As a Florida beach photographer, one of the top questions I get asked about by other photographers I meet is how I light my subjects in the full, direct sun of the beach - where there's no shade to hide under! So I'm sharing my top tips to master beach lighting at golden hour, including sunrise and sunset, as well as blue hour, that time right after golden hour when the skies often give beautiful blue and pink hues.

Timing is everything

At most beaches, and especially if you want the water in your images, you are working in full sun - there is no open shade available. Because of this, timing is something I absolutely will not compromise on. I want my clients to be thrilled with their final gallery and for it to look cohesive with what they saw in my portfolio when they hired me. So, I only schedule beach sessions at sunrise (I have clients arrive 15 minutes before the sunrise time on that day and start shooting about 5 minutes before sunrise), or 1-1.5 hours prior to sunset depending on the exact beach we are using, as some dunes are higher than others and cast enough shade to lose the warm, glowy light faster. 

At sunrise with cloud cover, sun directly behind subjects with cloud diffusion allows for beautiful backlighting with minimal haze and flare

Light them right

For the majority of the session, I like my backlighting to be about 45 degrees to the right or left of my subjects - this way, you get those nice glowy highlights on them without an overly hazy image or unintentional sun flare in your portraits. Before and just after the sun comes up for sunrise sessions (since I’m on the East Coast) is when I like to get more creative with my lighting and add some intentional sunflare, haze, or more dramatic backlighting. But then I switch to my tried-and-true 45 degree lighting for a cleaner portrait look. Same with sunset sessions–just before the sun goes down, I’ll play with light a bit more, and then after dusk I’ll get those pretty cotton candy skies - but this is a very limited window of time, and so you really have to know how to use the brighter light when the sun is higher, too.

Use your Natural Reflectors

Both the sand and water can act as natural reflectors throughout your session, and add a clean boost of light to help fill the shadows on your subjects. Do be careful not to blow out the highlights on the water if you are backlighting subjects on the waterline, especially while the sun is still up. 

Bonus tip: Recognize the limitations of natural light at the beach

Unless you are using fill flash, your highlights and sky detail may inevitably get blown when photographing at the beach, especially when using backlighting at the end of your sunrise session and at the beginning of your sunset session (when light is harsher). For me as a portrait photographer, exposing for my subjects skin is most important, so I'm okay with losing some sky detail during these times. However, at dusk, I'm going to be extra intentional not to blow out any highlight detail in order to keep the pink and blue hues in the sky during this short window of opportunity. These are often some of my favorites from the gallery! Since the light is more even during this time, it isn't difficult to bring up the shadow detail in post processing to ensure the final image is balanced.

Dusk lighting - be sure to expose for your highlights and bring up the shadows in post to retain sky detail