Updated: Mar 12, 2021
Becca Allen Photography, Vienna, Virginia
There is inspiration to be found everywhere on this big, beautiful planet and as photographers, we often find ourselves surrounded by the most stunning settings this world has to offer. And of those, my favorite location to take families for their session is the beach. I love the symbolism of an expectant mama standing on the edge, and the playfulness that inevitably ensues so naturally with young children always makes the sessions magical. My heart will always be happy when a client requests a session at the beach. They are fast-paced and always different, but there are some extra challenges that come with a shore-side location.
Whether the sun is setting in front of or behind the water, with nothing to diffuse it, the light at the beach can be quite a force. Of course, we all use light differently to help us achieve our vision, but at the beach, I side/backlight my subjects as well as use direct soft light, so my suggestions will be based on those preferences.
Unless it’s a cloudy day, I like to start my beach sessions about 45 minutes before sunset. This gives me enough time to shoot for about 20 minutes in the sand dunes or cliffs, then head to the beach for the last bit of sunlight. I take advantage of blue hour and continue to shoot about 15 minutes past sunset. I communicate this schedule with the client as we plan so they can feel comfortable and prepare the children with what to expect. Without doing so, they can become anxious as we shoot in the beginning, wondering when we’ll make it to the beach. I find that when they know the reason why we are being so careful with timing, they are able to relax and enjoy the afternoon.
When I’m working on the beach before the sun dips below the horizon, I am primarily side-lighting my clients to avoid the haze and overexposed highlights/skies that come with shooting more directly into the sun.
As the light begins to soften, I’ll shift to backlight, and after the sun sets, I often let the light fall directly on my subject’s face.
One of the reasons I love the beach is because of its wildness. I love what it adds to photographs, especially the movement that comes from the wind. I would highly recommend discussing the wind with your clients so they can decide if they’re comfortable with this element during their session and in their final photographs. I prepare moms to expect wind-blown hair – again, when they know what to expect, they can relax and see the beauty in it when they see their final images. When they are not prepared, they’ll use valuable, limited time fussing over trying to control something that is ultimately uncontrollable.
You’ll want to be aware of how the wind will affect your client’s clothing and take it into consideration when they’re choosing their outfits. Dresses with high or double slits can be extra problematic on the beach. The wind will end up blowing the skirts through their legs or expose more than your client is comfortable with.
When shooting and working with strong wind, I find that the best option is to try to work the angles so that the wind comes from the side. This is another reason I love the flexibility afforded by soft light as it allows me to angle my clients based on the wind’s direction with less attention to directional light.
It’s also important to remember that the sea breeze is very often quite different from the on-shore winds. I do find that checking surf reports can be helpful as well, particularly if your session includes young children. A steady wind of 20mph can make it difficult for little ones to keep their eyes open and blowing sand can be painful!
With an uninterrupted view, you’ll want to make sure your horizon lines are nice and straight. It’s also nice to vary your angles so that you can have the horizon line well above the client’s head in a selection of images – this creates a nice, sweeping environmental portrait that begs to be blown up and displayed as wall art or a full page spread in an album.
With such a distinguishable line, I find it can be somewhat unpleasing to have the horizon intersect or closely touch my client’s head, so while it’s not the most important thing to me during sessions, I do try to keep the horizon completely above the client or have it intersect them a bit lower on their body.
Sometimes I get so distracted by the whole scene that I forget to document the details. Don’t let this happen to you! Make sure you document the little ones having fun and showing off their beach treasures and sandy toes!
One Last Tip!
Don’t be afraid to get in the water! Dress appropriately, put that lens hood on, and be quick to lift that camera above your head if a big wave comes up behind you (I’ve definitely been taken out by a wave or two and let me tell you – that mothering instinct is strong with your camera!) Photographs from beyond the water line add so much to the story of the session. I love to play with the angles of the surf hitting the shore and show more of the actual beach behind the client as it provides added context.
I hope you’ve found these thoughts to be helpful whether you work at the beach often or are planning a beach session in the future! We’d love to see what you create!
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