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Tips for Great Beach Sunset Portraits

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.

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Madison Baltodano
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.