Tips for Great Beach Sunset Portraits

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Beach sunset portraits are always so beautiful; they make for a unique backdrop as each sunset is a little bit different from the next. With an hour long portrait session photos with the sunset over and over can sometimes get a little repetitive. This article will show you how to create diverse images out of a beach sunset session, and also explain how to use off-camera flash to expose for the background and capture the true colors that you see.

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To plan this right, you first need to know exactly what time the sun dips behind the ocean horizon. The time and date website allows you to look up this exact time for different cities all over the world. For an hour long session, have your clients meet you at the beach 45 minutes before the sun goes out of sight. The lighting at this time is just perfect for photos, it is known as the golden hour because of the warm hues it casts.
The 15 minutes immediately after the sun sets also offers a wonderful soft light.

Before you begin posing your subjects you need to get your exposure right. Turn off all flashes, set your camera to Manual Mode, and simply expose for the sunset. If you take a picture of your subject in front of the background like this you will see that they are very underexposed, if not a silhouette. In order to get a proper exposure for the sunset, and for your subject, we need to add light to the subject. Since the sunset is so far away, your flash will not affect the exposure of the background.

You can use an on-camera flash for this, but an off-camera flash will make the lighting look more natural and is therefore the ideal. To setup an off-camera flash you will need a flash, a light stand, and a way to trigger the flash. There are many different ways to do this, but I would suggest wireless radio triggers. Once you have your light setup, place the stand about 10-15 feet away from where your subject will stand, and about 4-5 feet to the right of the camera position. This will have the light coming at your subject from the side, instead of straight on which will create a much more flattering picture.

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Turn your flash on and switch it to manual mode. Set the flash strength to half power and take a test shot. If your subject is too bright try moving the flash back a few feet. If the face is too dark increase your flash power or move the flash a little closer to the person. Adjust the flash power and distance from your subject until they are nicely exposed. Your flash can be bare, without any modifiers, or with a shoot through white umbrella for a softer light.

Once everything is setup you can pose your group or subject, facing away from the sunset, and take a set of images. Vary the pose and take a few more. Next look around and see what else is available to use as a backdrop. Large rocks, palm trees, sand dunes or greenery all make for diverse images. A boardwalk leading up the beach can also be a great spot. Aim to use two to three different backgrounds.

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By this time the sun has gone down quite a bit, and the colors have changed a lot from your first set of photos. Adjust your lighting and exposure to match the new conditions and take a few more portraits in front of the ever changing sunset.

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Turn your flash off, adjust your exposure and take some beautiful silhouette images of your subjects.

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Just after the sun dips down below the horizon, turn your subject towards the sunset and capture the beautiful soft light that spills onto their face. Make sure your flash is off for this, as the natural light is perfect, and adjust your exposure as needed. This is a great moment for candid shots of the group walking along the beach and laughing, or of parents tossing their children up in the air.

Lastly, try to look for where your subject’s reflection falls on the water when the tide pulls out. Capture an image with your subject and their reflection, or just their feet and the reflection.

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During a one hour session, at only one location, you can capture a diverse set of images for your customers (or friends) that they will love. Just remember to always be on the lookout for a different background, or unique area of the beach. Also if you will be taking pictures that will get them sandy or wet, make sure to save those for last so they their clothes aren’t wet or full of sand in the rest of the photos.

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Have you done any beach portraits? Do you have any other tips you can share, please do so in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Madison Baltodano is a photographer who primarily shoots weddings. She is originally from a small town near Albany, NY, but recently made a big move to a beautiful beach town in Costa Rica to pursue her dream of shooting destination weddings. Please visit her website and follow her blog to see more of her work.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Excellent

  • I would add that using flash off camera, especially two speedlights, is the key to making the best sunset beach portraits. I illustrate my setup in this post:

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/1/12/photography-tip-two-strobe-off-camera-flash-setup.html

    Two lights can be placed and adjusted without an assistant present (if you hustle). I have photographed dozens of families and couples on the beaches here in the St. Petersburg, Florida area and the two speedlight setup has worked well for even large families (5+ people).

  • Change environment by using our free services. Just send us and write instruction what you wants to do.

  • Madison

    That is certainly another great way to do it.

  • Martin

    Good tips!
    I would gel the flashes to match the warm colored light of the sunset.
    To me it looks wierd when the whitebalance don’t match.

  • Geoff

    Nice portraits, Jason. I like the two strobe setup you link to on your site. Must try it.

  • averlie

    I think all your poses are great and photos #3, 5, and especially 6 are awesome. You have a great eye for composition and capturing everyone in a large group in a flattering way. Along with shooting against a sunset, that’s a huge challenge, especially with this many subjects. Well done!
    However, in my opinion the flash setup in #1 and 4 are too harsh, as there are obvious shadows on the sand which detract. Also in the final image, it again has the detrimental look of on-camera flash…too reflective and too bright versus the background.
    I would very much like an article on how you get your subjects to pose so beautifully and get such wonderful expressions from everyone in a large group. Those aspects are outstanding in every photo, in my opinion.

  • averlie

    I think all your poses are great and photos #3, 5, and especially 6 are awesome. You have a great eye for composition and capturing everyone in a large group in a flattering way. Along with shooting against a sunset, that’s a huge challenge, especially with this many subjects. Well done!

    However, in my opinion the flash setup in photos #1 and 4 is too harsh, as there are obvious shadows on the sand which detract. Also in the final image, it again has the detrimental look of on-camera flash…too reflective and too bright versus the background.

    I would very much like an article on how you get your subjects to pose so beautifully and get such wonderful expressions from everyone in a large group. Those aspects are outstanding in every photo, in my opinion.

  • Madison

    Great suggestion Martin. Could you go into more detail so that the readers know exactly what you are talking about. If you have before and after photos to post too that would be great, that way people can see the difference.

  • Linda M

    If it was just one or two people, would a reflector work instead of a flash?

  • Scott

    I use a 1/4 CTO (orange) gel on the flash and a shoot-through umbrella, eye level and 45 degrees to the subject to create a beautiful soft, warm light that matches the tonal range of the sunset – very effective.

  • walwit

    Liked very much this pictures.

  • not in a sunset situation if they are backlit there is just too much contrast and you need more power than a reflector can produce

  • Yunusa Tanko Abdullahi

    Great idea setting up lighting at the beach. Will give it and try too

  • Michael in Toronto

    Great article and examples Madison. Thanks for taking the time to prepare and send it. I have to ask about shot number 2 in front of the palm…this is the shot I try desperately to avoid…and I am not sure if I have misunderstood and this is a suggestion of why you should face your group AWAY from the sun. Your subjects are (obviously) in pain. They’re trying desperately to open their eyes on what is clearly a very bright situation—-likely even more sun bouncing into their faces from nearby sand. I get the same issues trying to shoot my family while skiing. Sun plus reflection off snow equals hideous squinting and is the reason I end up with ONLY goggle shots at the top of the mountain. I find ALL the other shots great examples of things to try and kudos for some of the larger groups who all seem to be acting and reacting so well together! Thanks again.

  • Michael

    Hi Madison. I am not professional photographer but kind of an advanced amateur one who loves to take pro-quality photos. I wish if you could specify your shooting parameters along with your photos which are great. Unfortunately, I can only do these type ocean sunset shooting when I go to Mexico – Cancun Rivera Maya resorts for a vacation and I am leaving for Mexico Rivera Maya this coming June. I have only one tripod that folds and can be put in a bag. I can use it for my Canon 580EX speedlite, however, I don’t have radio trigger but 10 feet ETTL synch cable. Looking at your photos, I could noticed that your DOF is relatively long telling me your aperture was at least 8 or may be 11. So considering early evening dim ambient lightening and you still manage to freeze the water waves splashes, you used at least 1/125 of a shutter speed. So what was your ISO ( probably somewhere in 1600 or even more)? In my case with my old Canon EOS 20D using anything higher than ISO 800 would make too much grain. I personally would use my flash (modified) on the flash bracket about 12″ above my camera to avoid even these soft shadows you had from the side lightening. I read that unless you use two light sources equally apart from your camera, it’s better to use the light source on the lens axis but elevated to avoid any shadows.
    Again thank you for your interesting photos on a beach.

  • Yusuf Ratlamwala

    Thanks for this superb article, I have always encountered this problems while shooting on beaches @ sunset.
    I am not a professional photographer, but learning it.
    I would like to add to this awesome advices.
    Pictures on beach looks a little more awesome when there is some action in them, it may be anything. Its like being part of this beautiful nature along with the beach, water, sun etc.

    I took this shot(attached) on my recent office trip to a pristine beach, I am sorry for the lighting on faces, that’s what I lacked since I didn’t have off camera flash and awesome guidance of @disqus_506mGkYSoy:disqus .
    What I really want to draw your kind attention to is the action or little fun on beach rather than simple pose.

  • Madison

    Nice shot, it looks like they are really having a good time.

  • Madison

    Hi Michael. My ISO was actually not that high. I believe it was around 200-500. I used the flash to avoid having to put the ISO too high. Some people prefer to use a higher ISO and use more ambient light, but I like the super sharp and contrasted look from using more flash. The shadows in my image can also be soften by using a modifier like a shoot through umbrella, for this shot I was just using a bare flash.

  • Madison

    Hi Michael, I agree with you, they are squinting quite a bit. It was a very overcast day so the sun was not shining directly into their eyes, but it still did cause them to squint.

  • Madison

    Ditto to what Darlene said. Reflectors are really awesome for a lot of things, but for a sunset situation flash is best.

  • Madison

    Hi Averlie. The harsh light doesn’t bother me in these photos, but you could certainly use a shoot through umbrella to get a softer light. As for the posing, most people are not used to being in front of the camera, and don’t know how to pose per say. I usually start with some very standard poses to get the group used to the camera. After a little bit they will get more comfortable and start to act naturally. I also make sure to tell them to try and always be touching someone. Either holding hands, arms around each other, or just placing their hands on someone else’s arm or shoulder. All of the photos that you mentioned were taken towards the end of the session, once everyone had relaxed a little.

  • Yoram Shechori

    I have used green correction gel on my flash then tweaked the white balance till I got correctly the white colors, as a result the sunset got wonderful purple colors

  • Tanya Lillie

    Thank you for the great tips. I live close to Lake Michigan, which offers beautiful sunsets, but I haven’t shot at the beach in a long time. I am a hobbyist not a pro and have not figured out how to protect my gear from the sand. No matter how careful I am sand gets on my gear. I’d love some suggestions so I can use your tips to shoot portraits of my granddaughter this summer.

  • Thank you Geoff…I have thought about adding a third strobe, but that might be too much to manage without an assistant. With practice, two strobes can be manageable and are good enough to photograph couples to small groups on the beach.

  • Chit

    Lately I have been so interested with taking moon shots..changing Modesto PAS with diff ISO but I am not quite happy yet as to how it comes out… I have Lumix Z60 and Nikon P500 ..can someone tell me the right way without telephotoing too close to the moon..Thanks

  • Nora Moore

    I’ve never had our family photos taken at the beach. It would be really cool. Getting them done during sunset would be especially beautiful. I guess that means that you’d have to make sure that you were there at the right time. http://www.butterflykissphotos.com/#/gifts-of-life-images/

  • Ginny T

    Thank you!

  • Ginny T

    Dry sack (!) and extreme caution – bring cloths to wipe hands.

  • Mark_Girouard

    I really enjoyed the above article, thank you!

    I took the three photos below while vacationing on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Due to the equipment I had on had, I was able to truly get the flash off camera, however, I did have my bracket in the car, so I was able to get it up a little higher.

    The family photo was taken with the sun almost set to the right of their location. They asked if I could get make it look like it was taken during the day. I increased my flash exposure by about 2/3, and this is what I got.

    The photo of the young lady was actually used as a senior portrait, and was taken just after sun set with her facing the ocean. I did use a fill flash, and that was set to approximately – 2/3.

    The photo of the little girl was taken minutes prior to sun set with just a little fill flash added ( yes, that is the same little girl from the the family portrait).

    I hope you enjoy all of them!

    Merry Christmas

  • Tara Anderson

    I captured this shot by chance when my family was out taking our family pictures. My kids were enjoying a few moments of skipping rocks and I caught this just before the sun was gone.

  • Nilanga Witanage

    Great tips. Thanks. Hoping to try these things out…..

  • Judit

    Nice article. To be honest, I really don’t like the first one – it looks like they were photoshopped on a preset background. The shadows going towards the Sun give the whole picture a fake look, as if the foreground and background were two different images. The one where they sit on the rocks feels a lot more natural despite the contrast, and the other with their reflection in the water is really spectacular. Only goes to show what a real challenege it is to shoot against the sunset! Thanks for the tips!

  • John Connor

    Very nice, thanks for sharing with us.

    Check it out this once, Nice collection, Impressive > http://bit.ly/1XPAmcj

  • He made some fun…

  • Greg Dixon

    Very nice photos Mark, I u st have to ad a bit of critique to them if I may? Just as a point of interest, something I picked up doing shoots on the beach. The second picture, the portrait of the girl sitting down – look out for distractions or things of high contrast or out of place “things.”
    The sand on her upper leg and her feet add a very natural look to the image, but I find asking the model to dust it off a bit makes it less of a noticeable point and therefore doesn’t immediately catch the eye away from her face.

    On picture 3 of the little girl, the sun flare is beautiful! I try to do the same in my outdoor photos, but when shooting children I find the overall appearance and feel of the image is enhanced if you get right down to eye level with the child. Maybe after taking a shot like this, sit down and take the photo, or go on one knee and see how it comes out.

    Keep up the good work!

    Greg.

  • Mark_Girouard

    Thank you

  • This is a most important blog and it’s a very helpful for us . Thanks for sharing .

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