Beach photography is one of the harder forms of portrait photography, especially when done in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. The beach is a challenging environment with potential threats to your equipment. The harsh light of the midday sun, mid summer in particular, is not easy to work with. To get great portraits using beach photography needs some thought and planning. In this article we will look at some examples of beach portrait photography and some tips for how to get good results.

Beach photography - beach portrait of Laura
Beach photography – beach portrait of Laura

Beach photography – taking care of your equipment

To avoid the risk of sand getting in your camera never put it down on the sand. If you have a DSLR try not to change lenses at the beach, especially if there is any wind. Sand on the sensor is not helpful! If you do get sand on your camera use a blower to remove it. If that doesn’t work then try a soft brush. Don’t use a cloth to wipe sand off a lens as the grains can scratch the lens surface. Ideally, plan in advance which lens you are going to use and leave that on your camera. If you need to change lenses, ensure that your back is to the wind to prevent it blowing sand inside the camera body. Make sure you use your lens hood (if your lens has one). This will help keep stray light and sand off the front of your lens.

Beach photography - beach portrait at sunset
Beach photography – beach portrait at sunset

Beach photography – reading the light & modifying the light

As with any outdoor photography, when taking photos at the beach you should learn how to read the ambient light. This means first of all working out if you are dealing with hard or soft light. Hard light comes from a smaller light source and creates a lot of contrast. In other words, you will have stronger highlights and darker shadows. This is the sort of light you get when using a flash with its bare bulb and no modifiers. It is also how sunlight behaves on a clear, sunny day. Soft light comes from a larger light source and creates less contrast. The shadows and highlights are softer. This is the quality of light you get from a softbox in a studio or from a cloudy day outdoors. Effectively, on a clear day the sun is like a small point of light that is very harsh. With some cloud in front of it, the cloud itself effectively acts like a softbox – a larger area of the sky that the light is coming from and that is softer and less contrasty. So, try to work out what the light is doing and which direction it is coming from.

Once you know what type of light you are working with you can then think more carefully about how to position your model or subject. Generally speaking, harsh light is not very flattering for portraits. The contrast can work sometimes, but as a rule you really want softer light for portrait photography. Clearly, you cannot create clouds out of nowhere! So, on a very sunny day you have a few options: 1. look for an area that is in shade and use that as the light will be softer, 2. have your subject face away from the sun so that their face is in shadow, 3. use a parasol or umbrella to take some of the light off your subject. If you go for options 2 or 3 then you tend to find you have a new problem. Now, your subject’s face may be evenly lit, but there may be a great deal of contrast between the light on their face and the background. You might find that either your subject looks great and the background is too bright or your sky looks great while your model is almost a silhouette. Yes, beach photography needs some thought and problem solving! So, what now?

1. You could switch your camera’s metering mode to spot metering (if it allows this). Then, use this to force your camera to expose the persons’s face correctly. That way, your camera knows that the priority is the face and not the sky. However, you will most likely have an over-exposed background. You can sometimes reduce the brightness in your background by changing angle so that you have part of the landscape instead of sky behind them. But, sand is very reflective and can be very bright. So, this may not completely solve the problem. Some people actually deliberately go for this look. It can create a bright, carefree feel to an image and is sometimes popular with lifestyle photographers (especially those with a softer style). You have to judge for yourself if you are happy with how over-exposed your background. Personally, I prefer to balance the scene more when I do beach portraits.

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2. A cheap solution is to use a reflector. You will need either an assistant or a stand to hold the reflector in place. Be very careful with using a reflector on a bright day. The silver side is especially reflective and you do not want to blind your subject! Ask them to close their eyes while you try to find an angle for the reflector that bounces some light back into their face without it being too strong. You will often get better results if the reflector is quite large and a little way back from them.

3. The most effective way to balance the light for beach photography is to use flash. Speedlights or flashguns are very useful as they are small and portable. On a very bright day you may find that you need more than one speedlight to get enough power. Or, you may wish to try a more powerful portable light source such as the Elinchrom ELB400, Quadra and Ranger lights. In many situations, you will find that even the flash on your camera can make a difference. A dedicated flash unit is far superior and it also enables you to take it off camera and choose the direction of your light. Using flash enables you to control the amount of light much more precisely than with a reflector. You can even choose to underexpose the sky slightly if your flash is powerful enough to still keep the face properly exposed. This can allow you to create an image that looks a bit like a composite and can have more dramatic impact. It is not to everyone’s taste though!

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If you are new to outdoor portraits then you might like to read some of these tips on how to get great outdoor portraits. There is also a basic introduction to using flash for outdoor portraits here. Generally speaking, for beach photography you can’t normally meter as easily as you would be able to for studio portrait photography. The ambient light levels are much higher so your light meter may struggle. If this is the case, simply take a test shot and adjust your flash power accordingly until you have a balanced image.

Beach photography – using High Speed Sync (HSS)

With the light levels being much higher outdoors than in the studio it is often difficult to keep the shutter speed down to the usual sync speed. Most cameras and flashes synchronise up to a speed of 1/200th or 1/250th of a second. To be able to use faster shutter speeds you need to have the facility for HSS (high speed sync), also known as FP (Focal Plane) on Nikon systems. If you don’t have HSS and try using a faster shutter speed you will see a dark band across the image and the picture will be unusable. Some flashguns or speedlights enable you to use HSS when mounted on the camera. To be able to use HSS for flashes off-camera you normally will need to buy flash triggers that have this function. Pocket Wizard are one of the most well-known and respected brands. I normally use Yonguo triggers. HSS is very handy if you want to use wide apertures at the beach. The wider the aperture, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. So, having HSS is really useful.

What do you do if you don’t have a HSS function? If you use ND filters you can darken down the light entering the camera and so bring the shutter speed down. Sometimes a polarising filter will be strong enough, but if you’re shooting at f/2.8 on a sunny day you’ll need something stronger to bring you closer to 1/250th second.

Final tips

Be creative! If there are sand dunes or sea defences look for ways that you could use them (safely, of course!). If you have a willing model and the waves aren’t too big, try shooting around the water’s edge. Be careful of your equipment, though. I’d recommend leaving any water shots until the end of a shoot so your don’t ruin the outfit or makeup for other shots. Try working at sunset or even sunrise to bring a different feel to your beach photography. The warm light of sunset/sunrise works great with the sand. Despite what we have said about balancing light, you may like to try shooting silhouettes to see if you like that style – probably better and easier around sunrise or sunset.

I do encourage you to get out of the studio and try some beach photography. There is such variety available for backdrops. Yes, you have to think a little harder, but the results can be worth it.

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© Joe Lenton, August 2015

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