In the north of France, on the coast of Normandy, a tiny village of Étretat is a landscape photographer’s dream. Majestic white cliffs, turquoise ocean waters, and beautiful sunsets – Étretat has everything to win your heart. In this easy photography guide to Étretat, we take a look at what the town has to offer and explore its most amazing features.
- What is Étretat?
- Photographing the White Cliffs of Étretat
- Other Notable Photo Locations in Étretat
- Étretat Photography Tips
- Planning the Trip
What is Étretat?
Étretat is a small town on the coast of Normandy, in the northwestern part of France. In 2018, its entire population consisted of only 1242 people.
According to the legend, Étretat was founded following a Viking invasion and, for a while, remained merely a fishing village. However, the 19th century saw its rapid transformation into a fashionable seaside resort for the French nobility.
Since then, Étretat cemented its status as a tourist destination. So much so, that it currently considers itself a top attraction in Normandy. Personally, though, I reckon that Mont Saint-Michel castle is hard to beat in that regard.
Either way, it is easy to see why Étretat is so popular. The town is surrounded by the massive 70-meter white chalk cliffs dropping into the ocean. Featuring three natural arches, these towering walls are incredibly magnificent and picturesque.
The landscape has long attracted famous artists. Eugène Boudin, Gustave Courbet, and Claude Monet have all frequented the area in the 19th century. Today, it is the photographers who come here in flocks to capture the enigmatic beauty of this place.
And after visiting Étretat myself, I can hardly blame them.
Photographing the White Cliffs of Étretat
Because Étretat is so small, there are only a handful of photography locations around. But trust me when I say that these will be more than enough to keep you busy for a couple of days at least.
The white chalk cliffs are without a doubt the signature attraction. The rock formations dominate the coast both east and west, with the town tucked conveniently in between. Whichever side you choose to explore, photo opportunities abound!
The Cliffs East of Étretat and Porte d’Amont Arch
Northeast of Étretat, a thin alabaster ridge stretches out almost 120 meters into the English Channel. At its tip, you will catch sight of the smallest of Étretat’s natural arches – Porte d’Amont.
To get to the top of the cliff, take the long 350-step stairs from the beach (15-20 minutes of walking). There is also spacious parking nearby, so if you have a car, you can cut the exercise and simply drive up there.
Once at the top, you will notice the narrow stairs to the right. These will lead you to the minuscule beach just east of Porte d’Amont. At low tide, it is possible to approach the arch for a low-angle, almost Monet-like perspective.
If you have a chance, feel free to follow the hiking path further east for even more views of the wonderful coastline. That said, I believe the end of the initial ascent is a fantastic photo location already.
To the northeast, the Porte d’Amont arch and the ocean beyond make for a clean and simple composition. And on the opposite side of the bay, a view of Étretat and the Porte d’Aval natural arch is a great alternative.
This is an excellent location for sunset and golden hour photography. Zoom in on the cliffs or go wide to include the town – it is your playground. And in the summer months especially, it could also double as a very decent sunrise spot.
The Porte d’Aval and Manneporte Arches from Above
On the opposite side of the bay, west of Étretat, a similar, but even more striking rock formation awaits. It is here where you will discover the postcard attraction of Étretat – the Porte d’Aval natural arch. Just beside it, an iconic cone of L’Aiguille (the Needle) pierces the waters, completing the composition.
There are two ways to approach the coastline here. The first one is a hiking trail on top of the cliffs. There is no parking nearby, so you will have to leave the car in the center, then climb the stairs up from there.
The path is well-marked, easy to follow, and you should reach the higher ground in about 15 minutes. As you emerge at the observation deck, you will literally be standing on top of the Porte d’Aval arch.
Further west, you will notice the third and largest famous natural arch of Étretat – Manneporte. The hiking path continues towards it, and this stretch in between the two arches is a prime shooting location.
Depending on the conditions, the season, and the time of day, you can proceed to Manneporte to shoot eastward or stay at Porte d’Aval. Or even find an outcrop in the middle, from where you can combine both arches in one sweeping panoramic shot!
The location is fantastic for sunsets throughout the year and in summer works remarkably well for sunrise as well. And if you have a drone, there is no better place to launch it!
The Jambourg Beach and Arches from Below
While the cliff-top hike might seem like the most obvious (and easy) choice, the views from below are equally grandiose.
Between the arches of Porte d’Aval and Manneporte, the chalk walls are separated from the sea by a thin strip of pebbles. This is Valleuse de Jambourg (Jambourg beach), a marvelous and secluded area only accessible during the low tide.
From down here, the arches and the towering chalk walls look completely different. Hanging over your head, they fill the frame nicely and feel even more colossal than from above.
When the ocean retreats, you can get to Jambourg beach via the tunnel from the Étretat side (Tunnel du Trou à l’Homme). Constructed in 1922, the passage connects the beach with an elevation in the cave near the Porte d’Aval arch.
This elevation and the tunnel are the only spots that aren’t fully submerged during the high tide.
In other words, you don’t want to get caught out on the Jambourg beach as the water rises. Sure, you can always retreat into the tunnel. But if you aren’t paying attention, you might get stuck in there for several hours, unable to get out!
There is also an emergency stairway leading out of the Jambourg beach. However, it is a very steep and dangerous-looking ascent, and I would only advise it if no other way out remains.
From Jambourg you may continue west along the shoreline, through the Manneporte arch, and towards further beaches. There will be splendid compositions all along – just be sure to watch the clock!
Other Notable Photo Locations in Étretat
As magnificent as the alabaster cliffs are, they are not the only noteworthy photography subject in Étretat. There are a couple of other photo spots nearby that are well worth considering.
Located at the edge of the eastern ridge and overlooking the bay, the chapel of Norte-Dame-de-la-Garde is a very picturesque lonely church. Under the right conditions, it makes for a truly gorgeous photo subject.
The chapel is close to the Porte d’Amont arch and can be accessed by all the same means. Still, I wanted to separate it into a section of its own, because it is easy to miss in search of better views.
I especially recommend sunset and early blue hour for shooting here. The chapel is incredibly charming when lit with the soft afterglow of the setting sun. Porte d’Aval stone bridge and the needle of L’Aiguille in the background complete the idyllic sight.
You can also get some fairly decent results here early in the morning. However, you will most likely be shooting east and so end up with the parking lot in the background, which to me feels somewhat distracting.
The Gardens of Étretat
Just across the road from the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde chapel, the Gardens of Étretat (Les Jardins D’Étretat) is probably the most undervalued and underestimated photography location in Étretat.
Created by the French actress Madame Thébault and later restored by the landscape architect Alexandre Grivko, the Gardens of Étretat combine futuristic modern art and the impressionist influences of Monet into a truly fabulous park.
The result is so astonishing that the Gardens of Étretat rank among the “Great Gardens of the World” and have even received a star in the Michelin Green Guide.
Despite their relatively modest size, the gardens pack numerous opportunities for an amazing image. And the photos from here are very different from the conventional shots of the Étretat coastline.
To me, the Jardin Émotions installation with its face sculptures symbolizing the “moods of the ocean” is particularly alluring. But there are countless others – just watch the promo video on the official website to get some ideas flowing.
The Gardens of Étretat are open daily from 10 am to 7 pm. As of 2021, the tickets cost EUR 9.50. You can check the most recent prices online. Just keep in mind that you will not be able to use the photos for commercial purposes without prior authorization.
Last but not least, don’t discount Étretat’s own beach as a potential photo spot. Be that the sunset view of the sea, the fisherman boats scattered along the shore, or interesting rock formations revealed by the receding tide, there are quite a few options at your disposal.
It is an especially convenient location when you do not have enough time to explore the other vantage points. And yet, I wouldn’t necessarily call it quick or easy. There is no readily available composition here, so you will have to search for one yourself.
That said, under the right conditions and with a bit of luck, you can come away with a very appealing and unique image.
Étretat Photography Tips
Now that we are familiar with the main photo locations around Étretat, let us talk about broader aspects of photography in this part of Normandy.
If you are a seasoned landscape photographer, some of these things might sound rather obvious. Still, I want this photography guide to be complete, and it never hurts to go over the basics once again.
Shoot During the Best Light
It is no secret that by far the best light for landscape photography is during sunsets and sunrises. And most of the photo spots around Étretat work as well in the morning as they do in the evening.
In other words, use every available slot to go and take pictures. If your primary goal is landscape photography, Étretat is no place to sleep in or plan a relaxed dinner at dusk.
The latter especially can prove a problem since most local restaurants are open between 7 pm and 9 pm, which is often exactly when you want to be out shooting.
I struggled with the concept myself, but not much you can do about it. Silly as it may sound, plan your meals beforehand unless you fancy going to bed hungry.
Plan Your Shoots and Stick to Those Plans
To me, one of the challenges in Étretat was deciding where to shoot on a given day. There are two main viewpoints – east and west of town – and both can produce remarkable results. But which one to choose?
Unfortunately, there is no single answer to this question. Often, it is impossible to accurately predict where the conditions are going to be at their finest. Besides, a lot depends on your ability to read the weather, your preferences, and your style.
Therefore, the only advice I can give you is this. Pick a location based on your gut feeling, then stick to your guns. You might see light doing something crazy in the opposite direction, but rushing there won’t do you much good. Things change rapidly in Normandy, so you will probably be late for the show anyway.
Unless you have a specific composition in mind, the western ridge near Porte d’Aval is generally more versatile. I would try to plan at least one sunset and one sunrise there. And if you can, spend another sunset on the eastern ridge, near Porte d’Amont and the chapel.
Mind the Tide
Understanding the tide schedule is imperative for photography in Étretat. Not only does it dictate where you can and cannot go, but it also drastically changes the landscape. Knowing what to expect helps you prepare better.
To me, the views in Étretat are most astounding at high tide. The arches and cliffs surrounded by water look truly impressive and make for a cleaner, more impactful shot. This is when you should head up to higher viewpoints and photograph from above.
Low tide is your chance to explore and seek less familiar compositions. The coastline may seem more cluttered, but you can venture to otherwise off-limits places. That opens up a bunch of creative possibilities you might not even have thought about.
So use both to your advantage. It is easy to check the tide schedule online or use one of the many apps available. My go-to favorite is the app called Magic Seaweed. It is free, user-friendly, and has never let me down. If you haven’t heard of it before, definitely check it out.
And, of course, always put your safety first. The water level in Normandy can rise quickly, so always be aware of your surroundings and know exactly how long you have before the ocean returns.
Bring the Right Gear
Normandy is a lovely region, and you can capture stunning images in Étretat no matter the gear. Even a phone would do! Still, if you want to make the most of your trip, here is some equipment that you might need.
- A camera (Duh!). It doesn’t matter if your camera is a full-frame or APSC if you understand how to use it.
- A wide-angle lens. The landscapes in Étretat are massive, so you need a wide lens to fit everything into the frame.
- A versatile travel zoom, such as 24-105mm or similar. This will come in handy when you need to zoom in on the subject. I don’t suggest a dedicated telephoto, but having something with more reach will definitely help.
- A sturdy tripod. Winds in Normandy can be quite strong, and I’m sure you don’t want your camera taking a dive. So bring a tripod you can rely on.
- Neutral-density filter. You will be shooting near water a lot. This often means longer exposures, so having an ND filter is a good idea.
- (Optional) a polarizing filter. A polarizing filter can occasionally be useful, so if you have one, there is no reason not to bring it. But I wouldn’t list it as a hard requirement.
- (Optional) a drone. If you have a drone, Étretat is a perfect place to fly it. The majestic coastline looks even more impressive from the air!
Étretat is a great area to take your drone out for a spin. There aren’t many people around, it is easy to maintain visual sight, and you can get some terrific photos from high up. Unfortunately, the drone laws in France aren’t the easiest to adhere to.
Before we proceed, please note that I am no expert in French legislation, and regulations around UAVs do change frequently. I advise you to double-check everything yourself (full text of the law in French).
As of 2021, if you want to fly your drone in the EU (and therefore also in France), you must first register it. There are certain exceptions, but pretty much all photography drones fall into this category. For France, you can do so at the AlphaTango portal.
You should also complete theoretical training and pass an exam, which can be done free of charge and online via the same portal.
In addition to that, you should not fly in restricted areas. There are many of those in France, so take a look at this map to be on the safe side. Spoiler: Étretat is not a restricted zone, so you’re good to go!
And, of course, all the usual rules still apply. No flying over people, line of sight, a maximum height of 120 meters, no operating the drone at night, etc.
This all sounds a bit overwhelming but really is not that complicated. Plus, chances are nobody will care whether you are fully compliant unless you do anything stupid. Just saying.
Planning the Trip
With everything already discussed, you should be well on your way to capturing spectacular images in Étretat. But before you start packing, here are a few more practical tips to help you prepare for the trip.
When to Go to Normandy
The landscapes of Normandy and Étretat are fabulous throughout the year, and both summer and winter can produce some phenomenal shooting conditions.
However, it does get quite rainy in Normandy between October and April. Summer is generally very sunny and, therefore, the busiest period of the year. So for landscape photography, I recommend late spring or early autumn as the best seasons.
I visited Étretat in April and had exceptionally pleasant weather perfectly suitable to head out with the camera.
How Long to Stay in Étretat
In my opinion, two nights is the optimal length of stay in Étretat. With two sunsets and two sunrises to work with, you will have plenty of opportunities to capture its most iconic sights. Plus, it gives you just enough time to explore the town and do a coastal walk at low tide.
One night is also an option, but you will not be able to photograph everything you want. You can still get rewarding results – just select your shooting locations carefully.
If you are thinking of staying longer, consider the alternatives. There are many other spots in Normandy and northern France that are well worth visiting. I would prioritize those above additional nights in Étretat.
Where to Stay
If you don’t have a car, search for accommodation near the center. From there, you can easily walk to all the principal photo spots. Keep in mind that Étretat is a small village, so there aren’t a whole lot of hotels to choose from. That means, book as early as possible.
With a car, you are much more flexible. There are many inns and B&Bs nearby, so pick something to your liking. We stayed in La Nouvelle Criqueboise and thoroughly enjoyed it.
How to get to Etretat
Étretat is easiest reached by car. From Paris, it is a three-hour drive. Note that there are tolls for highways in France. If you come from Paris, expect to pay around 21 EUR in tolls. When driving from somewhere else, use this online toll calculator to estimate your expenses.
If you avoid the motorways, country roads are free of charge. This will eliminate the toll costs, but the journey will last longer. Google Maps and Waze have a corresponding option built-in, and I assume other navigators too.
By public transportation, the simplest route is a direct Flixbus bus from Paris. It does not run daily, so check the schedule to see if it fits your plans.
Finally, there is a local bus from Le Havre to Étretat. You can reach Le Havre by train from Paris or elsewhere in France. This article outlines all the necessary details.
For a landscape photographer, Étretat is a must-visit destination. The alabaster coast of northern Normandy, which Étretat is a part of, provides endless opportunities for stunning photos and will undoubtedly leave you breathless.
I do hope that this guide has sparked your interest in Étretat and Normandy. If so, I will be happy to hear about your experience in this incredible place.
If you enjoyed the article, please share it with your friends and whoever else might benefit from it. I tried to make it as detailed and comprehensive as I could and would love for it to help as many people as possible.
I also have other articles on this blog that you might find useful. Here are just some suggestions to get you started:
- Mont Saint-Michel Photography Guide: Best Locations and Tips
- Lisbon Photography Guide: 10 Fabulous Spots to Capture
- Top 7 locations for landscape photography on Tenerife
- 2 Weeks New Zealand Itinerary for Landscape Photographers (South Island)
- Best Landscape Photography Locations in Patagonia
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