Tips For Shooting At The Beach

shooting at the beach
Casual dress is not only accepted, it's required - photo by Mike

There are a few simple tricks that can make shooting on a beach a lot easier.  If you’re going to need to set up lights, check to see if you’re going to need a permit.  While it’s a good idea to check anyway, I’ve found that with small, portable gear I can be set up, get my shots, and be gone before anyone even notices.

For one, if you’re shooting in daylight, big flash units are not going to be necessary.  A folding reflector and portable flash will usually be enough for fill.  The great thing about the beach is when you need sand bags, all you have to carry are the bags.  I use zip-lock storage bags filled with sand to ballast my reflector, and you can dig out the sand a little underneath to change the shape of the reflector and the angle.

Keep a couple extra bags and some gaffer tape in your bag in case the surf is up and the wind off the ocean.  Salt spray will coat your optics and very few camera internals react well to exposure to salt water.

If you are worried about getting your camera wet you might consider investing in a waterproof camera, they are perfect for the beach, and you can even take them for a swim.

tennis ball
Grab three of these and cut a small hole for your tripod feet

For your tripod, grab three old tennis balls and cut a small hole in them. Fit the balls over the end of your tripod legs and use gaffer tape around the holes on top.  That keeps your tripod from sinking in the sand and throwing off your level.  It also keep sand out of the gears on the tripod feet.

Another trick I’ve used is taking a regular small beach umbrella and lining it with aluminum foil.  It makes a perfect flash bounce and folds up in a blink.

beach umbrella
Beach umbrella and some aluminum foil makes a great reflector - Photo by Molku
Of course the best part about shooting on the beach is you can dress casual and blend right in.  Use a beach bag instead of your usual camera bag and you mingle in with the tourist crowd without raising any eyebrows.

Street Photography: The two schools of thought

street photography
Street photography: Because the best subjects don't walk into a studio - by rynde

Street photography is one of the most difficult and demanding exercises in all of photography.  Why do it? Because the people who make the best character studies, who are the most unique looking people, will frequently be the ones least likely to walk into a portrait studio.

For the most interesting people, you sometimes have to head out on the street and find them.  Street photography is a hobby for some, a business for a few, and right of passage for any serious photographer.

Know Your Rights

Before heading out, it’s always a good idea to review your rights as a photographer.  There is a lot of confusion about what is legal and not legal among the general public, and sometimes law enforcement and security guards will try to make up the rules on the spot or count on people not understanding their rights.  Knowing your rights before you set out can diffuse a lot of situations.

Probably the most basic guideline covering photographers is that there is no expectation of privacy in a public place.  Anyone outside in an urban setting is being watched by thousands of security cameras every day and no one gives it much thought because the cameras are discretely out of sight.  Perhaps the fact they can see you is what triggers an irrational response in some people.

Before you head out you might also want to think through whether it’s worth pushing a difficult situation.  Sometimes it is, sometimes better just to move along and shoot somewhere else.  Personally, I’m not inclined to argue with the police.  If they tell me to move or move along, generally I’ll do that on the scene and file a complaint later if I think the request was out of line.  Surprisingly, that approach has been very productive.  More than once I’ve had a local sheriff call and apologize for a deputy running me off a scene and then had no further trouble covering that area.

If it’s assignment coverage, there are generally many other photographers and news people around and I observe whatever rules and barriers the police set for them.  I’ve seen photographers climbing on street lights, cars, vans, steps, and fire escapes trying to get an angle.  I’ve seen them walk across people’s lawns and step in bushes.  Don’t do that.  Behaviors like that give the rest of us a bad name.

Two Schools

When it comes to street photography, there are basically two schools of thought:  One I call the “paparazzi” model and the other is the “ask permission” model.  Each model is different in how it approaches the subject, gets very different results, and leaves a very different impression with the subjects of your photographs.

The Paparazzi Model

The paparazzi model, typified by photographers like Eric Kim, basically involves walking up to a complete stranger and taking their picture.  It may seem bold, some people are put out, but it does save a lot of conversation.

I employ this style of photography if I’m on assignment and the individual in question is a public figure.  If I’m covering the Casey Anthony trial, I’m not going to try to fight through the crowd of other reporters and photographers to ask for a picture.

I don’t normally shoot like this.  It can startle people to have a camera suddenly shoved in their face and many people resent having an unwanted photo taken, even though it happens hundreds of times a day when they walk past security and surveillance cameras or use an ATM machine.  They can see you, and having their picture taken without permission can gnaw at people, though it does depend on the situation.

But Eric Kim is in L.A., a place where paparazzi are part of the landscape and culture.  So in the shadow of Hollywood, this may raise less hackles than other places.

The Permission Model

The permission model is typified by Clay Enos and is my preferred style of street photography.  It’s more difficult, takes longer, and you deal with more rejection, but to me this is the right way to shoot street portraits.

If you were the subject, how would you rather be approached?  He has such a great attitude and positive energy, I doubt very many people walk away feeling somehow invaded after an encounter like that.

Okay, maybe you don’t have that much charm and you’re not a smooth talker.  It just takes practice.  Do it for a whole day and you’ll be a pro asking complete strangers if you can take their picture.

Even on assignment I’ll ask, if there are other subjects available.  It’s usually as simple as, “Guys, can I get a picture for XYZ magazine?”  And always thank them.  No, I don’t have to do that, but if it makes people feel a little bit better, if it gives someone having a bad hair day the option of saying “no thanks”, isn’t everyone feeling a little better when they walk away?

Some assignment locations and venues will insist you ask permission of individually identifiable subjects because they don’t want their customers complaining or not coming back because someone was waiving a camera at them.  You’ll always have to ask if one of the subjects is a minor and I prefer signed parental releases for any subject under 18.  It’s not always necessary in the context of news gathering, but not many big shops will touch kid shots without a release.

So, in some situations, you’ll have to ask, even if you’re on assignment.  Might as well get used to it.

Weekend Project – Light Painting

light painting example
Light painting is a great weekend project with the kids - photo by Arcade

Light painting is one of those things you save for a Saturday night with the kids.  It’s fun, easy, you’ll get results you never expected, and the kids will have a blast.  All you need is a dark area, a stout tripod, remote release, and an assortment of lights, glow sticks, and flashlights.

One safety rule: Leave the laser pointers at home.  Laser light and your camera sensor do not mix and permanent damage can result.  Some people do use lasers to “write” on a solid surface and that’s fine, just understand a beam of coherent light coming directly in the lens and your camera is a very expensive paperweight.

This is where you’ll get familiar with your camera’s “B” or Bulb setting.  Bulb means you open the shutter and it will stay open as long as you’ve got your finger on the trigger.

There are two basic styles to light painting: You can attempt to draw things in the air with your lights, or you can attempt a design or abstract shape.  When you’re done with the design part, then you can decide whether you want to fire a flash unit and illuminate the rest of the area, sometimes including the artist, or not.

For abstract shapes, one of my favorite tricks is to tie a glow stick on a piece of string and swing it around with the shutter open.  This is your chance to go crazy.  Try different colors, different patterns, use your lights to make outline of solid objects.  You’re only limited by time and your imagination.

Just remember, in the summer, be sure and take some bug spray with you.  You’ll need it.

Myths About The Photography Buisness

Photography studio
The most profitable areas of photography are not always the most obvious - photo by Thor

The question I get more than any other is about what it takes to make it in the photography business.  The answer sounds flip, but it’s not meant to be.  To make it in photography, all you have to do get paid for taking pictures.

To make money in the business, the skill that will be most useful is finding new customers.  That brings us to our first myth about the business.

Taking Good Pictures Will Get You Business

Taking bad pictures will cost you business, but it takes more than being a good photographer to stay solvent.  The most underrated skills in photography are marketing and business savvy.  Knowing how to find new customers, price your product, and understanding contracts.

Almost anyone can learn to take good pictures, not everyone can learn how to market that skill.

The Best Money Is In Traditional Markets

Not always true.  Sometimes specialty markets pay the best and provide the most regular business.  High speed photography, industrial photography, infrared, and other areas of specialty imaging can provide a better long-term income.

It’s not the sexy side of the business.  Industrial photography jobs are frequently in places that are dirty and occasionally dangerous.  You won’t get any prizes, and your work won’t show up on anyone’s mantel, but you’ll make a living.

You Can Shoot A Wedding Without A Spare Body

Doing so borders on the irresponsible.  Twice I’ve lost pictures once-in-a-lifetime pictures: Once was a card failure when I grabbed my camera heading out the door, but not my bag with a spare cards.  Now I keep them taped to my camera strap.  The other was the day I noticed a smudge on my sensor when out in the field on a space shuttle launch.  It was a long hike from the parking lot and I didn’t want to haul a bunch of extra gear, like a spare body.

You Can Teach Yourself The Business

A few people have managed, through years of practice and a relentless dedication to learning.  Most of the time you’re going to need to take at least a few training classes.  I recommend classes on lighting and portraiture first.