On The Beach
How To Tame Those Tough Lighting Conditions

I like areas where I have maximum flexibility and choice of backgrounds. While waiting for the sun to disappear, I took this family portrait against some bushes. The sun is almost directly behind them and they are lit solely by the open sky. (Peter Dizoglin family.)
Photos © 2001, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

I live on the East Coast, and I mean right on it. My studio is located about 8 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. People who live here love the beach, and of course the tourists who descend like swarming flies on a slain wildebeest every summer love it, too. So it stands to reason that when asked where they'd like to have a portrait taken, the beach is always high on the list. But just throwing some equipment into the car and heading toward the ocean won't guarantee great results. Because even though you've got the background, there are several obstacles to overcome or your client won't be very happy with the high contrast, squinty-eyed results. As an experienced beach shooter, I'm going to offer you some suggestions on how to create people photos that will satisfy both you and your subject.

I know not everybody has access to the beach, especially those living in Kansas. For those readers, try to relate to any area you are in where it's very open, has no trees, and no escape from the sun. And when I talk about the time of day I like shooting, West Coast shooters can just reverse morning and night. You can handle it--left-handed golfers have to all the time while watching those right-handed videos.

Here's an example of hiding from the sun behind the rocks. By letting the sun strike the hair (not the ears), the couple is separated from the background. (Carrie Valpey and David Hartranft.)

Plan A: Don't Fight The Light
The biggest concern is lighting. The best way to escape harsh and overly contrasty light is to just be there at a different time. I schedule my sessions at the tail end of the day, usually about 30 minutes before sundown. If I'm very lucky, I sometimes will pick up a little cloud bank that seems to magically appear just above the horizon where the sun is going down. This gives me the most beautiful light--directional but soft. Then I can take my subjects out into the open, using this nice light on them. Since the light intensity striking my subject is the same as the light striking the background, no modification is needed to have perfect exposure on both. Please note that this happens only when I've been very good and the gods are favorable. Other times, I have to go to a "Plan B."

Plan B: Gimme Shelter
Plan B in this case is usually to head for the rocks. I have a favorite spot that I use because it has a cliff-like area where the rock formations are of varying heights and I can either "hide" from the sun in one of the lower areas or use the sun as backlighting on my subjects. By "hiding," I can obtain the same type of lighting I get in open shade just about anywhere. The reason I backlight here and not on the beach is because of background. By backlighting, I'm shooting away from the beach and the water and my background may be a parking lot. Also, because the rock formations are so varied, I can usually find anything from a dark to medium toned background. A third reason is flare. Even though a bellows-type lens shade is pretty much required, if you shoot straight into the sun even that's not going to help. I usually block the sun by using the rocks! As you can see, rocks are your friends, at least in this case.

Once the sun went down we walked by the water and matched the background exposure with a small flash. Without the flash, the background is overexposed and white instead of the nice pink.

Here's the pattern I usually follow. First, do the rocks part of the session, using open shade and backlighting. By the time you're done there, the sun should be below the horizon and you can venture out onto the beach. (Note: An added benefit of shooting at this time of day, usually 8-8:30pm in the summer, is that the beach is practically deserted except for romantic couples and people walking their Labrador Retrievers. Maybe I should hand out business cards--to the people, not the dogs!)

Now that we're on the beach, what do we do? Here's a hint--not the same poses I do in the studio! I want the poses to be very natural and flowing. I like to give suggestions and see what my subjects can do. My favorite line, after I'm done with a nice pose, is, "Do something else." You'd be surprised at the great things people come up with all by themselves, especially couples and individuals. With families, I like to set up about three different groupings and shoot for expressions. When we have the clothing consultation, I encourage them to wear clothes that they can get dirty and even wet. Bare feet are made for the beach sand. Without having to worry about getting dirty, your subjects will be much looser in their posing. Now I'm going to let you in on a big secret that is at first not very noticeable but that happens all the time.

Light Reading Tip
Your eye can be fooled. I use an incident meter for my light readings. I stick it in my subject's face and aim it back toward the camera. Are my exposures perfect? You bet, right on the button. But here's the thing. Even though you'd think the light on your subject would be the same as the background, it's not. If your background is the rocks or the ocean, no problem. But the sky is brighter. If you took a spot meter reading, I'm sure it would be at least a stop brighter than the light on your subject. I'm also pretty sure it's got something to do with the way the setting sun reflects into the open sky. I don't need to know the science but I do know this--if you've got your family, model, kid, or dog against the nice pink sky and you expose for the light on them, the background will be overexposed and you can forget your nice little sunset look. We all know this happens when your subject is backlit because the light from behind is much more intense, but in this case we're talking about front lighting. Trust me, your eye will be fooled.

This is an example of one of my "dim light specials." It's so dark I had a very hard time focusing and this was taken at 1/8 of a sec at f/2.8 with a 80mm lens on my tripod mounted Bronica SQ. This beautiful light and color is worth the effort. (Model: Kathleen Johnson.)

What to do about it? It's my experience that a silver reflector won't add enough light to change the exposure enough, so flash is the answer. The perfect way to do it would be a portable flash with umbrella, but with rapidly changing light conditions and the speed I like to work at, I opt for a small direct flash. What it lacks in finesse it makes up for in speed. Keep in mind that we're talking about shooting when the sun goes down, so you've got a very limited time window, plus the light changes in a hurry. Many times at the beach I'm not working with an assistant either, and unless you're a pro you certainly won't be, so I'd strongly suggest that this is one case where a little "pop" of the flash can make a big difference in your final result.

Last Call
Now it's getting really late, so we're into the final phase of our shoot. This is probably 20-30 minutes after sunset and it's really dark. Exposures with 400 speed film are about 1/8 at f/2.8. This is why I bring the tripod. It just looks dark, but if you expose for the light properly, you get a wonderful soft light. It's absolutely one of my favorite types of light. I've even plopped down in the sand and braced my camera using my elbows and fired off handheld shots at 1/8 of a sec. I bring an 80mm "normal" lens for the medium format camera since I can shoot at f/2.8 and f/4. Maybe my perspective would be a little better if I backed off and used the longer lens, but I've yet to hear any complaints. I'll do whatever I have to do to capture that special light.

I hope these tips will give you some insight into shooting at the beach or any open area where there is no cover. There are other methods also, like the ones Monte Zucker has shown in some of his previous articles, where he gets outstanding results in bright sunlight. Try them both so that you'll be prepared to conquer any lighting situation you may encounter. And you'll never be afraid of the water again.

Be Prepared
Shooting at the beach is not just difficult from a lighting standpoint, it requires special care for you and your equipment. Little tiny grains of sand can cause major problems in camera bodies and lenses, so here are some precautions you should take before hitting the beach.

I met Peter and Laure Nawrocki at the beach and it was very dark and misting, even though 200 yards inland the weather was fine. This is another variation of my "dim light special." You can't tell from the photo just how rotten the weather is and the print really sparkles.

First, put all your camera gear into a bag you can close. Take what you're using out and then zip up the bag. Make sure you have a shoulder strap so you can shoot with the bag on your shoulder if necessary. Don't ever set the bag down in the beach sand, you'll never get rid of it. I can usually find a high rock with no sand on it and walk back and forth as needed. I also keep plastic trash bags in the trunk. Use one to set your bag on and throw it away when you're done with it. You probably won't be so big on sand in your car either.

Try to keep sand only on the bottom legs of the tripod by extending them instead of some of the higher sections first. Then wipe them down with a rag in the parking lot before tossing it in the car. Be careful with film. I don't unwrap roll film until I'm ready to use it. As for your own clothing, you also must wear something you don't mind getting wet or dirty and I recommend sneakers for the slippery rocks you'll no doubt be walking on. I like working in jeans, anyway, but never do because of the image I must portray to my clients. This is one time where I get the chance.

Beach Bag
I like to use the natural light whenever possible, so I travel pretty light. This means either a medium format camera with a 150mm and 80mm lens or a 35mm camera with a zoom lens in the moderate telephoto range. I use a handheld meter for my readings. I carry a light tripod that I use only when absolutely necessary, which means when I can't get a shutter speed and f/stop combination that's fast enough to hand hold. Add to this a bellows-type lens shade, a small flash, a big reflector, and a bag to throw it all in, and you've got it. I like to shoot 400 speed film but carry some 800 speed that I'll occasionally use when things get really dim.