Sun-kissed skin, crashing waves, and gorgeous light; if you’ve ever shot portraits on a beach before, you know that the location comes with an undeniable allure. Capturing the magic of the seaside in a photograph, however, is no easy feat. The ever-changing lighting conditions, unpredictable weather, and the dangers of the elements can make it tricky to achieve top-notch results.
But while doing beach portrait photography can be tough, don’t worry. As I share in this article, there are plenty of effective approaches you can use to overcome these obstacles and create stunning beach portraits that’ll impress your friends, your family, and your clients!
Let’s dive right in.
1. Know where the sun is at all times
To capture stunning beach portraits, you need to know where the sun is, no matter the time of day. That way you know when to schedule a photoshoot, where to set up your camera, where to position your subject, and how the light will change over the course of your session.
The easiest way to do this is to use an ephemeris app (I personally use this one). It’s a tool that can help you see where the sun will be at all times. Note that an ephemeris can show you the position of the sun anywhere in the world, so simply plug in the location of your photoshoot, and you can see all of the important details.
So before – or even while – you’re scheduling your session, quickly check this tool to see the sunrise, midday, and sunset positions and times.
This is really helpful since no beach is alike and the direction of light differs from one side of the world to another. For example, in California, the sun sets behind the beach, whereas on the East Coast, the sun sets in the opposite direction.
Also, different beaches may face different directions, so it’s good to know where the sun will be during your session.
2. Morning light is a great time to do beach portraits
Morning light on a beach is magical. It has a whole different color temperature than evening golden hour, and it can provide a nice soft glow if you have your session early enough.
The light is a little bluer in the mornings, and depending on the beach where your session is taking place, the sun can rise over the ocean or peek through the trees. A beach on the East Coast may let you catch the sunrise while photographing.
Alternatively, on a beach in California, you’ll catch the sun hitting the water from the land side. This will give you a beautiful yellowish-blue glow on the water if your session is within a few hours of sunrise.
If the morning light is causing unwanted shadows, use a simple reflector to bounce light back onto your subject. This is especially useful if sunrise is behind the water at the beach.
3. Use flash or reflectors to deal with midday light
Midday light at a beach is pretty harsh. Therefore, it’s good to have some kind of additional lighting equipment to help with shadows. You can use an external flash, pop-up flash, or a reflector.
You can also go without an additional light source. If you choose this route, however, it’s good to underexpose your photos a bit so you can bring up the shadows in your editing software. Otherwise, you’ll end up with blown-out skies. Of course, this all depends on your style of photography.
When the sun is at its highest point during the day, it might be a good time to take your clients under the shade of some trees or opt to capture playful photos of the family. Have your clients walk, run, splash in the water, build sandcastles, or just have a bit of fun together.
The sun is at its highest at different times around the world, so make sure to check the ephemeris to know exactly when to expect high noon.
Once the sun passes the highest point, it will be at a bit of an angle as it starts to go down for sunset. That’s the sweet spot for photographing during the midday hours at the beach.
When the sun is at a bit of an angle, you can pose your clients with the sun behind them to keep the light out of their eyes. This means you’ll be in the sun, but it’s better than having your clients facing the sun directly; that way, you can avoid unflattering shadows, uneven lighting, and squinting. The sand can also work as a natural reflector, bouncing light back into their faces.
4. Keep your portrait subjects facing away from the sun just after midday
Light after midday can be different in the winter compared to the summer, but the sun will always sit lower in the sky compared to high noon. I recommend you position your clients so they’re looking away from the sun; that way, the sun starts to fall behind them (and this will prevent the issues I discussed in the previous section).
After midday is actually a pretty great time to do beach portraits. Depending on the angle of light, you can get some really interesting light, and it’ll get more and more golden as you approach sunset.
If you angle your subjects away from the sun but you’re still getting harsh, unflattering light, you may want to consider using a reflector or some fill flash to deal with those unwanted shadows.
5. Use a flash or a silhouette technique during the golden hours (sunset)
Actual sunset only lasts about 5-10 minutes. However, golden hour begins about an hour before the sun dips below the horizon, which means the angle of the light is pretty low and directional. And while golden hour light is beautiful and warm, it also makes it difficult to capture your clients evenly against the background.
It can be especially troublesome if the sun sets over the water because you’ll struggle to capture the beautiful colors while also lighting your clients.
So to light your clients while including the sunset in the background, bring along a flash or external light source. You can also underexpose your photos a bit, then bring up the shadows later without compromising the sunset.
You can also try silhouetting your clients with the sunset light to offer a different look to the final images:
One more quick tip: Golden hour is the perfect time to turn your clients toward the setting sun. That way, you can capture that beautiful golden color cast on their skin and hair, plus it’ll contribute to the overall look of the photos.
6. Use a slow shutter speed (and potentially a tripod) during blue hour
Blue hour is the 20 to 30 minutes (sometimes less) after the sun has completely disappeared from view. Blue hour is a great time to photograph because of the beautiful colors like blue, orange, pink, and purple that come out after sunset. The lighting is a bit darker, so you may need a tripod.
Ask your clients to hold still and attempt some slow shutter speed photos. Capturing movement in water can create a more fine-art beach portrait result.
7. Try these beach portrait ideas…
It doesn’t matter the time of day; it’s good to include variety in your beach portraits. For that, try some of these ideas:
- Use rock formations/caves as backgrounds and also as shelter from harsh light.
- Trees can provide shade if the light is harsh and the day is particularly hot.
- While you’re waiting for the midday sun to angle a bit, the nearby town can also serve as a nice background.
- Getting up high can keep clients out of harsh sunlight. For example, you could use a balcony in a hotel room, a higher terrace with some shade that overlooks the ocean, etc.
- Photographing lifestyle-type photos with the family playing, getting in the water, and just having a “beach day” is a good way to spice up the photoshoot.
Use a short-telephoto lens for flattering results
Experiment with wide and narrow apertures
Protect your gear against sand and sea spray
Encourage your subjects to interact with the environment
Bring some fun beach props
Try some minimalist images
Beach portrait tips: conclusion
Capturing great beach portraits is a challenging endeavor. But armed with the right techniques and a keen eye, you can elevate your photography skills and create breathtaking images that will transport viewers to the sun-drenched shores.
Remember to embrace the golden hour – the magical time shortly after sunrise or before sunset – when the light is soft and warm, casting a mesmerizing glow on your subjects. Experiment with different angles and compositions, making use of the vast beachscape as your canvas.
With a dash of practice and perseverance, you can master the art of beach portrait photography and create images that stand the test of time!
Now over to you:
Do you have any tips for shooting beach portraits? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- How to Take Better Beach Portraits at Any Time of Day
- 1. Know where the sun is at all times
- 2. Morning light is a great time to do beach portraits
- 3. Use flash or reflectors to deal with midday light
- 4. Keep your portrait subjects facing away from the sun just after midday
- 5. Use a flash or a silhouette technique during the golden hours (sunset)
- 6. Use a slow shutter speed (and potentially a tripod) during blue hour
- 7. Try these beach portrait ideas…
- Use a short-telephoto lens for flattering results
- Experiment with wide and narrow apertures
- Protect your gear against sand and sea spray
- Encourage your subjects to interact with the environment
- Bring some fun beach props
- Try some minimalist images
- Beach portrait tips: conclusion
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES