The Guide to Better Beach Portraits

February 13, 2013

The Session

Some photographers pride themselves on providing an hour or even 90 minutes for a standard portraits session. Most people (especially kids) are tired of smiling and posing after 30 minutes on a Hawaiian beach. I think it is important to allow an hour, but a professional photographer should focus on getting the shots and not on using up an hour.

The Session: Hair

What about the hair? We get wind in Hawaii, but we work at certain beaches where the wind conditions are minimal. There is almost always a light to moderate breeze but it is rarely a problem for the photo where we shoot. You just can’t plan on getting that studio hair look when you’re on the beach.

The Session: Poses

There are 3 things that we all do on the beach in Hawaii. We stand, walk and sit. Simple variations on these three themes make the most natural looking portraits. Being creative with posing people is a big part of the value of a photographer. Though it happens all too often with the average photographer, you can’t just “wing it”. Most people are not professionals in front of the camera, so the photographer has to know how to make you look good and how to give you variety to choose from.

Just shooting a bunch of “candids” can get old quickly. You need to organize the shoot to get a mixture of nicely posed portraits and also include candids. A professional will not just leave this up to chance.

Equipment: Megapixels

We often hear, “how many megapixels are your cameras?”. The short answer is 21. We also use cameras all the way down to 8 megapixels. The fact of the matter is that we have produced over 10,000 prints and canvases last year using the 8 MP cameras and every single one has been perfectly sharp. Of course our 21 MP cameras do not disappoint either. But 21 MP is not a bragging point for us. There are many more important hidden factors to quality. For example, people don’t pay enough attention to pixel size and that has a huge impact on the quality. Those little point and shoot cameras that are 10 or 12 megapixels require tiny sensors that use very tiny pixels. That is why the photos that come out of these cameras just don’t look like a pro camera photo. I know they just get better and better, but, because of their small size, the laws of physics will prevent them from ever being able to produce that pro photo quality.

We invest heavily in the lenses, lighting and technique. We have found that this has a much bigger impact on photo quality than the megapixels. Yes we still buy cameras that have more megapixels, but we are also buying them for their reliability, better focusing systems and other professional features.

Equipment: The Flash

If you’re going to shoot pictures with the Hawaiian sun in the background, you’re going to need a flash. If you’re going to shoot in the shade, you’re going to need a flash at some point. Photos that don’t use flash are known as “natural light” photos. Many photographers think of themselves “natural light photographers”. After working with, hiring and training many photographers, I have come to understand that proper use of the flash on the beach is one of the most difficult things to master. I truly believe that there are a lot of “professionals” that can’t get it figured out and just become the natural light photographer. No flash, no problem, but this is very limiting and makes some shots impossible. Yes, natural light photos are wonderful and that is why it is important to do natural and flash to give your client choices. Invariably, people like both.

Equipment: The Camera

We’re always amazed at how many other professional photographers on Maui just put their fancy camera on “Auto” and shoot away. There are certain circumstances that this happens to work, but the variations in lighting, clothing and angles are too complex for any camera. A good example of this when people wear white or black. The exposure sensor gets confused and thinks there is more or less light than there really is. The flash is often on its own sensor and it gets confused as well. Put the two together the odds of getting a great photo at various time of the day go way down if you rely on Automatic. They are forced to take hundreds (and hundreds) of photos to try and get the lucky shot.

Printing: The CD

Amateurs posing as professional have created the “shoot-n-burn” niche of photography. While it is important to be able to offer the CD to your clients, watch out for photographers that can only really make a CD or put them online for you. You don’t know what you’re getting. Ask about their resolution; low res or high res and ability to print portrait quality prints as much as 40″x60″.

Viewing: The Big Screen

In the old days, we used proofs. We actually printed a small sample of each photo as a proof so that clients could choose what they like. Of course, digital has changed all this. We like showing the photos on a large computer screen. This is better in so many ways. First of all, you can easily see if there are any flaws, as opposed to peering at a small 4×5 or even 2×3 proof size. You can easily show different cropping options. You can instantly show enhancements such as adding a border, making a collage or sepia toning. Nobody has to envision because you’ll see exactly what you’re going to get.

It’s also important to use good equipment during the viewing and to go through the trouble of calibrating everything. This way, there will be no disappointments when the print arrives. Internet viewings should be a last resort. Home monitors can’t be calibrated to the original photos and you can never get a true representation of the photo quality (or lack of quality) on most website systems.

The Session: The Most Important Part

In a word: Smile. Even in beach portraits, it’s still the most important part. Not an amazing background or cool outfits or straight hair. Sure, those things should be there. But the smile….

After many years of taking pictures, We happened to open up the photo album from our wedding. We were amazed at how many times we were drawn to the shots where the smiles were the best. Not some forced or exaggerated smile. Just the ones where we looked sincerely happy. My wife and I smiled looking at them.

More than anything, it’s the photographer’s job to put everyone at ease. They are confident, flexible, and are happy to be there. Remember that people show up not sure how everything’s going to go and sometimes that teenage son just doesn’t want to be there at all and he’s making it clear. The photographer needs to do his best to engage everyone, and get everyone as comfortable as possible.

The Session: Attitude

I’m talking about the photographer’s attitude. They need to be likeable right away. The last thing you want is the get self proclaimed “Artiste” that insists that only he know how to put together a good photo. A good photographer is filled with experience, ideas and the flexibility to factor in what the wants.

The Session: Timing

A Photographer’s value is directly related to their ability to get the shot. If you can do that in 15 minutes, great. It was fun and everyone can get back to their Hawaii vacation. You should try to take up an hour just so a client can think they’re getting their money’s worth. On the beaches of Hawaii, it can be hot and draining and hard to really give a good smile after 45 minutes of smiling.

I sometimes see photographer ads for an hour or even 90 minutes or 2 hours of beach portrait sessions. I always wonder what they’re doing all that time. Beach portrait sessions shouldn’t take that long. There are exceptions and everyone should be willing to spend as long as it takes. Most kids are tired in the first 20-30 minutes, so you’re better off just being efficient as long as no one feels rushed. Get the shots and everyone will be happier at the photo viewing.

The Session: Time of day – Morning, afternoons and sunsets. 

– Morning photos in Maui have vivid blue skies, blue ocean, less wind and fewer people on the beach. You may also see colors and details from a neighbor island. Subtle reds and greens. The photos are wonderfully serene. Most people are still on mainland time and waking up earlier than expected. So the early session times such as 7:30 and 8 am work out fine.

– Mid-day: Unless you bring a Hollywood production-style apparatus, shooting on the beach at mid-day is a disaster that only amateurs and indifferent photographers waste their time on. If someone offer you a shoot time anywhere in the middle of the day, it is either a false setting, indoors (what’s the point) or a bad idea. Run away.

– Maui Afternoons are bright, sunny and exciting. You’ll have blue ocean, blue sky and sparkling sand and you’ll feel warm just looking at the photo. You’ll be reminded of that perfect afternoon basking in the Maui sun. It takes a little more expertise to get a good photo, but it’s it well worth it to have a year round boost of warmth.

– Sunset: Ah yes, the Maui Sunset. What a beautiful backdrop. It will remind you of the many evenings where you stopped what you were doing and watched in amazement as the vivid sky just kept getting even more vivid. As you looked around, you noticed the awe everyone else was experiencing. The ocean will be gray and the neighbor islands will be a silhouette, but there will be no shortage of color thanks to the late sun peering through the atmosphere. Just be careful not to put too much emphasis on the sunset, they really are different every day; some are wild and some are subtle.

The Session: What to wear

Solid colors are best, with the exception of Aloha wear. White or black tops with kaki colored shorts are very popular. Don’t be afraid to put some color on. The shorter the dress or skirt, the better off you’ll be. Even a light breeze can cause a longer dress to billow up and look big. That applies to tops as well – avoid something that might look weird of the wind catches it, like a long frilly lapel. If you are self conscious about your arms, wear or bring something with sleeves.

You’ll be barefoot the whole time so no need for fancy shoes. Sandals work best. Tell Dad not to wear long pants (on the beach, remember?). You should wear your glasses, but avoid dark glasses; we want to see your eyes (that’s how we tell if you’re really smiling).

Leis: Okay, but only for the first few shots.

Socks: You’re kidding, right?

Why a beach portrait on Maui?

We can’t think of a better, more sophiticated souvenir. For most, it is the vacation of a lifetime this will be one portrait that you’ll actually smile at every time you look at it. You will relax on your vacation and it will show in your pictures. It will be like no other photo opportunity that you’ll ever have.

It’s one activity where you can manage the cost and you get to take it home. You can just get a small collection of prints or step up to a canvas and a CD and you decide after you see the photos. That’s different than say, the zipline where it’s $175 per head and you can only but the t-shirt.

Show your favorite photo to your friends and you’ll be able to put a story behind it. Whether it’s a Hawaiian feature that’s in the photo or just something else that happened on the trip, you will truly enjoy having this at home.

People know all about the fine art photography. They are the landscapes and ocean views of places like Maui and the print hundreds of them selling for thousands of dollars each. A pro photo shot on a Maui beach is like having a personalized, custom piece of fine art that is one of a kind: You.


What I’ve Learned