The beach is a beautiful location for any type of portrait session, however, you might find yourself competing with the sun if it sets behind the ocean. For this, you’ll need the use of reflectors and perhaps even a flash unit. Don’t be intimidated by using flash, it can instantly create beautifully lit portraits where you are able to see the sunset and its incredible colors.
While TTL flash mode is okay for most scenes, during your beach portraits, you’ll want to have full control over your flash.
In TTL, the flash meters the light and gives enough power to light the scene, resulting in different flash outputs each time you take a photo. In manual mode (on the flash), however, you are able to set the power of the flash and maintain consistent output while you are photographing your client.
This means that in manual flash mode, you have full control over your flash and its output power. During your session, you can switch from different outputs to get the right mix of fill flash and ambient light so that both your client and background are evenly lit.
TTL uses the internal meter on the flash to determine how much power it will fire when you take a photo. This also means that the power output can vary from photo to photo, which makes it less consistent than manual mode.
However, TTL is a great place to start because you can control the flash compensation but don’t necessarily have to worry about setting the exact power output.
For example, you can have your flash in TTL mode and put it at +1/3 to get an extra boost of light out of your flash. Or you can put it at -1 to tone down the power output (and underexpose the flash as compared to the ambient light).
It’s also great to use when you need to photograph quickly or don’t have a lot of time to set up your flash. TTL is especially useful during weddings or portraits with children.
Check the manual for your flash to see how to switch quickly from TTL to manual and back. This can be really useful when you have a mix of moving subjects, like children, and posed portraits, like a couple.
When to use your flash at beach sessions
It all depends on how much ambient light you have and if you are going to be competing with the sun, or lighting your subjects during a sunset. Perhaps you’ll need the flash to act as a fill light.
Competing with the sun is where the flash units are most useful. Midday sun can be harsh on a beach and can cause the backgrounds to wash out. First, get your exposure of the background. Then attach your flash onto your camera, or wireless trigger, and set the power to 1/4 power. Take a few test shots and adjust the flash so that you get the right amount of light that you need.
Using high-speed sync will allow you to operate the flash at a higher shutter speed. This means that you are able to photograph your clients at 1/300th of a second or faster and still have the flash fire and affect the image.
This option is mainly so that the flash acts as a fill light to the already existing light. Perfect for really bright days or if your clients are in a shady area and the beach is brightly lit.
In the event that it is overcast, the flash acts as a fill light and can get rid of the high contrast that overcast days create. This helps to avoid washout of the background while still lighting your subjects. Overcast days also create shadows on the face (dark eyes) and a little pop of light can really create a difference.
During sunsets, set your camera around 1/250th to 1/400th (set your flash to high-speed sync if you go over the sync-speed of your camera) shutter speed so that you are able to capture the colors of the sunset. Once you have the right settings for the sunset, set your flash to around 1/16th power and adjust your aperture accordingly as you photograph your clients to let in more light or less light until you have the look you are going for.
NOTE: It’s important to note that if you are using flash while you’re in the water at the beach, watch out for any reflections that the water might make from the light of the flash. This can create weird reflections on your client’s legs or other parts of their bodies.
Differences between flash positions
At beach sessions, especially during sunset and brightly lit scenes, you will have to position your flash straight at your clients so that it lights the whole scene evenly. Angling the flash will not allow enough light to fall onto the body of your clients and can create a division of light in your photograph.
However, this doesn’t mean that you can experiment with the flash at different positions. Trying different angles will also give you a better look at what will work best for the type of session you’re having.
Use a bounce modifier to diffuse the light and light your clients evenly. You might need to increase the power of your flash so that you can get enough light.
Using your flash off-camera at beach sessions can give you more versatility and can create different types of lighting effects.
For example, a couple walking along the shore is lit with the flash perpendicular to the camera can give you perfect lighting on the couple with shadows that fall off into the background.
This creates more drama within the photo. Also allows you to be further away from the clients during the session while keeping the light the same. For this, you’ll need wireless triggers to remotely trigger the flash and a tripod or assistant to help with moving the light where you want.
Experiment with different angles and reflections of the water. Use a modifier to change the light and give you more range.
Using your phone flash or flashlight
Flash units and wireless triggers can be a little costly when you’re first starting out so your phone flash or a flashlight can give you that pop of fill light that you need to get a great photo.
When you use either, the closer you are to your client, the sharper the light will hit them and be less spread throughout. The farther you are, the more dispersed the light is but it’s also less intense. You could use more than one phone flash or flashlight so you get more light.
Practice makes perfect
Practicing using your flash at the beach during different lighting situations can help you to get an idea of where to start when you do have a client session.
Taking the time to practice will help to get familiar with the power output of your flash and what look you like best. Then when you are at a paid session you aren’t taking too much time trying to get it right.
When you’re out practicing, take notes of what power output you used on which photos. Unfortunately, the metadata for flash only lets you know if the flash triggered, not the power output or if you used flash compensation.
With a little time and a lot of practice, you’ll be able to set your flash just by looking at the light.
Using a flash, whether on the camera or off, can be extremely useful during beach portrait sessions because the light is so harsh and you’ll need some fill light at some point.
At your next session, practice and experiment with different flash power outputs and angles for drama. Use your flash at midday to get rid of shadows or during sunset to be able to capture that beautiful setting sun in the background.