Washington Coast: Rialto Beach

Creativity in Photography - Rialto Beach shot

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Rialto Beach is one of the most scenic areas of coastline in the state of Washington. It is a beach that is dominated bye sea stacks with trees growing out the top of them. It is technically within Olympic National Park, although the coastal areas are separated from the main body of the park.

Getting There

Rialto Beach is on the Pacific coast, on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state.  It is a few hours west of Seattle.  From Port Angeles, take 101 west.  While in Port Angeles, be sure to get your camping permit if you’ll be staying on the beach (more about that below).

From there, getting to Rialto Beach is easy. For the most part, you simply follow the signs. The road will take you to a small parking lot which is right next to the beach. You might find the parking lot inadequate (it was completely full when I was there, but I was there on a holiday weekend).  In that case, you can park on the side of the road leading to the beach. You’ll see lots of other cars there.

The Key to Photographing Rialto Beach

The key for you is that Rialto Beach is not really where you want to be as a photographer. Rialto Beach is nice for people who want to hang around at the beach. But the scenic features are about a mile or so up the beach.

Follow the signs to Hole in the Wall. That is a rock formation with a large hole in it. That, in and of itself, isn’t that interesting. But along the beach for a few hundred yards in either direction are large sea stacks that will add a lot of interest to your photos.  In fact they are the reason to come here. So the key is to be ready for a hike of a mile and a half or so when you come to Rialto Beach.

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Best Times of Day

You already know that the best time to photograph a scene such as this is around sunrise and sunset.  But in the case of Rialto Beach – and most places along the western coast of the United States – it is even more restrictive.  The best time to go is sunset. At that time, looking out to sea allows you to get the sun in your picture along with the sea stacks.  The most dramatic photos will be made during this time.

If you photograph in the morning, while the light will still be good, the sun will be behind you. Therefore, the sky will probably not be as interesting. That said, once the sun is up it will lighten up the sea stacks nicely, so you will have that in your favor.

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What You Will Need

You will do ok here with just your camera, tripod, and a wide angle lens. A few additional items, however, will greatly enhance your shots. Those are a neutral density filter and a graduate neutral density filter. Let’s take a quick look at them and why they will help:

Neutral Density Filter

The neutral density filter will allow you to slow down your shutter speed. I find this indispensable for all coastal photography.

In some cases where you have dramatic waves you might only want to slow the shutter speed down a little bit. This can be done by using a small aperture and low ISO in except in the brightest light. At Rialto Beach, however, it is doubtful that you will have that kind of wave action. There are rocks that block much of the waves so they tend to be rather subdued. Therefore, what I find works best is a stronger neutral density filter to really slow down the water. I like either a 6-stop or a 10-stop filter for this.

Graduated Neutral Density Filter

You also want a graduated neutral density filter. Coastal scenes seem custom made for these filters with their straight horizon line. That is, of course, true at Rialto Beach except for the sea stacks sticking over the horizon line. This isn’t too bad though, because many times you will simply silhouette the sea stack. Where you want detail and color in the monument, however, I would still use the graduated neutral density filter but would just bracket the shot. In any case, this filter will let you darken the bright sky without making the foreground darker.

Getting the Shot

Once get to the right location, at the right time, with the right gear, it is time to compose and expose the picture.  How you do that is largely up to you, of course. But here are a few tips on each.

Composition Tips

As to composition, start with the Rule of Thirds. For me, if the sky is attractive I tend to put the horizon on the bottom third line so that the sky takes up 2/3 of the picture. If the sky is dull, I tend to put the horizon line on the top third so as to minimize the amount of sky in the picture.

From there, this is a great place to set up your picture using Back to Front Composition.  Keep in mind that the background is already pretty well set. It will generally be the sky. The subject is likely to be the sea stacks (but you generally shouldn’t center them). That leaves the foreground, which is where you should spend a lot of your mental energy. Give your viewer something interesting to look at in the foreground.  Better yet, create a sense that the viewer can walk into the picture.

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Exposure Tips

The key to the exposure of these pictures is shutter speed. You’ll need to use the proper shutter speed to achieve the effect on the moving water that you want. For a slight blur showing the power of the waves, try a shutter speed of 1/4 second to 1/2 second.  To blur the water and create a more serene scene, try a longer shutter speed. Go with something longer than about 10 seconds (sometimes a lot longer).

For additional thoughts on shutter speed and its effect on moving water, check out this article I previously wrote for DPS.

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Where to Stay

You won’t find much in the way of accommodations around Rialto Beach. The best bet is to camp on the beach. That’s what I did, and even though I’m not someone that camps out a lot, I found it to be a fantastic experience. To make it great for you, here are few tips:

  • Get Your Permit: There is no actual campground at Rialto Beach, although you will see plenty of other campers there. Technically, this is considered backcountry camping. That being the case, you will need to get a backcountry camping permit. You get this at the Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles. It only costs $8 a night. They will give you a tag to attach to your tent. If you ask, they will also give you a bear cannister for your food (more about that below). This area is unlimited in terms of numbers, so you don’t have to worry about the campground filling up.
  • Be Prepared to Hike a Bit:  You cannot camp on Rialto Beach itself.  You have to walk down past Ellen Creek (which is heading north from the parking lot) about a mile up the beach. That said, I did see several people camping to the south of Ellen Creek, and no one said anything. But officially, you’re supposed to camp north of Ellen Creek and south of Hole in the Wall. Once you are in this area, you can pitch your tent anywhere you like.
  • Camp Up High:  Once you are in the proper camping area, it is time to pick a good site. There are many areas to choose from. I was there on a holiday weekend and still didn’t find it overly crowded. The best areas are far away from the beach, near where the beach turns into forest. This has two advantages. The first is that this is higher ground, so you can avoid any issues with the tides. Secondly, the ground in this area is rock and dirt rather than sand, which will keep you from getting sand in your tent and all over everything.
  • Bring an Air Mattress:  You will find an air mattress to be invaluable here. Don’t overlook this item or skimp on it. As I mentioned, the best places to camp or on rocks, and that will not be comfortable at all. With an air mattress, however, it will be fine. I had only a thin air mattress designed to be light (for backpacking) and it worked fine. If you have this, you will likely have a great night’s sleep with the ocean sounds in the background and mild temperatures. If you don’t, you’ll be up all night.
  • Bring a Stove:  Fires are allowed at Rialto Beach, but only some of the time. When I was there, the whole park was under a burn ban. Don’t count on being able to make a fire, and instead bring a small backpackers stove to heat up food and water.
  • Use a Bear Cannister:  It is a park rule that all food must be kept in a bear cannister, which is a cylinder about a foot tall that animals cannot open. If that sounds ominous, don’t worry – the park ranger confided that it is really for raccoons. (That said, I understand that there are bears in and near the park, although I didn’t see any.)  They will give you one at the Wilderness Information Center if you ask. Be sure you are returning through Port Angeles though, as you will need to return it.

If you do these things, I believe you will find camping on Rialto Beach to be a great experience. It will really enhance your photography as well, since it will allow you to be on the beach at all the best times. You can hang around for sunset and even get some night shots (weather permitting). You’ll already be there for sunrise as well.