If you live in San Diego and you’re a photographer, it won’t be long before someone asks you to take their picture at the beach. San Diego offers great opportunities for beach portraiture. Some photographers make their living from photographing families, kids, and couples on the rocky shorelines of La Jolla Cove and Wind-and-Sea Beach, or the open sands of Coronado or Torrey Pines State Beach. With seventy miles of coastline, San Diego County has lots of beaches to choose from.
I run photography workshops on some of San Diego’s beaches for enthusiasts of digital photography. It is a fun place to be and a fun place to do photography. In this short article, I would like to share some tips on successful beach photography.
Tip #1: Protect your equipment
Sand and salt are not friends to your camera equipment, so protect it by keeping it off the sand and covered when not in use.
Tip #2: Create an equipment checklist
When I go to take someone’s portrait at the beach I am usually being paid for it. This being the case I, of course, want to make them look good, but I also want to be prepared for anything the weather and lighting conditions throw at me. Every beach shoot is different, so I carry quite a few items of gear with me in my truck. Depending on the lighting, I may not use any reflectors, scrims, or even fill flash, but I will take it along if it is on my checklist.
My checklist includes:
- 2 DSLR bodies (spare stays locked away)
- 3 or 4 lenses (I prefer 10.5 fisheye, 50 mm 1.4, 18-70mm, and 70-200 mm 2.8)
- Speedlight (flash)
- Large flash diffuser
If your tripod is new, put plastic bags on feet secured by rubber bands. I use an old Bogen tripod for the beach, which is showing signs of corrosion. I use my tripod with long telephoto shots.
- One large oval 5-way reflector
- One large oval silver/black reflector
- One small 5-way reflector
- Lens filters (neutral density and circular polarizer)
- Spray bottle with water/baby oil mix (if you want a just emerged from ocean look)
- Hair brush (make sure models have them)
- Folding table (I keep my equipment off the sand)
- Large towel (Cover equipment on table at all times)
- Step ladder (for shooting down on subject)
- Lens cloth and brush
Tip #3: Take an assistant
Beaches are, by nature, windy places. I don’t take any stands for flash or reflectors, because they are a nuisance to set up at the beach and it is often too windy to hold reflectors on stands.
An assistant can help by holding reflectors or off-camera lights. They can also help to protect your equipment from sand and salt spray.
I often encourage subjects to bring a friend with them and will press them into holding a reflector or off-camera flash.
Tip #4: Read the tide tables
There’s nothing worse than turning up at the beach to find that there isn’t one! Tides vary by time and height depending on where the sun and moon are in relation to each other, so check the tide tables to make sure there will be enough of the beach to photograph on.
Low tide makes for the best shots on the beaches around San Diego, when the wet sand reflects the image of your subject, creating a feeling of space and peacefulness. In rocky areas, I like high tide when the waves are breaking dramatically over the rocks.
Tip #5: Wait for the magic hour
Whenever possible, I like to photograph at the beach just before sunset. At this time the low sun shines through a heavy thickness of atmosphere creating a warm glow in everything from skin tones to sand and cliffs. Shadows soften dramatically and the light is often so good that you can work without any fill.
Tip#6: Use a fill flash
In hard light, you need something to soften the shadows on your subject’s face. The simplest method is to use your flash to fill in the shadows. In dreary conditions fill flash will also make your subject pop and add a sparkle in their eye. When it is cloudy I sometimes use an off-camera flash as a hair light, which creates the impression of a sunny day.
Tip #7: Interact with subjects
Think about your subject’s well-being! I always say that successful portraits are 80% personality and 20% technical ability. Interact with the person you are photographing and put them at their ease. If you need a break to reset your equipment, make sure your subjects are warm and comfortable. Try lots of different poses mixing formal poses with movement. Keep everybody busy and work fast. This will keep up the energy level, everyone will start having fun, and it will show in your pictures.
Tip #8: Don’t trust your camera’s meter
In very bright conditions, your camera will tend to want to under-expose as it tries to meter to mid-gray. Check the histogram and add some exposure compensation, if necessary. Take a test exposure using a gray card held in front of the subject’s face, if you wish. This will give you a very good indication of where you want your exposure to be.
Tip #9: Keep horizons straight
Horizons are horizontal. Only on very rare occasions would I ever tip the horizon. Check all your photos and straighten those that aren’t horizontal by rotating and cropping the image. I also don’t like to see horizons dissecting someone’s head in a shot. I prefer the horizon to fall below the shoulders or above the head. I do make exceptions if changing my angle puts my camera at too high or low angle to the subject.
Tip #10: Check your backgrounds
Basic to all portrait photography is to check the background through the viewfinder as you take the shot. The less cluttered the background the better. Although it is possible to remove trash cans, flag poles, etc. from pictures in post-processing, it is much easier not to get them in the shot in the first place. Sometimes I want to take a deep shot along the beach and there are bound to be other people there. They are usually very easy to remove in Photoshop as long as the background around them is plain. If someone is walking along so that that the ocean is in the background of their head, but the beach is in the background of their legs, they are much more difficult to remove than a surfer surrounded by ocean or a sunbather surrounded by beach.