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Photographers by nature are light lovers at heart, and for that reason the golden hour is a much loved time of day. It’s warm, beautiful, consistent, and you can take dreamy portraits with it. It’s particularly perfect for beach photos, what with those open expanses of sea and sky providing a perfect canvas for the awe-inspiring colour and warmth.
However, regardless of where you are in the world, universally most beaches present challenges. Specifically, 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 beach photos.
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, which makes a welcome change from my three year old!
We live just down the road from a beautiful beach which is a marine sanctuary, and living at the beach I’m blessed with the opportunity to use it as a photography location all the time.
I’d encourage anyone living or vacationing at the beach to make sure you spend some time there during golden hour, it’s magical and the light adds a beautiful dimension to your photos. So, here are my tips for anyone wanting to give beach photography a go!
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 the sun sets and I try and stay around after the sun sets too.
15 minutes after the sun disappears over the horizon the sky can light 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 photos. This will also give you opportunity for a much bigger variety of shots, and gives your subjects 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 to the horizon (usually 30 mins prior to sunset) I position my subjects with the sun behind them and backlight.
Related: Shooting in Hard Light
I meter in camera to expose for my subjects skin, and recover highlights in Lightroom. If the light is really bright, I’ll underexpose their skin just a touch.
Related: What is Metering
During this particular shoot I told my nieces to have fun exploring the beach, 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 which they loved doing.
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 photos at every shoot.
I find focusing can be hard at the beach during golden hour, as the sun is so bright. I always use my lens hood, as this helps.
Occasionally I will still miss focus entirely, which is easy to do when shooting in full sun. If you recompose until the sun is slightly out of shot you can avoid it. But I tend to overshoot just in case and that’s a great habit to get into.
I always manually select my focus points, and find my centre focus point is most reliable when its really bright.
Related: Master Your Focus Points
For this session I used my 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, and that makes for 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, but I love a shallow depth of field, and I don’t mind if not everyone is in sharp focus, unless its a traditional portrait.
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 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.
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