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Beach Portraits


1 – Hazy Sun

When there are thin clouds or a thin overcast sky—with the sun coming through—you can often photograph at any time.

The partial sunlight gives you highlights.

The thin clouds or thin overcast sky brighten the shadows.

2 – Sunny & Blue Sky

Photograph before and after sunrise or sunset.

The light is warm colored with a pleasing sky.

Avoid photographing midday.

3 – Three Cautions

The three cautions below are especially relevant to the above sunny-and-blue-sky situation.

Caution #1 – Shadows

The shadows on the face may be too dark.

When looking at your subject—the shadows look okay.

Later—when you look at the photograph—the shadows will be much darker.

Shadows are created when the sun is off to one side of your subject.

If he or she is wearing a hat, you may have a shadow on the face.

You can brighten the shadows with flash.

If you have an assistant, he or she can hold a reflector to bounce light from the sun back on to your subject.

If you're just photographing your subject's face, he or she can hold a small reflector.

Caution #2 – Backlighting

Backlighting is when the predominate light source—such as the sky—is behind your subject.

Backlighting is often great light for three reasons:

1) The subject's hair is brightened.

2) The edges of their shoulders and arms may have highlights called edge or rim lighting.

3) Your subject is darker than the background—silhouetted—a tonal contrast that's pleasing.

However, when you look at your silhouetted subject . . .

. . . at the beach, your subject isn't too dark.

. . . at the subject on your monitor—he or she will be too dark.

You can brighten the the silhouetted subject with flash or with a reflector.

Dark Silhouettes Can Be Good

Photograph your subject backlighted—with the flash off.

If the silhouette isn't dark enough, set the exposure compensation to a minus value.

Have the subject pose like a dancer, gymnast, and so forth.

Caution #3 – Flare

Flare is when bright light enters the lens and bounces around inside.

You'll see haze and oddly-colored shapes in your photographs.

Use you lens hood to reduce flare.

Flare isn't always detrimental.

4 – Brightening Shadows


Pop up your flash to brighten:

• The shadows that will become too dark in the photograph.

• A silhouetted subject that will become too dark in the photographs.

If your camera is on an automatic setting, you probably can't pop it up.

Do the following.

DSLR Cameras

Set the exposure mode dial to P (Program).

Press the flash button.

It's most often to the left of the flash.

On a few cameras, it's located near the shutter release button.

Other Cameras

Look for a button with a lighting-bolt icon.

Press and hold the button.

Cycle through the choices to Flash On by turning a knob or ring.

Flash Too Bright?

If the flash is too bright, look for flash exposure compensation on your camera.

Set it to a minus value.

Flash Color

If you're an occasional beach portrait photographer, skip this section.

Early and late light is warm colored.

Flash is not as warm colored.

Your subject will be too blue compared to the daylight.

Place a CTO photography filter on your flash to warm its color.


A reflector often produces better light than flash.

However, you need an assistant to hold it.

Pop-open reflectors are easy to store and carry.

Some have handles making it easier to hold when there's no assistant and no wind.

5 – Camera Settings


ISO is how sensitive the sensor is to light.

Set the ISO to 100.

The sensor is less sensitive to light.

But there's lots of light.

For early or late light—dimmer light—set it to ISO 400.

Exposure Mode Dial

Set it to P (Program) for most of your beach portrait photography.

If you're photographing the subject's face, set the exposure mode to A or Av.

You're setting the aperture, which determines how much is in focus—the depth-of-field.

Physically large apertures—such as f/4—will blur the background more.

Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation is the +/– button on your camera.

You can make the exposures brighter (plus value) or darker (minus value).

It's better to have the exposure a little dark rather than too bright.

Use a minus value, as needed.

White Balance

Auto White Balance is good for sunny days.

If you're photographing on an overcast day, set the white balance to cloudy.

This removes the blue color caste.

Focal Length

Focal length is the mm's on your zoom lens.

When photographing just your subject's face, use a medium telephoto focal length.

For even blurrier backgrounds—photograph from far away—using a telephoto focal length.

6 – Location

Your subject may feel self-conscious being photographed.

If so, use a location with fewer people.

You'll photograph your subject near the surf, but also look for other locations, such as:

• The trail to the beach.

• Dunes

• Snack shop

• Cabana

• Pier

7 – Pose Reference "Book"

Search for beach+photography+poses.

Print out on copy paper several poses you like.

Staple the pages together like a book.

Have some head-and-shoulder poses and some full-length ones.

Stand along side your subject when showing them how to do a pose.

If you're photographing a group, look for group poses.

Watch for:

• The person that's standing a bit too far away compared to the others.

• Isolated hands on shoulders that may look odd.

8 – Clothing & Hair

Discuss clothing, hair, and accessories with your subject.

When photographing a family, a common approach is to have everyone wear similar clothing.

Consider having the people choose clothing that works well together, with no exact matching.

Avoid large patterns, text, logos, graphics, and the like.

Search for beach+photography+style+guide for style guides.

Periodically check your subject's clothing and hair for problems, such as a strap that's askew.

White and light-colored clothing may become overexposed.

On many cameras, overexposed areas blink black on the LCD screen right after you take the photograph.

If you have an overexposed area, set the exposure compensation to a minus value.

9 – Action Candids

Consider having the subject do something—rather than obviously posing for photographs—such as:

• Dancing

• Jumping

• Tossing a ball or Frisbee

• Looking out to sea

• Making a sand castle

• Blowing bubbles

10 – Vantage Point

Don't take every photograph from eye level.


Shoot up and down.

Hold your camera over your head (easier with flip LCD screens).

11 – Reflections

When the surfs recedes, the wet beach may have a pleasing reflection of your subject.

12 – Composition

When you're posing your subject, close one eye and check the background.

The boat out in the water may be distracting in the photograph.

Watch out for mergers.

You don't want some beach grass on a dune sticking out from your subject's head.

You don't want his or her eyes lining up with the horizon line behind them.

13 – Wind

Check the weather for the predicted wind.

Wind can interfere with a location that has perfect lighting and background.

Wind can blow the subject's hair and clothing into disarray.

14 – Safety


If there's a chance of a thunderstorm, only photograph at a location where you can take shelter quickly.


When photographing, you and the subject may not notice the person taking your belongings.


Sand + Camera = Buy a New Lens.

15 – Bring

• Water, snacks, sunscreen, and bug spray

• Beach towels

• Plastic bags for gear

• Bathrobe for cold subjects

• Beach chairs for breaks

• Extra camera batteries