By Guest Author and Photographer
I met Brian at a recent convention in Las Vegas when we sat side by side at a seminar. We got chatting about what we each did and turns out he’s a photographer as well! Brian does a lot of beach photography glamour shoots and agreed to write this article to give you a few tips for a successful beach photography session. I think many of the tips also apply to any session. Watch for my notes in italics. – Darlene
Tips for a successful beach photography shoot
#1 Simple Equipment: (KISS) Keep it Sand Safe
Every great photo shoot begins at home with thoughtful preparation of your gear.
This takes on especially great importance when your intended location involves a billion grains of sand, eager to invade your equipment. In the case of the beach shoot, I believe in packing light, pre-assembling your gear, and placing everything in Ziploc bags, prior to heading out the door.
a) Camera (cutting-edge gear not required!)
The good news is that beach photography usually involves ample amounts of sunlight to work with. This allows you to create amazing images with less than cutting edge camera gear. I have intentionally included images in this article created with older camera gear (Canon 40D) to illustrate this point. Many serious photographers would consider this camera years past its prime, but in this genre of photography it still performs like a champion.
I also carry a second back-up camera to every beach shoot. Dropping your camera in the ocean is bad. Missing that amazing image at sunset is worse! With this in mind your backup camera can be extremely modest and still produce surprisingly good results. My backup camera is my Canon 40D, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use a decent point and shoot in a pinch! (I’ve even been tempted to use my iPhone, just to show what can be done).
b) Lens selection
My personal preference for beach photography is a medium telephoto, wide aperture lens. DSLR cameras come in two common varieties. The first is referred to as “Full Frame” sensor, the second is the smaller “APS-C” sensor. You will need to refer to your owner’s manual to determine which you have in your camera. Both sensor sizes will perform admirably for this type of photography, just keep in mind that the smaller “APS-C” sensor will require a shorter lens to achieve roughly the same effect as the “Full Frame” sensor camera.
Lens Length Suggestions:
Full Frame sensors:
- Prime lenses from approximately 100mm to 150mm
- A zoom lenses covering the 70mm to 200mm range
APS-C sensor cameras:
- Prime lenses from approximately 60mm to 100mm
- A zoom lenses covering the 70mm to 200mm range
The exact length of lens will vary depending on your personal style. I encourage those new to beach photography to start off in the slightly telephoto range (closer to the start of the ranges listed above) until they find their personal preference.
My go-to combination is an 85mm f/1.8 lens (on my 40D APS-C that’s about 130mm). Although you lose the flexibility of a zoom lens, you gain the benefit of the larger aperture and this lens is light, relatively inexpensive (in case you drop it in the ocean) and produces excellent results. In most cases I like to shoot with my aperture at f/2.0 or f/2.2. By stopping the lens down one-half to one f/stop, you will find that you produce noticeably crisper images while retaining an attractive short depth of field.
c) a large beach towel
The author Douglas Adams identified the towel as one of the most useful devices ever created, I don’t disagree. Often forgotten but invaluable, a large beach towel is a must-have at almost any outdoor shoot. From a soft surface to set your equipment on, to a makeshift blanket to warm up your model, a beach towel is indispensable! “Not a photographic tool” you say, having a nice big white towel makes an excellent reflector, producing a very soft light for head shots! You can even use it to dry off.
d) a reflector
Although reflectors are not a necessity, they can be extremely helpful for filling in shadows. Reflectors come in many sizes and shapes; from a simple sheet of paper, to complex and expensive aluminum framed contraptions. Unlike using a strobe, white and silver reflectors reflect the same color temperature light as their light source, making them ideal for the changing conditions near sunset. Never fear choosing the wrong color reflector. Many a heart wrenching off-color image becomes a beautiful work of art in black-and-white!
e) Backup swimwear
I carry 3 or 4 inexpensive bikinis in my bag at all times. With a bit of looking on eBay you can easily purchase simple, yet attractive, two-piece swimwear sets for around $10 each.
This is great insurance against having your model show up with an unflattering swimsuit. When buying swimwear remember to choose tie-sided bottoms to ensure a universal fit.
I also prefer to stick with black, silver and gold solid colored swimwear as these colors work with almost any skin tone. As for size and cut of the bikini, I try to carry a bit of variety.
Although accessories are not a requirement for a good beach shoot, I find that some models thrive on having something to work with. Here are some examples..
- Necklaces and jewelry
- Umbrellas (Parasols)
- Sarongs and coverups
g) Model release
Over the years I have become a true believer in having a signed agreement between the model and photographer. In the modeling world you will find two major varieties of model releases. The first is the “Commercial Release”, an ironclad legal document that looks like the deed to your house and will scare the pants off of your model. The second “Simple Release” or “Understanding”, this is a simple document designed to be easily understood by both parties in a nonthreatening way. Beyond the legal ramifications of a release, that are best left to your attorney, a signed agreement greatly improves the relationship between model and photographer during, and after the shoot.
The follow the link to see an example of a simple non-commercial Model Release.
#2 The sun is your friend (and your nemesis)
The sun plays an unusually complicated and dynamic role in every naturally lit beach shoot, with the most flattering light occurring the hour before sunset.
Shooting With Sun at Your Back
Your first lighting orientation to master should be shooting with the sun at your back, and your model looking nearly into the sun. This negates the need for reflectors and extra crew. The downside is that your model can only look in the direction of the sun for a few moments at a time without squinting and great discomfort. I coach my models to look down to rest their eyes, and then look up for only a few moments before looking back down again. This will give you the best facial expression, and pose the least risk and discomfort for your model.
Model Between You & Sun
The second and slightly more difficult orientation is to have your model between you and the sun, using reflectors to fill the shadows. This is considerably more comfortable for the model, but requires the use of a third person to hold the reflectors.
Beach Photography Silhouettes
Last but not least is the silhouette. Silhouettes are relatively easy to accomplish and are model favorites! To achieve a good silhouette I suggest simply setting your camera on Aperture Priority and turning off spot metering (use evaluative or one that reads the whole scene). Your camera will be confused by all of the peripheral light and produce a good silhouette.
In a 1-2 hour photo shoot I generally expect that the best images will all occur in the last half hour. This is not to say that the preceding photographs are unimportant!
The first hour of shooting is your chance to build rapport with your model, as well as comfort with your equipment and surroundings. I start each photo shoot with some very basic standing poses, then as trust builds, and the sun approaches the horizon, I move to poses that require more complicated interaction with the model.
I suggest you also take great care to keep your model out of the water until the last half hour of your photo shoot. Even the best Photoshop skills can’t fix a frozen model!
#3 It’s all about Perspective
One of the most common mistakes I see made by newbie photographers, is to shoot at eye-level.
As observers of our world, we are very accustomed to seeing everything from our built-in eye-level. When you break out of that experience, you will add a whole new level of engagement with your audience to your images. One of your first duties at the beach is to survey potential shooting vantage points. Even simply laying down in the sand, or standing 2 feet above beach level, will bring positive results.
In the first example below I am standing about 25 inches above the models. This allowed me to simplify the background, and focus attention on them.
The goal of this image was to evoke a feeling of emotional separation from the female model, put in contrast to the affection of the male model. The choice of an abstract background helps to bring this forward.
In this second example, the camera is inches from the ground. This perspective gives the model a more powerful and dominant feel.
#4 The subject makes you – the background breaks you
Many wonderful images have been destroyed by their backgrounds. This seems so obvious that it’s almost not worth mentioning, but it’s a persistent, frustrating problem for many.
One of the simplest and most elusive photographic techniques is remembering to look behind your model. I make it a habit to re-examine the background behind my models every time they move position, and again every ten frames.
Your second line of defense is to stick with a nice wide aperture in order to blur the background. This has the added advantage that your model will “pop” off of the background and become the focus of your viewer.
#5 The strange land of sunset light
As sunset approaches the color temperature of light coming directly from the sun becomes extremely warm, while the light coming from the sky becomes very cool. This strange lighting environment creates challenges when it comes to white balance.
Many photographers come to the beach armed with gray cards to custom white balance their cameras. Unfortunately this is fraught with difficulties. A gray card aimed toward the sunset will generate a very different color temperature than a gray card aimed toward the sky. If you’re going to use a gray card I suggest intentionally aiming the card at about a 45° angle to the sun in order to capture some of the cooler light coming from the sky. It also pays to remember that you are in a rapidly changing environment, and that you will likely need to redo the custom White Balance about every ten minutes to keep up with the changing conditions.
A great trick is to bring a competitively certified volleyball to the beach.
Volleyballs certified for competition are regulated to be the same color of white, Making them very predictable white balance targets.
The volleyball has significant advantages over a gray card.
First advantage: The first being that they are round, and will capture light from the sky above as well as light directly from the sun in one image. You simply sample the area halfway between the two points in post production.
Second advantage: The second advantage of the ball, is that nobody needs to hold it. You simply set it near the shoot and take a quick picture of it every ten minutes.
Added bonus – it even floats when the tide changes!
Many photographers find the cool and warm mix of light difficult to compensate for in post production.
My strategy is to “calibrate my eyes”.
This is done by setting the background in my photo editor (Photoshop or Lightroom) to 18% neutral gray, and viewing the images in a relatively dark room. Your eyes will adjust to the gray tones without being influenced by the surrounding color of the room. Next, adjust the image for flattering skin tones. This will often leave the ocean and sky a rich blue color.
You may choose to leave the ocean and sky over-saturated as an artistic choice, or you may want to select the blue and correct the ocean and sky separately.
About the author Brian Fisher
Brian Fisher is a California-based photographer, and instructor, with 25 years of professional photographic experience specializing in the beach, glamor field. He is also known for his popular Portfolio Jam photographic events held along California’s central coast each spring.
Website: Brian Fisher.com
Portfolio: Portfolio Jam
All photography by Brian Fischer, Model credits by request.
5 Beach Photography Tips photograph, suitable for pinning is a stock photo.
So get out there and try out these tips if you are lucky enough to live near the ocean or a nice lake. I’m not close to either 🙁 but like I said at the beginning many of these tips apply to any photo shoot. Let me see what you come up with and as usual put any questions in the comments section below.
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