Peachy Beachy Photos

Taking pictures at the beach can be a little frustrating when trying to make the pictures look “nice”. So, I decided to write this post to help you in your photographic endeavors.

Things you would need: camera, lens, film/media card, white poster board, flash unit (either built-in or external), diffuser (not used here, but very helpful), subject, and finally, a sunny beach.

To make matters worse, we’ll be taking pictures close to high noon. The sun is brutal at this time (at least to photographers). When this is the case, you are either faced with bright backlit subjects or subjects that have “the squinties”. Either case, it’s bad. Here’s a harshly backlit subject (happens to be Carline in this case <smile>):

Carline With Harsh Light

I actually had Carline turn her face towards the sun to get more exposure. Her left side of her face is shadowed. Had she been looking at the camera, her whole face would be shadowed. In this next shot, I had my assistant, Alfre, hold up a white poster board ($2 at Walmart) to camera right close to Carline (you can see her in Carline’s sunglasses).

Carline with "natural" fill light

You can also use the side of a light colored building if you happen to be next to it. Though the poster board worked to “fill in the light” (producing what is technically known as “fill light” (duh)), it’s still not as flattering as a professional reflector/diffuser. Generally what you want is a diffuser set above the subject to soften the harsh sunlight. Much like putting a diffuser on a flash strobe or bouncing light from a flash strobe onto a ceiling or wall indoors. Sometime, you’d want to use both: diffuser above and reflector below the subject to eliminate shadows under the eyes, especially. Here’s another shadow/reflector example:

Alfre Backlit

Here Alfre is facing the camera, thus causing her face to be shadowed. Let’s add some fill light….

Alfre Fill Lit

Though she’s smiling, thus making the photo brighter, the poster board was not positioned close and high enough to fill in the shadows. Notice that the fill light looks “harsh” because it’s not diffused enough. The closer it is the softer the light is. It’s kinda counter intuitive, but you can see the effects from Carline’s versus Alfre’s photos.

You’re probably thinking (probably) “why not JUST bump up the exposure compensation (EV) and have the subject brighter? Well, what’s going to happen is that the scene will be over exposed even though the subject will be correctly exposed. Another technique is to “spot meter” the subject. This, too, will correctly expose the subject, but will over expose the scene.

[NOTE: Next set of paragraphs are “Canon specific”]

You can also use flash. Now I know “flash” is deemed taboo by some newbie photogs who are into “fast lenses” (guilty!). Flash is not so bad, if used properly. In this case, we are using flash as the fill light. There are a few things you need to know first. First, if your camera supports shutter (Tv), aperture (Av) and manual (M) modes as well as “Program” (P) mode, the camera will expose differently depending on the mode set. Second, the camera meters ambient light and flash light (tee hee) independently.

P (program) mode keeps the shutter speed between 1/60 sec and the maximum flash sync speed your camera can handle. It does this so that you shouldn’t need a tripod, even if light levels are low. It then tries to illuminate the foreground using flash.

Av (aperture priority) and Tv (shutter speed priority) modes set the shutter speed or aperture to expose for the existing light conditions correctly. They then fill in the foreground using flash. If light levels are low you will need a tripod to avoid blur.

M (manual exposure) mode lets you set both aperture and shutter speed to be whatever you want. The camera then automatically controls the illumination of the foreground subject using flash.

[NOTE: Done with Canon specific text]

I usually shoot in Av mode. I only use Tv mode when I want to slow down the shutter to, say, add blur to a waterfall so that the water “looks” like it’s flowing rather than frozen in time. I use M mode when shooting in the studio since the light is consistent.

For this beach scene, I was shooting in Av (aperture priority) mode because I like bokehliciously delicious photos. This next photo, I had Carline hold the poster board over Alfre to block out the harsh sunlight. I then used the built-in flash unit of the Canon 7D to fill in the shadow. The 7D (as well as other models) have a Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) that you can set independently from the ambient Exposure Compensation (EV (don’t ask)). In this next photo, I dialed down the EV to -1/3 and bumped up the FEC to +2/3 effectively making the flash my “key light” and the sunlight my background/fill light even though the ambient light is still brighter than the flash.

Alfre with Fill Light and Shade


I used the same settings for this next shot.

My fav Alfre Beach Picture

Here, Alfre is a bit brighter than the previous shot. Reason: I was further away. The previous shot was a 55mm so I was close to her while the shot above was at 105mm so I was farther away. The lens (Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS) sends distance information to the camera (and external flash units) and the camera then creates a bigger blast of light. This gives it a crisp and bright look. So I took another portrait in landscape mode to make use of negative space.

Alfre with negative beach space

One more thing; when using flash outdoors, use it straight on don’t bounce it. You can soften it by placing a diffuser on the flash head. You can also use umbrellas, but you have to make sure that the flash unit puts out enough light to compensate for the loss of light due to bouncing.


  • maryloustant

    Hi Alfred! Beautiful photography of family day at the beach! I can just see you dripping wet with sweat taking these calm, cool collected looking photographs!