather conditions.
No clouds? Use the silhouettes of the tree skeletons and the long shadows they create as long leading lines. The result is a kind of minimalist photography that can be striking.
Use limbs or trunks to partially block the sun and create sunbursts.
My first day at Driftwood Beach was overcast and I frankly thought that photography would be a bust…but I changed my mind a few minutes later when I recognized that the contrast between the trees, surf and clouds was pretty eye-catching.
The tide was up this morning, which made for a much different look than my first day.
The lack of sunlight made black and white processing an obvious choice. Also consider the use of tinting, vignettes, and creative borders to add interest.
Partly Cloudy Skies
Yes, every photographer’s nirvana…a sunrise with partly cloudy skies! If you are blessed with a wicked sunrise AND you have scouted the area well, you should be able to quickly shift between a half dozen pre-chosen spots and capture them all during those elusive minutes when your fleeting sunrise is at it’s best.
I consider Driftwood Beach to be an underappreciated landscape photography location with incredible potential. If you have a family and live on the east coast, I think you might find it to be a fine vacation destination…and you would still be able to get your’ photography fix’ every morning before the spouse and kids manage to drag themselves out of bed.
What more can any photographer ask?
Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach Photography Tips