The beach is a great place for all kinds of photography. Especially portrait photography. But there are certain challenges that come along with beach photography. Harsh sun, an unpredictable ocean, crowds, and blowing sand can all make things difficult. But the results are often worth it, so here are 12 Beach Portrait Photography Tips to help you make the most of your time at the shore.
1. Shoot At Golden Hour
Shoot at sunrise or sunset and your beach photography will be instantly better no matter what skill level you are at.
Photographers call this golden hour.
You don’t have to be there exactly at sunrise or sunset to get great light though. For about an hour before and an hour after, you’ll have soft, often colorful, light.
2. Avoid Crowds
If you listen to No. 1 then you probably have this one covered.
Crowds are generally bad for portrait shooting no matter where you are. They get in the background of your images and distract from your main subject.
Bright bathing suits can add intense colors that draw the viewers attention even when they are blured out.
Generally, I have more luck avoiding crowds by shooting at sunrise. Sunset tends to draw a few more crowds. Which makes makes sense to me (I am definitely not a morning person).
If you are shooting at a beach in a region that has a “beach season” the best time to shoot is the times of year right before or after it is busy. Here at the beaches in the Northeast U.S., that means May and September. The big summer crowds haven’t arrived yet so there is a lot more open space to work with.
3. Use Flash
When I do shoots for clients at the beach, I always bring portable lighting gear (and sometimes an assistant to hold it).
Not because there isn’t enough light, but because the light often isn’t exactly where I want it or I may want to have the sunset in the background of the photo. So I need to add some light to my subject.
Harsh shadows can be difficult to deal with on the beach if you aren’t shooting at golden hour. There usually isn’t a lot of shade to be found on an open beach.
One way to minimize these shadows is to use fill flash. You don’t need anything fancy for this, just use the flash right on your camera. The goal here is not to overpower the sun so that all you see is the flash. You simply want to use the flash to fill in those dark shadows on the face that can show up in direct sunlight.
It’s not a perfect solution (a giant white sheet to shade the sun would work a lot better) but it’s a great way to make the most of the gear you have with you.
If you’re looking to get started with flash, check out our Flash & Lighting Gear Guide.
4. Get The Timing Right
Some of my favorite beach portraits, especially when it comes to family portraits, happen when people are just having fun.
If you’re taking portraits on the beach, make sure you let the people relax a little, especially kids. But be ready to capture those moments when they happen.
The photo below is a great example. This shot was taken near the end of the shoot. We had already gotten a lot of great posed and candid shots. It was time to just let the kids have fun. Since it was the end of the shoot, it didn’t matter if they got a little wet so they found the biggest tide pool around and jumped right into it.
I was able to get this great shot (one of the family’s favorites) because I was ready for it. There were a bunch of frames before and after that I took of the kids playing, but this was the moment I was waiting for.
5. Use A Circular Polarizer Filter
A circular polarizer will cut down on glare and reflection, both of which occur all over a beach. Water and sand are both very reflective and those tiny bright highlights can have a negative effect on the quality of your images.
Put your polarizer on ahead of time and play around with the adjustment until you have it in a place that subdues the brightest highlights a little but doesn’t affect the overall color of the image. I use these polarizing filters. They are the highest quality I’ve seen and I really like the design that makes them easy to rotate.
Once you get into golden hour though, try taking the filter off. You won’t need it.
BONUS TIP: Using a filter has the added benefit of keeping wind blown sand off the front element of your lens. If it’s blowing around hard, then consider using a UV filter when you aren’t using a polarizer. This is one of the few situations where a UV filter is actually useful.
6. Shoot Silhouettes
Ok, let’s get a little creative here. Silhouettes are a fun way to take some unique images at the beach.
The best part about a silhouette is that it’s really easy to shoot. Even your smartphone camera can handle this.
First, find a bright part of the sky and position your subject so you are shooting towards that direction (but you should avoid shooting directly into the sun).
Then adjust your exposure so that the sky is exposed properly. For a smartphone that probably means just tapping on the sky on the screen. For a dSLR or mirrorless camera, that means increasing the shutter speed until the sky is exposed properly (meaning you can see the blue in the sky and details in the clouds).
Finally, have the subject positioned in a way that creates a cool looking silhouette.
7. Use Manual Mode
Ok, so this might be scary for a lot of you, but it’s worth learning.
At the beach, there are a lot of bright spots and dark spots and a lot of difference between the two. Which means that the auto modes on your camera are going to change drastically with just small differences in what you include in the frame.
That means that you’ll get images with all kinds of varying exposures.
Your best bet for great images, if to take a minute to dial in the best exposure for that shot and leave it at that. Then work with the person your photographing to get some fun images.
BEGINNER TIP: If you are having trouble getting it right in manual mode…some cameras will let you get the right settings in one of the auto modes and then keep those same settings when you switch to manual. If it doesn’t do that automatically, just remember what they are then switch over to manual. That should get you started on the right track.
8. Keep The Horizon Straight
Keeping a straight horizon is important everywhere, but at the beach, you’ll often have the ocean in the background of your portrait, which has a very distinct horizon line.
That means that even a slightly crooked horizon line can be quite distracting when shooting a beach portrait.
If you want to shoot with the camera tilted on purpose (sometimes known as a “dutch angle”) then make it a significant tilt. Try somewhere in the range of 30-50 degrees of tilt. If you just tilt slightly, it just looks like a mistake.
You can fix this after the fact with almost any photo editor, but you do have to crop in a little when you tilt it back. So the closer to perfectly straight you can get when taking the photo, the better.
9. Try Black And White
Most beaches consist of sand and water, so there isn’t always that much color. So many beach portraits are perfect for a black and white photo.
Converting your image to black and white means that brightness (rather than color) is used to emphasize the subject. On a bright beach with bright sand, that often means having a subject be a little darker. But you can also try and do it the other way around, brightening up the subject so that they stand out.
A black and white beach photo is also a good time to use negative space effectively. Try shooting a little wider to create a lot of bright empty space to contrast with your subject.
Black and white photos also look better than color when you are in a high contrast situation (such as a beach during the day). So converting the photo to black and white may actually improve the look of the image.
10. Keep An Eye On The Waves
This is less about the photography and more about safety.
Sometimes this just means keeping an eye on any gear bag you have to make sure the waves don’t hit it and ruin your gear.
But if you are on a rocky beach with big waves crashing up, then your life could very well be in danger if you aren’t careful.
Know the tides for that day and be aware that your entrance and exit to a small cove or cave might be blocked off once the tide comes in.
All it takes is a few minutes on inattention and a big wave can knock you over and even wash you out to sea. If you are focusing on the setup, your settings, and your subject…then you can lose focus on the waves very easily.
Don’t let that happen and stay focused. It is a great idea in those dangerous rocky beach locations to bring a friend with you as a spotter to keep an eye on mother nature while you handle the creativity.
11. Have Fun
Let’s end on a lighter note. Beaches are a lot of fun.
They carry with them memories of family vacations, summer romances, childhood adventure, and relaxing days at the shore.
So don’t forget that when you are shooting at the beach. It should be a fun experience.
So I hope that these tips have you a little more prepared so that you can relax and have fun next time you are shooting at the beach.
Do you have a favorite tip for beach portrait shooting?