Friday, February 25, 2011

Outdoor Lighting Techniques 2: The Beach

In my last post, I described a "lighting package" that I use for many outdoor portrait sessions.  Living in Southern California only a few miles from the beach, I get a lot of jobs for beach portraiture, too.  When I first started doing them, I would pack up my outdoor light package  (which isn't too bad, only 3 flashes, 2 light stands and 2 umbrellas) to the beach to use there as well.  It didn't take long, though, to realize that this was a mistake -- and that there had to be a better way!

Problem number 1:  It's windy at the beach. Always.  And tall light stands with a flash or two mounted on top (making them top-heavy), with an open umbrella attached, turn out to make *excellent* sails.  The wind gusts a bit, the umbrella catches the air, and the whole thing happily flies 20 feet, invariably landing upside-down.  It only took me 2 ruined umbrellas (and one broken flash) to realize there had to be a better way.  And yes, I tried sandbags...which kept the stands from flying away, but didn't keep them from blowing over.
Problem number 2: my strategy using flashes was based on putting the subject in full shade, so that I could control the light on the subject entirely with flash.  Ever tried to find full shade on the beach?

Now, I know there are pros that bring "easy-ups" with them for shade, 5 or 6 assistants to hold their light stands in place, big battery packs, etc. to the beach.  More power to 'em.  I usually shoot alone, and though I can occasionally get an assistant, my prices aren't high enough to pay 5 or 6 of them.  So I found a better way.
Here's the lighting diagram for the shot above -- a bride by herself at a beach wedding.  Yes, I had an assistant that day (weddings are always better with an assistant).  Instead of flash, I made use of nature's built-in light source (the sun), by posing the subject with her back/side to it, and using a reflector panel to bounce light from the sun back onto her front side.

In this case, the reflector is a home-built one, made using shock-corded tent poles and about $3 worth of translucent white fabric from Michael's -- total cost about $11, and it measures 4 feet by 4 feet.  It collapses down to fit in a standard camera bag, and only weighs about a pound (I'll be posting a picture of it and instructions to make it in an upcoming "home made stuff" entry).  Voila, a big, soft light source for very little money, no flash metering to do, and you can even mount it clamped to a light stand if you don't have an assistant!  It will still blow away sometimes, but it doesn't break if it does (like umbrellas and flashes), and it only takes a few seconds to put back in place.  Beach lighting problem solved on a budget.
The shot above was taken using the same basic setup, with the only difference being that I had folded the reflector in half and put it up high on a light stand, so the light mostly filled in the subjects' faces and stayed off the ground.  No assistant here, and the reflector/stand combo only fell over once!

Another option is to get a portable, folding reflector kit (like this one from Adorama).  While not nearly as big as my home-made one, they're still very useful, and if you get two of them you can use both:
Again, this is the same basic setup as the other shots -- sun behind and to one side of the subject, and this time two smaller disc reflectors, one on either side of the subject.  This look is quite popular right now (the bright highlights defining the sides of the subject's face), and it's easy to do outdoors at the beach with a couple of small reflectors.

Of course, if you're going to shoot at the beach just after sunset, reflectors aren't going to do you any good, and you'll have to bring your own lighting.  Doing so means dealing with blowing umbrellas and stands, sandbags, and all the other hassles -- but it can be worth it as well (as below).
Shot using my basic outdoor "package" as described in the last post.
But if you're at the beach when the sun's up, I suggest trying out reflectors, and leaving your lights at home.  It works great for me.


  1. Some really good advice, some terrific shots, more please!! Julian

  2. Love ur outdoor portraits. They're very natural looking

  3. Thank you for having the ONLY tutorial on reflectors and such without scantily clad people. It's refreshing to see people in actual clothes!