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7 Tips for Great Beach Portraits

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

Summer and beaches go together like…. Well they just go together. And the urge to go to the beach when the weather gets warm becomes just too great for many of us.


f/2.8, 1/400th second, ISO 125, 24-70mm lens

Beaches and cameras, however, don’t go together (think sand, wind, water and expensive cameras and lenses). But that’s still no excuse to forgo beach photography altogether.


Beaches can be the canvas for countless, creative photo opps. Portraits are an example, which is where I’ll focus (ha, no pun intended).


Consider these tips when you’re taking portraits at the beach with a handheld camera, using no flash. Fixed, prime lenses like a 35mm, 50mm or 85mm are good, but I like zooms better. They’re great because of their range flexibility, since the last thing I want to do is change my lens, and risk beachy things from getting inside my camera or lens. Phones can be excellent beach cameras, too.


For these tips, I’m thinking of the ocean. But they’re adaptable for any kind of beach.

1. Location

If possible, plan ahead where you’ll be shooting. Make sure your location is accessible for all your subjects! Don’t rule out areas like parking areas or levels that overlook a beach. These settings can be perfect for tight headshots, with the sea as your background. No one has to know your location was a parking spot!


2. Time of day and angle of the sun

Will you be shooting early in the morning or at sunset, like the example shot below? These are the best times to take people shots at the beach. Mid-day shoots can be tough because of the sun’s typically harsh lighting. But if it’s an overcast day, you might be OK. Consider where the angle of the sun (if it’s out) will be in relation to your subjects.


f/4, 1/400th second, ISO 400, 55-200mm lens

With the sun illuminating your subject from the side, you can achieve good depth that reflects both light and shadow. With the sun behind, you can achieve pleasing backlit shots and silhouettes. Experiment with settings and positioning of your subject to get different effects.


What about shooting with the sun directly in front? Yes, you can get fantastic results, with your subject awash in beautiful light. But beware of squinting. Coach your subject into looking at the camera for just a few seconds as you click the shutter. Then they can rest their eyes.

3. Heed the background

Will your background be rock formations or the endless sea? Do you want crowds of people in your photos? Probably not, but don’t cross random people off your list. Done right, they can be storytelling elements that help convey what you want your image to say.


If you’re looking for a more isolated scene, you’ll need to walk farther away from main paths for obvious reasons. Don’t forget other details that might seem small now, but they won’t be if they distract from your picture: clumps of seaweed, trash cans, random objects, etc. If you’re able to move unwanted items out of the way – do! (You’d be amazed by how many people don’t think about that.) Of course, after your shoot, you have the option to remove distracting elements in programs like Lightroom.


4. Camera settings

Are you after tack-sharp portraits with soft, blurry backgrounds? Wide apertures (lower f-stops) help achieve this. But also remember that generally, the lower the f-stop, the smaller the portion of the image will be in focus. Other factors that come into play is your distance to the subject and lens choice.


f/3.5, 1/800th second, ISO 100, 18-140mm lens

When considering your shutter speed, note that the faster you set this, you’ll be capturing less light, but you’ll also have less worry that your subject won’t be in focus (people tend to not stay perfectly still, and such movement might cause focus issues at lower shutter speeds). It’s not an absolute rule, but anything set at 1/60th of a second or lower will generally result in blurry portraits. Lens choice is also a factor.


In terms of ISO, I suggest starting at ISO 100 if your environment has decent natural light. Increase your ISO if more light is needed. But the higher you go, the more vulnerable you become to adding noise or grain into your picture. That said, digital cameras are getting better with handling high ISOs without adding noise. And you can easily remove noise during post processing. I tend to use auto-ISO (giving me one less thing to think about).


Digital cameras give you the luxury of being able to experiment with different camera settings. Do as much experimenting as you can.


f/4.5, 1/400th second, ISO 125, 24-70mm lens

5. Keep your horizon line straight

Unless you’re after something creative and cockeyed, keep the horizon straight! Well, at least end up with it straight. Software like Lightroom makes it easy to fix horizon lines.


Why care about the horizon? It’s a simple thing, but if it’s crooked, it will call attention to itself – and not in a good way. You want viewers to look at your subject, not your crooked horizon. Also, keep in mind this trick if your horizon feels like it’s distracting from your subject, even if it’s straight: soften or lighten the line during your post-processing phase. I often use a cloning tool with a light opacity level.

6. Shoot with an old camera

Yeah, I do this a lot. I keep my best camera at home and shoot with an ‘old friend,’ just in case I drop my camera in the sand or water. Yup, I even take this camera into the water with me.


f/9, 1/1000th second, ISO 100, 55-200mm lens

Sure, I could invest in a waterproof model or housing gear, but I’m happy shooting with an old camera, keeping it above water at all times, as I grab portraits and surfing shots. My first DSLR was a Nikon D50 (released in 2005), which I still love.


So I bought a refurbished one from eBay for $100 a few years back (the camera’s cheaper now). It always comes to the beach with me, wearing a 55-200mm lens.


f/3.5, 1/800th second, ISO 100, 24-70mm lens

7. Shoot off season

The other three seasons offer a different kind of beauty at the beach than in the summer. An extra benefit is the lack of crowds. If it’s winter, you might even have the beach to yourself, surrounded by untrampled sand (or snow). Also, the sun stays lower in the sky longer, giving you interesting light throughout the day.


The sunrise is later and the sunset is earlier in the winter, which might suit your needs just fine.

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