Are you avoiding pointing your lens in the direction of the sun for fear of overexposure? Do you position subjects in lesser lighting environments just to avoid the sun?
Then you are in the right place!
Beach photography, splashing children laughing in the waves, couples kissing surrounded by nothing but white sand, deep blue sky and turquoise sea, beautiful sunsets and sunrises. These things should be the perfect recipe for dreamy photos, except for one thing. Most often, beach photography equals full, unforgiving, unfiltered sunlight. Overexposure! Oh no!
For many photographers, this can be a scary proposition. Most natural light photographers prefer a session of softly lit fields or open shade, for good reason. The risk of overexposure is low.
But though tricky, full sun comes with its own rewards. It can mean brilliant colors and bold blue sky, golden haze and dramatic sun flare.
Though a flash and reflector can be your best friend – we have chosen today to focus on tips that anyone can use, even if you’ve left your flash at home or couldn’t fit that reflector in your beach bag.
1. The Time of Day
Not all sun is created equal. With nothing to block the light, choosing the right time of day to shoot is even more important.
MIDDLE OF THE DAY
This is the most difficult time of day to shoot. The light is coming from overhead, so if you take an image of someone with nothing to fill in the harsh shadows, you will get raccoon eyes and overexposure spots at the top of the head. You should still shoot in the middle of the day, but often go for shots where the subject is engaged with their activity rather than looking straight at the camera. That way you don’t have to worry about unsightly shadows.
EARLY MORNING OR LATE AFTERNOON
This is far easier light to work because it is not coming from directly overhead. Your shadowing will be more flattering and you cal try to build in sun flares as the sun is lower. You will still need to take care in posing your subjects to ensure important areas of skin are not blown or falling in dark shadow. In close-up portraits especially, you can spot meter for the skin.
A wide angle lens will render skies beautifully in any light situation. We are particularly fond of the 24mm focal length as it generally keeps the details in the highlights and shadows in tact in full sun.
You may find that you want to fill in some of the shadows when shooting in full sun. This collapsible reflector is the perfect tool to bounce light back onto your subject and soften the shadows. Be careful though as it may get even easier to add overexposure to your images.
The Nikon Z6 is a full frame mirrorless camera. This means that when you look through the electronic viewfinder, you will see the exact exposure that your camera sees. This is super helpful when shooting in tricky light situations so that you can adjust your settings to get the exact look you want and be able to see it in the camera.
Ahhh – golden hour at the beach. This is when your subjects are bathed in magical golden light. The sand and water just sparkles with it. But beware of yellow people. The color of direct light at this time can be a little too intensely golden, meaning hours in post processing. That’s why we always advise for people to use kelvin or set a custom white balance.
2. The Direction of Light
Full sun is many things, but subtle and boring is not one of them. Just by turning your subjects around to either front light, back light, or side light them will yield dramatically different looks.
BOLD AND BRILLIANT – FRONT LIGHT
When front lighting your subject, the sun will be coming straight at them. This will mean they will have a vivid backdrop of color behind them. But there are a few drawbacks. Front light your subject in full sun and you’ll probably have squinting, unhappy people. A few things to do:
- Ask your subject to close her eyes and then open them on the count of three. Be prepared to snap quickly.
- Think outside the box. Have your subject wear a hat or sunglasses – the perfect accessories in a summer image – to help shield the sun.
- Add variety by taking shots with your subjects looking down, away, or interacting with each other.
DREAMY AND ROMANTIC – BACKLIGHT
Golden haze and the beach are dreamy together. But with natural back light, if you meter for skin, you will usually have much of your environment – sand, sky or water – overexposed. Thus turning a beautiful backdrop into white nothingness.
As a remedy, you can actually underexpose just slightly and preserve details in the background. It’s a delicate balance as you don’t want to underexpose the subject but trial and error will be your friend here.
If you shoot in RAW and check highlight alerts or “blinkies” carefully, with a little dodging and burning in post processing, you can usually achieve a middle ground that allows the frame to showcase both subject and seascape.
Unfamilar or not sold on shooting in RAW? Find out why it is so important here.
STRONG AND SHADOWED – SIDE LIGHT
Taking a picture using side light in full sun can be tricky. Watch that one of your subjects doesn’t fall into someone else’s shadow. And be careful of blown skin on the highlight side of the face if you are shooting people.
If you are shooting people we like to encourage subjects to turn their faces three-quarters to the light, perhaps looking at each other or out to the water. Many photographers use the zone system in tricky lighting situations like this, where getting the right balance between highlight and shadow is essential.
FULL OF DRAMA – SILHOUETTE
Silhouettes are at their most dramatic in full sun. They look brilliant and many people have an affection for partial silhouettes. One secret to a great silhouette: go for lots of negative space to let that background shine.
3. The location
Now that we’ve talked about the different looks you can achieve in full sun – the next step is to think about what that means for the location at which you shoot.
Where is the sun moving across? Is lighting best early morning or before sunset? Do you want golden colours or to focus on the subject more? Is the sun in its ideal location in the middle of the day? these are questions you need to be thinking about pre-shoot.
Overexposure can be dealt with especially if you have a nice plan and some good time. If you are in a rush this is when more errors in occur in your shoots.
4. The ways to cheat the sun
Let us let you in on a little secret – We try to cheat whenever possible. Here are a few of our favourite ways. . .
HEAD FOR OPEN SHADE
If you are heading for a beach try to shoot at one that has some open shade. If you have a beach with large leafy trees, a gazebo, or a pier, you are lucky. A boat can even work in a pinch.
MAKE WAY FOR CLOUDS
If its a partly cloudy day this can really help. If you see brief rest bite in the form of a fluffy white cloud, try to shoot those money-shot portraits in the softer light. A thin film of cloud cover can work like a beautiful soft box. This is a brilliant time to avoid overexposure.
SHOOT AFTER SUNSET
As the sun sinks below the horizon you might be tempted to pack up and go home. Don’t.
This is by far one of the best times of day to shoot at the beach. The intense yellow light you fought just minutes earlier is gone and you are left with a soft pastel-toned glow over everything for the ten minutes until light disappears for the day. Don’t be afraid to keep cranking up the ISO as twilight beckons.
If you’re thing is shooting people in their natural environments check out this helpful article on candid photography.
Big thanks to Clickinmoms for some of the content