The one simple step for better beach portraits

For such beautiful locations, beach portraits tend to be the trickiest to master because of the many exposure hurdles and little leeway for error. Moreover, the beach isn't the greatest place to pause and fiddle with your camera controls with the sun beating down in your eyes, sand in your toes and action happening all around. However, if you keep this one simple tip in mind, this can drastically save a lot of disappointment when you return home and review your images.

It is a simple tip but a highly effective one - I can’t stress that enough. Moreover, like any skill, the more you practice it, the better you will get. Becoming aware of the quality of light that’s illuminating your subjects, what direction it is coming from and utilizing the time of day will literally become second nature. You will find a great deal of enjoyment watching your photographs improve each day! 

Period swim and beach wear ca. 1945-1950, from the State Library Victoria; gelatin silver photograph

Period swim and beach wear ca. 1945-1950, from the State Library Victoria; gelatin silver photograph

Living in Clearwater and surrounded by these great expanses of sand and sea, I feel like even individuals with little interest in photography could really benefit from this basic knowledge from the sheer amount of opportunities we have utilizing these seascapes. And at the end of the day, you want your family beach portraits to feature well lit, smiling faces. This tip can be utilized through any kind of camera, whether you normally use your phone, a point-and-shoot or a DSLR. 

Keep track of the sun

Really, that's it.

Is it mid-afternoon with the sun blaring down overhead? Aside from in the middle of a storm, this is probably the worst time to take portraits; however, it is still possible to get great looking ones. Gather everyone in the nearest patch of shade you can find so that the light is less harsh and more even across their faces.

Is it earlier or later in the day when the sunlight is more directional? (Golden hours, a little before the sun is beginning to rise or set and afterward, are the ideal times.) Although you can get some creative effects by positioning yourself with your back to the sun, subjects directly in front of the camera, or with your subjects between yourself and the sun (this will create more or less dramatic silhouettes), your best bet is sidelight

Taking note of where the sun is in the sky, position yourself and your subject so that the sun is near the front half of his or her face, at a 45-degree angle. Why? This angle illuminates one side of the face while leaving another side slightly darker, creating depth. In order for photographs to really come alive, this mixture of light and shade - chiaroscuro - brings out details, features, textures and color. Simply put, it makes the image more visually interesting. 

Rembrandt, Large Self Portrait, 1652, oil on canvas

Rembrandt, Large Self Portrait, 1652, oil on canvas

Once you’re positioned, you’re actually utilizing a very popular technique in studio portrait photography called Rembrandt lighting, named after the 17th century Dutch painter. You may not achieve the tell-tale illuminated triangle beneath your portrait subject’s eye, but this is essentially how it is done. 

And that’s it! Note: Obviously this technique can be attempted in any location, regardless of whether you're near the beach or not.

Through keeping track of the sun and positioning yourself and your subject for more flattering sidelight, you should begin to see a definite difference in your portrait photography. 

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