Beach photography: Splashing children laughing in the waves.
Couples kissing surrounded by nothing but white sand, deep blue sky and turquoise sea.
It should be the perfect recipe for dreamy photos, except for one thing. Most often, beach photography equals full, unforgiving, unfiltered sunlight.
For many photographers, this can be a scary proposition. Most natural light photographers prefer a session of softly lit fields or open shade, for good reason.
But though tricky, full sun comes with its own rewards. It can mean brilliant colors and bold blue sky, golden haze and dramatic sun flare.
My own love-hate relationship with sun-filled beach photos comes from living on an island in the Indian Ocean for the past five years. With no sand dunes or structures to filter the light, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks the hard way.
And though a flash and reflector can be your best friend – I’ve chosen today to focus on tips that anyone can use, even if you’ve left your flash at home or couldn’t fit that reflector in your beach bag.
1. The time of day
Not all sun is created equal. With nothing to block the light, choosing the right time of day to shoot is even more important.
Middle of the day
This is the most difficult time of day to shoot. The light is coming from overhead, so if you take an image of someone with nothing to fill in the harsh shadows, you will get raccoon eyes and hot spots at the top of the head. I still shoot in the middle of the day, but I often go for shots where my subject is engaged with their activity rather than looking straight at the camera. That way I don’t have to worry about unsightly shadows.
Early morning or late afternoon
This is far easier light to work because it is not coming from directly overhead. Your shadowing will be more flattering, though you will still need to take care in posing your subjects to ensure important areas of skin are not blown or falling in dark shadow. In close-up portraits especially, I spot meter for the skin.
Ahhh – golden hour at the beach. This is when your subjects are bathed in magical golden light. The sand and water just sparkles with it. But beware of yellow people. The color of direct light at this time can be a little too intensely golden, meaning hours in post processing. That’s why I always use kelvin or set a custom white balance at that hour.
2. The direction of light
Full sun is many things, but subtle and boring is not one of them. Just by turning your subjects around to either front light, back light, or side light them will yield dramatically different looks.
Bold and brilliant – front light
When front lighting your subject, the sun will be coming straight at them. This will mean they will have a vivid backdrop of color behind them. But there are a few drawbacks. Front light your subject in full sun and you’ll probably have squinting, unhappy people. A few things to do:
- Ask your subject to close her eyes and then open them on the count of three. Be prepared to snap quickly.
- Think outside the box. Have your subject wear a hat or sunglasses – the perfect accessories in a summer image – to help shield the sun.
- Add variety by taking shots with your subjects looking down, away, or interacting with each other.
Dreamy and romantic – backlight
Golden haze and the beach are dreamy together. But with natural back light, if you meter for skin, you will usually have much of your environment – sand, sky or water – overexposed. Thus turning a beautiful backdrop into white nothingness.
As a remedy, I often underexpose just slightly and preserve details in the sea and sky. It’s a delicate balance as I don’t want to underexpose the skin so far that I can’t get good skin tones.
Luckily, by shooting RAW and checking my highlight alerts or “blinkies” carefully, with a little dodging and burning in post processing, I can usually achieve a middle ground that allows me to showcase both subject and seascape.
Strong and shadowed – side light
Taking a picture using side light in full sun can be tricky. Watch that one of your subjects doesn’t fall into someone else’s shadow. And be careful of blown skin on the highlight side of the face.
I like to encourage my subjects to turn their faces three-quarters to the light, perhaps looking at each other or out to the water. Many photographers use the zone system in tricky lighting situations like this, where getting the right balance between highlight and shadow is essential.
Full of drama – silhouette
Silhouettes are at their most dramatic in full sun. I have an affection for partial silhouettes. One secret to a great silhouette: go for lots of negative space to let that beach background shine.
3. The location
Now that we’ve talked about the different looks you can achieve in full sun – the next step is to think about what that means for the location at which you shoot.
For example, in my town, the sun rises over the mountains and sets over the beach, so I know that if I want my subject standing in front of vivid blue sky and sea, then I need to plan my shoot in the early morning when she will be lit from the front.
But if I want golden back light and dramatic sunset images, then I will choose the afternoon when the sun will be behind her, yielding golden haze. What is the lighting scenario where you plan to shoot?
4. The ways to cheat the sun
I’ll let you in on a little secret – I try to cheat whenever possible. Here are a few of my favorite ways. . .
Head for open shade
I always check out the beaches in my area and try to shoot at one that has some open shade. If you have a beach with large leafy trees, a gazebo, or a pier, you are lucky. A boat can even work in a pinch.
Make way for clouds
Where I live, clouds often roll in and out. If I see brief respite in the form of a fluffy white cloud, I try to shoot those money-shot portraits in the softer light. A thin film of cloud cover can work like a beautiful soft box.
Shoot after sunset
As the sun sinks below the horizon you might be tempted to pack up and go home. Don’t.
This is by far one of my favorite times of day to shoot at the beach. The intense yellow light you fought just minutes earlier is gone and you are left with a soft pastel-toned glow over everything for the ten minutes until light disappears for the day. Don’t be afraid to keep cranking up the ISO as twilight beckons.
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted “Creating Depth with 3 Planes.” We’d love to see your work!