There are few things you can be certain of in life - death, taxes and ... once the sun comes out, everyone grabs their camera and heads to the beach to take some awesome summer shots. Sadly, they usually find their images are not the best - too bright, too dark, lacking contrast, harsh shadows, people in the background, sunflare in the shots etc. There are a lot of things to deal with with bright sunlight.
This is a follow-on from my shooting in the midday sun post. To help you with your quest for better shots in the bright sun on an open beach, I have offered a few examples and suggestions for your next outing.
To begin with - work with the light you have. On a recent sunny beach shoot, I started off using the bright harsh sunlight and the contrast it created. In the first shot below, by getting my subject to face towards the sun, I minimised the harsh shadows on her. In the second shot, I overexposed the image, turned my subject side-on to the light and used her right arm to block the bright sun on the face.
For the next shots, I did things a little differently. In the first shot, I used a trigrip reflector, bouncing light back on to the model to illuminate her - using the trigrip meant I didn't need an assistant. In the second, I placed the model on a rock just off-shore and shot wide, giving the feeling of space. Getting her to relax and enjoy the sun meant the pose feels very natural,and lifting the chin avoided the harsh shadows that could otherwise have been cast on her face.
Again, in the next pair of shots, I used the option of over-exposing to get the skin and hair exposed correctly. Sometimes your in-camera meter can fool you (in this case the cause would be the bright sky and reflective water), and your camera screen becomes pretty useless in the bright light. One quick trick you might want to try in these circumstances is to expose for the feet of your subject, then recompose. Using simple props (sunglasses and a scarf) elevated these from simple snapshots to something far more engaging. The image on the right is clearly more posed but, by using the surroundings, I gave the subject scale and a sense of place.
If you can find some shade, you can create lovely evenly-lit images, as shown below. Shooting slightly later in the day can help enormously because the sun is not directly above - shaded areas are naturally created as the sun starts to set. Here, the large rock created a natural shaded area which I made full use of. Once the subject was in place, an assistant reflected some silver light back onto her and, with her pale skin tone, she was illuminated perfectly.
If there is no natural shade, you can create it. The first image below was created by using a diffuser panel which softened the harsh sunlight and gave a nice even spread of light. In the second shot there is no diffusion and as you can see instead I used the sun to create some shadows to shape the face and body, and also to make some catchlights in the sunglasses.
Using off-camera flash
Creating something a little different can be challenging. When presented with this red dress, I looked around and saw the contrast of green and blue and immediately knew where I should place my subject. Don't be afraid to try unusual things, or to move on if the environment turns out not to be ideal - you don't have to stay somewhere if it's not working! To light this shot, I used off-camera flash inside a small softbox which helped fill in the shadows and create a pop of colour.
For this mermaid shot, I didn't fancy getting wet so I opted to use an on-camera flash with a Flashbender attachment as I needed to throw the light further to illuminate the mermaid.
Backlight and on-camera flash were used for the first portrait below. I really wanted to show off those beautiful blue eyes, so the flat light on her face is forgivable (this is what on-camera flash tends to do). Then, by switching off the flash and turning the head of my subject, I was able to use the sun to illuminate her instead. I got her to close her eyes because they were sensitive to the bright light and because it gives the picture a sense of serenity.
Using Natural Light
For the final set, once the sun was no longer directly on us, the tones and light quality were nice and even, as you can see in the images below, so I snapped away using the natural light, knowing I wouldn't have any harsh shadows or strong contrasts to deal with.
By using a shallow depth of field and tight crop, the background just dropped away and the face was left nice and bright. The pirate ship headpiece was a wonderful prop, created by Hysteria Machine.
For the second image I switch lenses, so it shows more of the background - one I chose because it would not compete with her look, but instead it matched her tones.
The final shot is a full-length showing the environment and subject in all their glory, but again trying to avoid high contrast and give a sense of place.
If you do want that studio look to your images, you will need an external battery-powered light (something like this) to give you enough illumination to overpower the sunlight. But, as I hope you have seen, it isn't really necessary.
Hopefully, next time you are down at the beach on a sunny day, you are now armed with a little more knowledge of what you can do instead of worrying about what you can't.
Dade Freeman is a Brighton photographer producing portraits and headshots for actors, musicians, corporate business and other professional industries.