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How to Take Better Beach Portraits at Any Time of Day

how to take better beach portraits

Are you struggling to work with light during beach portrait photoshoots? You’re not alone.

But while doing beach photography can be tough, don’t worry – because there are a few simple tips and tricks you can use to keep your beach portraits looking gorgeous, even at high noon. And that’s what this article is all about.

Specifically, we’ll share:

  • The best times of day to do beach photography
  • How to shoot in bright sunlight and still come away with flattering shots
  • An easy way to use the light for artistic beach portraits
  • Much more!

Let’s dive right in, starting with our number one tip:

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.

the photographer's ephemeris
Using an ephemeris app, you can see where (and when) the sun will move across the sky.

So before – or even while – you’re scheduling your session, quickly check this tool to see the sunrise, midday, and sunset positions and times.

sunrise and sunset times and places on the Photographer's Ephemeris

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.

woman on a log on the beach in the morning

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.

beach portrait in the morning girl with family

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.

woman on the beach in the morning portrait
On the left, we see the sun rising behind the bay. At right, the sun casts shadows around midday.

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.

people jumping on beach at midday
Seeing the shadows in front of your clients means the sun is behind them. This family is lit with an external flash, one that’s mounted on-camera (and pointed straight ahead).

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.

midday beach photo with flash
Same session, same beach, one photo with flash and one photo without.

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.

midday beach family portrait with flash
Here, I used flash to correctly expose the photo and fill in shadows caused by the sun.

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.

family portrait on the beach
The sand can act as a natural reflector and bounce light back onto your clients.

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).

mother and child on the beach in the shade

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.

family on the beach with two kids

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.

husband and wife on the beach

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.

golden hour couple portrait

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.

woman's pregnant stomach beach

You can also try silhouetting your clients with the sunset light to offer a different look to the final images:

beach silhouette portrait

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.

long exposure in the water at blue hour
During the blue hour, you can get some additional light on your clients by facing them toward the spot where the sun has set.

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.

couple on a rock at night

7. Try these beach portrait ideas…

couple in the shade on the beach
Cloudy days are perfect for beach portraits. However, you might not get an especially bright sunset (compared to a clear day).

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.
mother and sun on the beach and off the beach
If you are waiting for the sun to go down a bit, you can take some portraits near trees that aren’t on the beach. This also adds variety to the final set of images.

Beach portrait tips: conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture some beautiful beach photos – so get out with your camera and have fun!

Over to you:

Do you have any tips for shooting at the beach? What’s your favorite beach photography lighting? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

couple on the beach with splashing waves

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Jackie Lamas
Jackie Lamas

is a destination wedding and portrait photographer based on the beautiful beaches of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She earned her degree in photography from California State University, Fullerton. Jackie has over 10 years of experience as a professional photographer and teacher. When she’s not on the beach, you can find her writing on her blog and spending time with her baby and husband. See more of her work on Instagram.

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