Feature Story

Summertime Outdoor Photography Tips for the Beach or Swimming Pool

Rika on Honeymoon Beach
Ashly at Sunset
Sunset in the Virgin Islands

It's fast becoming that time again where we all like to enjoy the summer months and like seagulls we flock to the nearest and largest body of water. Whether it's a swimming pool, lake, or beach, water is nature's way of cooling us off quickly, especially during summertime and the retail industry makes billions each year selling us everything from swimsuits to snorkel fins--most are sold with advertisements that feature photographs of beautiful, bikini-clad models. Contrary to most vacation photos, somehow the models, eyes wide-open, always appear properly exposed with light.

The photographers that take these images work under the same conditions as all camera enthusiasts taking pictures of their families near or around water--battling reflected light from the sky, water, sand and even concrete from the edges of a swimming pool. Anything on the white side of the tonal scale in addition to reflective surfaces like sand or water will reflect light like crazy. Beaches or swimming pools are notorious reflectors of sunlight as well as anything made of glass or painted white in color.

It's this reflected light, which is normally a much sweeter light than direct sunlight, that is also the culprit to many underexposed subjects in vacation photos. Unless you're using a reflective spot meter, your camera meter system is easily fooled by all this reflected light and will give you false readings, thus you'll have underexposed photos. To help prevent this, many photographers will adjust their under/over exposure compensation dial/buttons to overexpose the image by at least an F/stop, sometimes up to two F/stops, depending on the camera make, model and metering system. Though digital cameras use superior matrix metering systems today than their predecessor film cameras, camera meters are often fooled by more reflected light than normal, this is especially true with cell phone cameras.

With digital cameras though, it's even easier to correct your photos as you can view your histogram and photo right off your digital camera LCD screen immediately after you capture it. And if you trust your LCD screen, like I trust the screen on my digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR, then you will see your results right away and can make minor adjustments with your under/over exposure compensation scale.

While you don't want to actually overexpose your photos, you're simply using this compensation dial to "recalibrate" the digital camera's thought process so the camera metering system "thinks" that you want to overexpose the image, thus allowing itself to open up the lens aperture or decrease the shutter speed to achieve the proper camera exposure. In actuality, the digital camera is correcting the exposure back to normal or compensating for all that back and reflected light that originally misguided the camera metering system.

Reflected light also creates squinting and most people don't like models with closed eyes. One method some professional photographers use to reduce the squint in the model's eyes is to take a black tulle cloth, a sheer dark fabric material purchased at their local fabric store, then they place it over their photographic reflectors. Depending on the size of their photographic reflectors, this fabric normally doesn't cost but just a few dollars. I do this with my California Sunbounce professional reflectors that come in various rectangular sizes and simply clip the dark sheer fabric to the sturdy aluminum frame.

Photographers can also make a photography session easy for a model by simply giving their subject a one, two, three count. Their subject merely opens their eyes wide-open at the same moment the photographer physically releases the camera shutter. The key to the three-count is to keep it uniform throughout the shoot so the photographer and model will be on the same rhythm or timing, thus reducing closed or squinted eyes.

Ideally, to reduce false camera metering values and ensure your subject's eyes are brilliant, photographers should wait until the lighting is perfect, and photographing models during the middle of the day is best avoided, especially around a swimming pool, beach or large body of water. It's always best to photograph your models or a subject in the early morning hours or around sunset when the light is softer and warmer, though obviously if you're on your summer vacation, you tend to sleep-in late and have a great dinner during sunset.

Fill-flash also comes in handy to make your subject "pop" out of the image too. If you use fill-flash during the middle of the day, you'll probably have to adjust its over/under exposure compensation by at least one or two F/stop overexposure values too.

Light reflects off all surfaces around us, including a photographer's body. A professional photographer knows you should never wear bright colors to a shoot, hence why most professional photographers wear black t-shirts so they don't become an additional reflector to their subject. Yes, if you practice this too, you'll sweat a bit more than wearing white, but your sweat is the indication you're absorbing the energy (light and heat) away from the model's eyes as she looks at the camera, thus giving her a comfortable place to look and rest her eyes.

Finally, when the shoot is over, avoid all flocks of seagulls, put your snorkel fins on and just jump in the water to cool off--though don't take your digital camera with you!

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—The JPG team

2 responses

  • Jason Platt

    Jason Platt gave props (21 May 2010):

    TY for sharing your wealth of knowledge!

  • Griff Johnson

    Griff Johnson gave props (28 Sep 2011):

    Cool! Thankyou!

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