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Photographers are, by nature, light lovers at heart. For this reason, the golden hour is a much loved time of day. It’s warm, beautiful, consistent, and you can take dreamy portraits with it. Shooting during the golden hour is particularly perfect for beach photography, with open expanses of sea and sky providing a perfect canvas for awe-inspiring colours and warmth.
However, regardless of where you are in the world, most beaches present challenges like where to position yourself in relation to the light, and what settings to use.
Merissa Wakefield is a professional family photographer at Merissa Wakefield Photography, and living right near the beach in Bayside Melbourne, Australia, has ultimately seen her become a specialist in beach family photography.
So naturally, we turned to Merissa to help us create a tutorial about taking your own golden hour photography on the beach.
This was a shoot I’d been wanting to do with my nieces for a while. They’re at an ideal age, young enough to be devoid of too many inhibitions and old enough to direct — a welcomed change from my three-year-old!
We live just down the road from a beautiful beach which is a marine sanctuary, so I’m blessed with the opportunity to use it as a landscape photography location all the time.
I’d encourage anyone living or vacationing at the beach to spend some time there during the golden hour. It’s magical! Plus, the light adds a beautiful dimension to your photos. So, here are my tips for anyone wanting to give beach photography a go!
For awesome golden hour photography, shoot when the sun is setting over the water (or sunrise if the sun rises over the water). I generally start a session 45 minutes before sunset and try to stay around for twilight too.
15 minutes after the sun disappears over the horizon the sky usually lights up, which is perfect for a family silhouette shot.
Related: How to Shoot a Sunset Silhouette
Try and find beach locations that are more than just sand and water. Look for jetties, rocks, stone walls or beach sheds to add interest to the images. This will create an opportunity for a wide variety of shots, and gives your models things to do.
When the sun is still really bright, I position myself with the sun behind me. This is actually a great way to shoot in hard light just generally.
Once the sun gets lower on the horizon, usually 30 mins prior to sunset, I position my subjects with the sun behind them — a technique called backlighting.
Related: Shooting in Hard Light
When shooting golden hour photography, I meter in the camera to expose my subject’s skin and recover highlights in Lightroom. If the light is really bright, I’ll underexpose their skin a little bit.
Related: What is Metering
During this particular shoot, I told my nieces to have fun exploring the beach. I asked them to pick up lots of shells, look at them, show them to me, and point things out to each other.
I also asked them to stay close together, touch, hold hands and hug a lot.
A few times I’d get them to dance, twirl or jump. They loved it!
I like to capture raw and authentic emotions, so I’ll get in close during a hug. I also love hands and always try to include a few hand photographs during my shoots.
I find focusing can be hard at the beach during golden hour because the sun is quite bright, so I always use my lens hood, which helps.
Occasionally I’ll still miss focus entirely, which is easy to do when shooting photography in full sun. You can avoid this if you recompose until the sun is slightly out of shot. However, I do tend to overshoot just in case — a great habit to get into.
I always select my focus points manually and find my centre focus point is most reliable when it’s really bright.
Related: Master Your Focus Points
For this golden hour photography session I used my Canon 5D Mk3 with the Sigma 35mm Art lens. The 35mm is a great focal length for beach photos as you can incorporate so much of the scene, resulting in really stunning photos.
Related: What Lens Should I Use?
My settings are usually between f/1.6-f/2.2, ISO 100, and then I adjust my shutter speed depending on the light. If I have a family of four I might go up to f/3.5. However, I love a shallow depth of field and don’t mind if not everyone is in sharp focus unless it’s a traditional portrait photography session.
I edited all of these in Lightroom, and mostly brought down the highlights to bring out the sky, and lifted shadows on my nieces. I used a clarity brush to bring out colours and textures in the water, the jetty, and in my nieces’ hair and eyelashes.
I’m also in love with a radial filter at the moment, especially for a moody black and white.
A BIG thank you to Merissa, who is a Click Love Grow instructor, for her generous and helpful advice regarding golden hour photography!