- Choose the time of day wisely. There's no better place to take advantage of the morning or evening sun than the coastline, because there's nothing but the ocean between you and the sun. That “Golden Hour” lighting is all yours. Of course, the geographic location of the coast makes quite a difference in which hour is going to be the most effective.
That doesn't mean that the early morning light can't work for you on the west coast of a continent and vice-versa; it simply means that most coastal areas see the sun at a lower angle either in the morning or the evening. Morning or afternoon hours are still going to provide better lighting than midday, regardless of the location – assuming you can see the sun.
- Check the weather report. That brings me to the next tip. There's nothing wrong with shooting portraits on a cloudy day. You can use that diffuse lighting to your advantage, too. On the other hand, sand driven by a gale-force wind, stripping the skin from your subjects isn't going be a big help. Neither is a cold, coastal downpour. Check the weather for the coast ahead of time and postpone if necessary. Always be prepared for sudden changes with some shelter for you, your subjects and your equipment.
The weather is also important if you're planning to head out and grab shots of random people, which is a favorite pastime of many photographers. It's pretty simple, really; if the weather's bad, the people probably aren't going to be there. (There are exceptions to this rule; surfers and fishermen can be crazy.)
- Avoid shooting into the sun. Dramatic silhouettes and dark foregrounds can create awesome fine art photos of beach sunrises, but they're not usually what you're looking for in a portrait. If you choose to shoot this direction, be prepared to add lots of supplemental lighting and deal with lens flare. Exposure compensation in this case is probably going to wash out your background, blur the subject or give you really short depth of field, all of which are probably going to lower the impact of your photo.
- Avoid having your subjects look into the sun. You knew this one was coming next, right? Squinting isn't pretty and there are very few people that can look directly toward the sun at the beach without doing it. It also flattens the light so there's no modeling of facial features. Try to choose an angle that offers some side lighting to complement your subjects' features and provides nice hair highlights, etc. Think of the sun as part of your studio lighting.
- Use a reflector or fill flash. Now that you've found the right angle, check those shadows and manipulate the light to adjust them. A reflector is one of my favorite tools for shooting at the beach, but an external flash will do the job if it's powerful enough and you can work it into the right position. It's doubtful that your on-camera flash is going to work well in this setting, but if it's all you have, give it a try. You're probably going to have to move in close and deal with some red-eye in post processing.
- Choose neutral colors for clothing. If you're planning a portrait shoot on the beach, have your subjects wear light, or even white clothing, rather than bright, flashy colors. This lets the clothes blend somewhat with the surroundings so that you can draw more attention to the subject's faces. Tans, light grays and whites work best. Blues and greens can add a little color if you like. Bright colors will be more saturated in low coastal light and will dominate the composition.
Of course, if you're doing an impromptu shoot, you may not have this option. In that case, try to find a background that helps de-emphasize the clothing a bit. Now, if your subject wants to show off his or her beach duds, then it's a fashion shoot rather than a portrait, and the rules are obviously reversed.
- Give your subjects something to do. This applies to almost any portrait shoot, but it can be a little more tricky in a beach setting, because there are an awful lot of distractions. Keeping your subjects focused can be tough, especially with children. Keep them busy. Tell them where to look. Have them walk, run, sit, climb. If you need to, use the distractions to your advantage: “Is that a sea lion on that rock over there?”
Keeping it fun is always important. That shouldn't be too much of a problem, considering you're at the beach in the first place.
One of my favorite places to shoot portraits is at the beach. Aside from the fact that the ocean and coastline offer amazing backgrounds, it's one of the best places I know to find the kind of light that complements skin tones and gives people that healthy glow. Of course, the fact that most people can't help but enjoy themselves when surrounded by sand, surf and sun doesn't hurt, either.
That combination also presents a few challenges that you need to be prepared for if you want to get the most out of the setting. It goes without saying that you need to be protective of your photo gear in a beach environment and I'll give you some tips for that in a separate article. In this one, I'm going to offer a little advice for shooting people at the beach to get results you'll be proud of.
These are fairly basic tips, but they're the ones that should help you avoid the problems you'll see most often in shots of people at the beach. If you need a little incentive to help you practice these tips, remember that even your grab shots of people you don't know have the potential to put money in your pocket with KeepSnap. If you haven't checked them out yet, I highly recommend it. It could change your whole outlook on taking pictures of people anywhere.