Better beach portraits

Sure-fire camera and photo skills for improving your portrait shots

Portrait 1

Welcome to your free guide to outdoor portrait photography! Over the following pages we will help you improve your Canon D-SLR skills so that you can learn to take great portraits like the pros. The following techniques can be used to photograph anybody, from children to your partner and parents, male or female – the same methods will still work wonders!

Shooting in sunshine

The kit we used: Canon EOS 5D Mk III, telephoto zoom lens, silver-sided reflector Canon D-SLR technique: For our first round of seaside portraits we sat our model, Chantelle, on a rocky breakwater on Bournemouth beach. This gave her an interesting surface to perch on, with a clear, clutter-free background of the beautiful blue sea behind. Using a telephoto zoom lens at a wide aperture enabled us to stand back but fill the frame, as well as blurring the ocean out of focus.

If you’re fortunate enough to be shooting on a beautiful sunny day, don’t make the mistake that many beginners make of thinking the brighter the light the better. In fact, this can be a nightmare for portraits, especially around midday, as the sun is so high and light so harsh that you end up with ugly shadows across faces.

Thankfully, the solution is simple – use a reflector to bounce light back on to your subject to light them up. Reflectors are far easier to use than setting up an off-camera flashgun or lights, too! As the sun was so strong, we used a silver-sided reflector to balance the surrounding strong light. If you don’t have anyone to hold the reflector, rest it against a tripod secured with a big bulldog clip.


Always shoot in Raw – it gives you much more control. In Adobe Camera Raw we boosted the Temperature to warm up skin tones, increased Contrast, Blacks, Saturation and Shadows, and decreased the Whites, Highlights and Exposure slightly to avoid burned out (clipped) highlights.

Technique tip

Shoot fast and vary composition

Professional photographers shoot fast, and in rapid sequences to get the maximum amount of variation from a single portrait setup and pose. Start fully zoomed out with your telephoto zoom lens, then gradually zoom in, adapting your composition, going in tighter, changing from vertical to horizontal, and shooting quickly to capture that winning pose and light, and before your subject moves or gets bored. Below are five different shots, all taken in quick succession.

Build rapport

Establishing a good rapport with your subject is absolutely vital for portrait photography. Once you’ve built up their trust, you’ll be able to capture more natural and revealing characteristics on camera. Aim to keep the mood light and have fun — our model Chantelle was a good sport and didn’t mind getting splashed by big waves! Give your model direction on how you’d like them to pose, what to do with their hands, where you’d like them to look and so on. Offer feedback, and regularly show your model your shots to reassure them how good they (hopefully!) look.

By the seaside!

Get wet in the waves for creative portraits

Portrait 2

Sunglasses & smiles

The kit we used: Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens, silver-sided reflector, sunglasses

Canon D-SLR technique: For this portrait we asked Chantelle to go paddling, position herself to look out to sea, but turn back to us and give us a big smile! We used a reflector again to fill in the shadows — not only does this light up your subjects, but it also produces a big catchlight in sunglasses to help bring your portrait shots to life. We composed the shot horizontally (landscape), with Chantelle positioned on the right with plenty of space to ‘look into’ on the left.


Basic enhancements in Adobe Camera Raw included reducing the Exposure to -0.40 and reducing the Blacks and Saturation a tad, and increasing the Contrast. We also cropped the image to position our subject using the Rule of Thirds grid. In the main Photoshop workspace we used Spot Healing Brush tool to quickly remove blemishes, large freckles and moles, and anything distracting on the skin.

Homage to Honey Ryder

Portrait 3

The kit we used: Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens, silver-sided reflector Canon D-SLR technique: For this artistic portrait we recreated the famous Bond scene from Dr. No when Ursula Andress (as Honey Ryder) emerges from the sea. Using our faithful 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto lens at 200mm meant we could stand well back from the shallows and still shoot a full-length portrait. We shot at ISO200 for a faster shutter speed to freeze the waves, and waited until Chantelle was between two waves for the best pose and body position. Between each walk to camera we asked Chantelle to dip under the sea so her hair was wet and the water glistened on her skin. Our assistant was also in the sea, holding the reflector.


We processed the Raw image twice at different White Balances — one at a Temperature of 6450 for warmer skin tones, and one at 5250 to enhance the blues of the water. We pasted the cooler layer on top of the warmer one, added a layer mask and used the Brush tool to reveal the warmer shot underneath.

Head & shoulders

Portrait 4

The kit we used: Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens, flashgun Canon D-SLR technique: For this head-and-shoulders-in-the-sea shot we used a flashgun on-camera — set to 1/4 power — for a little fill flash to counter the shadows. To sync our shutter speed with the flash our exposure was 1/200 sec at f/8 — a 200mm focal length still captured a shallow depth of field to blur the sea behind. So, we rolled our shorts up and got in the sea. Unfortunately we underestimated the shallows and a steady stream of mid-sized waves — and ended up completely soaked ourselves! If you attempt this shot yourself we suggest you try it in a swimming pool…

Shoot ’til sunset

Stay out late and be rewarded with great light

Watch the sunset

Portrait 5

The kit we used: Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 24-70mm standard zoom lens, setting sun Canon D-SLR technique: For this wider portrait shot you’ll need a clear evening sky and setting sun to highlight your subject — and a great location backdrop! We’d planned ahead and knew exactly which direction the sun would set in relation to this line of pretty beach houses. We used a standard zoom and shot at 50mm (on a full-frame camera — approx 35mm on APS-C-sensor cameras) and a wide aperture of f/2.8 to subtly blur the beach houses behind. Stay out until last light and you’ll certainly be rewarded with beautifully lit portrait shots, thanks to the world’s best natural light source; the lower sun at this time of day creates a wonderful warm, soft and more diffused light that lights up not only your subject but their surrounding in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible with lights. So, shoot with your subjects watching the sun go down and you’ll bag some great summer portraits — all without the need for reflectors or flashlights — if you can get your subjects in the right position.


The warmth of the natural sunlight was so great that we barely touched this image; we just slightly boosted the Contrast and toned down the Highlights of the Raw file in Adobe Camera Raw to ensure they weren’t blown out and losing detail. Turn on the Clipping Warning to see the effect of the sliders.


Add a flash of colour

Don’t think that using flash can only be used to light your subject. For this shot, we’ve used the beautiful soft evening sun to light our model, and then fired an off-camera flash to light her hair and the blue beach house wall from behind. This has added a little depth and light to a colourful yet rather flat background. So, take note — using colour in your backdrops is good, but using colourful backdrops and lighting them can be great!


Setting sun for backlighting

Here are three subtly different ways to use the low setting sun behind your subject for artistic, moody early-evening portraits in the sand dunes on the beach. All three of the images work well in different ways. Which do you prefer?


Without using any flash or a reflector, you end up with a softer, more atmospheric, and warmer portrait, with a heavy backlight. We love the beach/sea/sky reflected in Chantelle’s shades, and how the low sun highlights and warms the long grass nicely.


Using a flashgun in our hotshoe has lit Chantelle very effectively, but the white light is colder; to get around this attach a coloured gel to your flashgun for a warmer light. The flash overpowers the sun and lights the grass, and creates a nice catchlight in her shades.


We used a ‘slave’ flash with a dif f user off to Chantelle’s right and fired it remotely from our camera. This shot perhaps offers the best of both worlds — you get most of the warmth of the shot without flash, but the diffused side light adds more shadow and depth.

Remains of the day

Picture 6

Great photo opportunities when the sun sets…

Flash after dark

The kit we used: Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 24¬70mm lens, setting sun, off-camera flash Canon D-SLR technique: For this shot, we used the colourful sunset and silhouette of the beach houses as our background. We lit Chantelle using an off-camera flash and asked her to look towards it. We tried shots where she was positioned looking at us, but felt this portrait ‘tells more of a story’ as the girl dreamily looks out to sea… We set a 1/250 sec shutter speed to sync with the flash, and an f/16 aperture to retain detail in the bright sky – increasing ISO to 400 ensured Chantelle was well lit.


Once again, we did the bulk of our tweaks in ACR: to emphasise the sunset colours, Temperature, Saturation and Vibrance were all increased. We also brightened up the Exposure to lift Chantelle and so you could make out the beach houses behind.


Which aperture is best?

It depends how much of a background you want to show to add context, or how much you want to blur it to make the subject stand out in shot. In our examples, shot on a Canon EF 50mm f/1/4 USM, you can see how a wider aperture (eg f/1.4) captures a shallow depth of field — so less of the scene is in focus; whereas a narrow aperture (eg f/16) captures a greater depth of field — so more of the scene is sharp.

So which is best? For our shot, with the beach houses in the background, we felt an aperture of f/4 was about right — the houses are nicely out of focus, while Chantelle is completely in focus, from her hands to head. At f/1.4 the houses are so blurred it’s not obvious what they are, whereas at f/8 and above, they’re too clear and distract the eye.

Bear in mind that your distance from the subject and focal length also affects depth of field. For a really shallow depth of field, get in closer, use a wide aperture, and shoot at a long focal length such as 200mm. By doing this less of your subject will remain sharp too, so your focusing accuracy has to be spot on — otherwise their nose could be sharp, but not the all-important eyes, for example. The widest aperture or shallowest depth of field isn’t always best!

Like this post? Please share to your friends: