Martin Parr's beach life through a telephoto lens: the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

An overhead shot of people sunbathing on colourful towels at a black sand beach. Taken by Martin Parr on a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens.
Magnum Photos member Martin Parr has regularly found inspiration for his documentary work on beaches. This overhead shot of sunbathers on a beach in Sorrento, Italy, is from his Beach Therapy series. Known for shooting subjects at close range with wide-angle or macro lenses, Martin shot this series using a Canon telephoto lens. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens at 200mm, 1/400 sec, f/8 and ISO640. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Beaches have been a rich source of material throughout Martin Parr's career. His images are filled with people sunbathing, sleeping, reading, exercising and eating, on territory staked out with towels, deckchairs and windbreaks. Beaches are places where not just human bodies, but also the quirks of human behaviour, are laid bare.

For Martin, one of the world's most popular and distinctive documentary photographers, beaches are also the places where he experiments with new equipment and techniques. It's a tradition that goes back to the beginning of his career. In the early 1970s he shot some of his first black-and-white images on beaches. His later approaches, such as using wide-angle lenses, colour film and flash, or a macro lens and ring flash, have all been tested at beach locations.

So when the Magnum Photos photographer decided to experiment with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens, beaches were his first destination. He found he enjoyed discovering new creative possibilities by exploiting the lens's flexibility and compressed perspective. Thanks to the lens's four-stop Image Stabiliser, he found he could shoot with the camera handheld while capturing sharp images.

Tens of bodyboarders wait in the shallows for the surf on a beach. Taken by Martin Parr with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens.
Martin says that he likes using the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens at its maximum reach of 300mm because it allows him to see details that he can't see with the naked eye. In this 300mm shot, bodyboarders wait in the shallows for the surf at St Ives in Cornwall, UK. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens at 300mm, 1/1000 sec, f/11 and ISO320. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
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Martin has created a body of work recently published as a book, Beach Therapy (2019), entirely shot using that one telephoto lens. Most of the images have been shot on home ground in the UK, but some have been taken on beaches in other countries such as India, Argentina and Spain.

We caught up with Martin at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, UK, where he discussed the roots of his fascination with beaches, what motivates his work, and how a telephoto lens has enabled him to create images that are, in some ways, very different to his earlier work…

You've said you weren't taken on beach holidays as a child. Has that led to your fascination with beaches?

"Oh, I think so, yes. It certainly comes into it. My parents were keen bird watchers, so the seaside I was taken to as a child was mainly marshes and suchlike, where we were looking for warblers and waders. There wasn't a slot machine or a fellow beachgoer in sight. Having missed out at a young age, I can't get enough as an adult. It's a theme that's been maintained for almost all the 50 years I've been working as a photographer. There's no let up. The great thing is that when the beaches are empty here [in the UK] in winter, you can go to Latin America or Australia and catch up with beach activity in the southern hemisphere."

Your project is called Beach Therapy. Do you find it therapeutic to take photos on beaches?

"I think photography, generally, is a therapeutic activity. I have this desire to explore the world, to express what I see as the good and the bad. I have a love-hate relationship with Britain, and the great thing about photography is that you can express that conundrum and ambiguity quite effectively, and have both sides of the arguments running along simultaneously. So that's really why I think of it as a therapeutic process. When I reflected on the role of the seaside throughout my career, and how I've used the beach as an experimental laboratory, Beach Therapy seemed the perfect title."

An out-of-focus seagull dominates the foreground with people in raincoats walking along a sandy beach behind. Taken by Martin Parr with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens.
Martin says the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens enabled him to experiment with having the foreground in and out of focus in shots such as this one, of a seagull on the Isle of Thanet in Kent, England, Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens at 135mm, 1/500 sec, f/9 and ISO400. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Why did you choose to shoot this project with a telephoto lens?

"Within art and documentary photography, it's a lens that isn't used at all frequently. [Using a different lens] is one way of keeping fresh. I was intrigued to see what the telephoto would deliver and that's really what this five-year period of shooting was all about. So I went and bought my Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens. It's quite an expensive bit of kit, but the sharpness is mind-blowing. In my National Portrait Gallery show [Only Human, 2019], we blew up an image of Mar del Plata in Argentina to about four metres high and the quality was incredible. I could not believe it. I've never seen a sharper file from a 35mm equivalent DSLR image."

Why did you choose that particular lens?

"I thought 300mm was long enough and it is. It's the perfect lens really. The 70mm focal length is about right to start off with and 300mm really pushes things out. In fact, at that end of the lens you see things you can't see with the human eye."

Four older people paddle in calm seas marked off with buoys. Taken by Martin Parr with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens.
Martin's Beach Therapy series looks at people in beach landscapes from afar and in closer range, such as these older beachgoers in the sea in Benidorm, Spain. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens at 104mm, 1/500 sec, f/9 and ISO100. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos
A crowded pebble beach scene, with a woman's foot in the foreground, taken by Martin Parr.

Martin Parr on his distinctive style and vision

The Magnum photographer talks about the techniques he uses to express his personal view of the world.

Which camera bodies have you used for your beach series, and why?

I've used the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. I thought the EOS 5D Mark IV was a substantial improvement on the Mark III – it's a great workhorse camera: it's user-friendly, intuitive and delivers a very good quality file.

What do you like about shooting on beaches?

"I like the idea that people are themselves. I like the fact you can look down, especially when you've got a clifftop, scan everything and see what's going on. Another big factor [in beach photography] is the issue of photographing kids. When I did The Last Resort, back in the 1980s, that wasn't really an issue. Now, understandably, it is. It was very good timing for me to have chosen to use a telephoto lens, because nobody even knows they're being photographed. So that was a happy coincidence."

A photograph, taken through the branches of a tree, of people in winter clothes walking on a sandy beach. Taken by Martin Parr with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens.
Martin includes plants in his images wherever possible, because he knows there's the potential to "get weirdness out of the situation". This shot of walkers on the beach, captured through the trees, was taken in Tenby, Wales. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens at 146mm, 1/800 sec, f/11 and ISO500. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

You often feature out-of-focus plant life in the foreground of your beach pictures – why?

"I use plants a lot. Whenever I'm shooting and I see a lot of plants, I'll incorporate them. I'll make them sharp or have things out of focus. It's just a natural inclination for me. I know that there's the potential to get weirdness out of the situation. Using the Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens, the plant life and the relationship between the plant life and what's happening on the beach was terrific. Remember, I'm creating fiction out of reality, so my job is to make the pictures look distinctive and different, and to put my own stamp and viewpoint on them. That's something I'm always looking out for."

So once you've selected a subject, you just have to wait for the right moment?

"Yes, so for example with the ice cream queue picture [below], I took 30-odd shots of that, waiting for the right length of queue, the right people on the corner and at the edge. You have an idea and you wait for it to fulfil itself. Then you're waiting for the small details: how people look, not just the general feel. Sometimes I'm literally waiting for people to walk into a particular area. Sometimes it doesn't happen; sometimes the beach isn't busy enough. That's why it's best to go out on Sundays and Bank Holidays when the weather's good and there are more people."

A small queue of beachgoers wait in line at an ice cream van parked in the middle of an empty beach. Taken by Martin Parr with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens.
Martin says he took several shots before he captured this intriguing image of beachgoers queue to buy an ice cream in Tenby, Wales. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens at 300mm, 1/640 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

What, for you, are the other benefits of shooting beaches with a telephoto lens?

"Generally, shooting on wide to standard lenses, most things are reasonably sharp. The great thing about the telephoto is it sends some things out of focus. So I played around with having the foreground in and out of focus, and seeing the relationship between things sharp and things unsharp. Not in every picture, but that's a theme I explored and I got really excited about: the possibilities of how things look when they're severely out of focus.

"The compression is also interesting – it's almost artificial. But again, it's part of photography and part of what I want to explore and incorporate into the pictures. What's good about this whole project is the excitement you generate when you explore and new things start to happen."

Written by David Clark

Martin Parr's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Made for those who demand the very highest standards in image quality, the EOS 5D Mark IV’s 30.4-megapixel sensor delivers images that are packed with detail, even in the brightest highlights and darkest shadows. "It's user-friendly, intuitive and delivers a very good quality file," says Martin.

Canon EOS 5DS R

Designed to deliver the ultimate in image quality, with 50.6-megapixel resolution and a low-pass cancellation filter that maximises the sharpness of the camera's sensor. Martin uses it for, "jobs like an advertising shoot for the large file size".


Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

Performance excellence with a versatile zoom range and superb image quality in a robust and compact design. "The sharpness is mind-blowing," says Martin.

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