8 Tips for Making Awesome Beach Pictures of Kids

Bay Area Photographer, Jim Vetter (that’s me) loves to catch kids being themselves.  One of the best places for kids to be kids is the beach.  Think about it – they can be as loud as they want, they can run as fast as they want, they can fall on their face and not get hurt, they can play in the water, build sand castles… the beach is a kids paradise.

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Now, certainly one of the best times to photograph kids is when they are being themselves – and enjoying it.  So, if you want to get great photos of kids, get them down to the beach.  The weather does not matter unless its actually raining.  I made the shots below this past weekend and it was about 49 degrees and very windy – thus the heavy coat.

The challenges with shooting at the beach come from the very high contrast lighting situations.  The sun is obviously crazy bright, the sand and water reflect a lot of bright light and the overhead sun causes dark shadows on faces and causes people to squint.

So how do you get great photos on the beach?  Here are my 8 tips for making awesome pictures of kids (or anyone) at the beach.

1.  Let the kids be themselves.

Don’t tell them to smile or pose.  Just encourage them to enjoy the beach and do whatever they like (within safety boundaries, of course).  To get great shots you just need to put yourself in the right position relative to the light.

2.  Put the sun BEHIND your subject.  (this one tip is worth a thousand bucks – email me for my paypal ID 😉

Sun in anyone’s face makes them squint and look ridiculous.  It also puts very hard shadows on the face that are not at all flattering.  Put the sun behind your subject and you’ll get gorgeous rim light on their hair and shoulders.  This rim light separates them from the background and makes them pop right out of the photo.

3.  Use a fill flash to fill in shadows and add a catch light to the eyes.

Just because it is day time does NOT mean you shouldn’t use a flash.  This is especially true at sunset when you probably want to take photos of your child with the beautiful setting sun behind them.   Their body will be a black silhouette without the fill flash.

In the photo below, I used a fill flash which lit her face and allowed me to capture a nice saturated sky in the background – even though the sky was very bright.  The fill flash also gave me that little sparkle in the eyes that really brings the subject to life.

4.  Look at the entire frame before you press the button.

How you compose the photograph is more important than anything else you can do when making pictures.  Be careful not to have trees growing out of your subjects head or other people’s arms growing out of your subject’s body.  Look at the entire scene and frame the image so that your subject is balanced with everything else in the photo.

In the image below, your eye is drawn down the tire path in the sand to the little girl.  This leading line is a nice compositional element that enhances the image.  Also note that there are few distractions from the main subject.  The more you can isolate your subject, the more compelling your images can be.

5.  Watch for the quiet moments as well as the energetic ones.

Playing in the sand and watching the waves is a mesmerizing activity and what do we love more than a quiet, content child??  If you have kids you’ll agree that there are few things in life sweeter than seeing your child blissfully asleep.  So watch for the quiet moments on the beach and bring them home in your camera.

6.  LATE afternoon sun IS good on the face!

The closer the sun gets to the horizon, the softer and warmer the light.  Wait until your shadow is at least twice as long as your body before you photograph with the sun in the face of your subject.  This ensures that the light fills their eyes and warms their skin.  We call this the golden hour and you can’t really miss a good shot at this time.

7.  Don’t be afraid to EXPERIMENT!

Get your camera out of automatic and try very low and very hight aperture settings to very your depth of field.  Try slower shutter speeds and pan with your child as she runs down the beach and you could get a cool motion blur.  Jack up the ISO and shoot at your highest shutter speed to freeze the water droplets and grains of sand as the child runs by.

Finally, have fun yourself.  Let your kid take your picture being silly.  Go splash in the waves.  Kids know something about how to have fun.  Follow their lead.

iPhone – Sometimes it’s the best camera

Jim Vetter, Bay Area People Photographer (as I like to call myself) says “I love to have a camera with me ALL the time.”  And, so I do.  But before I get to the subject matter of the title of this post, a little back story…

Several years ago when I was getting a little bored with the corporate thing but was still in denial about it, my creative urge was increasing again and I wanted to do more shooting.  At the time, my Nikon D300 was my only “real” camera so I thought that I should be carrying it around all the time.  Now, a Nikon D300 with an 18-200mm zoom lens is not a compact camera.  It’s not a point and shoot.  Its a commitment!  So, I got myself a big sling bag that held my camera, an extra lens PLUS everything that was already in my briefcase like files, random crap and a laptop computer!  It was HEAVY and it was a sling bag which means that it hangs over one shoulder allowing me to quickly swing it around and pull out the camera to capture any awesome photo opp that presented itself.

Fast forward to December 2010 and I’m on my back with a surgeon grinding bone out of my shoulder to fix the problem caused by carrying a too-heavy bag over that shoulder for too-long.

So….enter the iPhone.  That cute little device that I carried around and started at too-many hours a day and never used as a camera because I was “serious” about photography and serious photographers types don’t shoot with cell phones.  Well, after my shoulder refused to continue carrying the heavy-assed sling bag and I got myself a rolling briefcase, I relaxed my position on the iPhone camera issue.  And I don’t think I would have made this leap of faith without the inspiration of Chase Jarvis.  If you’re not familiar with him and you think photography is cool, go check him out.  If Justin Timberlake brought sexy back to music, Chase Jarvis brought cool back to photography.

Anyway, Chase wrote a book called The Best Camera is the One that’s With You.  He simultaneously published the book and an awesome iPhone app to enable iPhone users to capture and easily pimp out and share photos across all of their social media channels.  This book amazed me because he published stunning photographs all captured and processed with his iPhone – no Photoshop!  I figured if he can do this with an iPhone, I can too dammit!

I soon was shoot with my iPhone all the time and getting photos that I never thought would be possible.  And even better – I was getting images that I NEVER would get with me “real” camera because I had in-cameraphone picture pimping options that would require a LOT of effort in post production if I shot them with the big camera.  It was incredibly liberating to suddenly realize that I had this sweet creative tool in my pocket and I wasn’t afraid to use it!

OK – so that’s the back story.  Now, here are some of my favorite images from the best camera that was with me at the time.

City Sights

Surge of the creative urge

About two years ago when I found myself single again, I began to crave a creative outlet and started picking up the camera to photograph things other than my adorable daughter.  I was still deep in my corporate sales job at this point so photographic creativity usually happened after hours – which meant I was shooting parties again 🙂  I did a bunch of that as well as a few model shoots in my spare time throughout 2009 and 2010.

The Beats for Boobs breast cancer charity organization throws a killer fund raiser party and local designer fashion show every year in San Francisco and I had shot a couple of their events in the early part of the decade.  This organization is made up of some of the finest people I know and I’m proud to work with them.  So when they asked me to shoot the 2009 event, I jumped at the opportunity to participate.  This really is a great party!  The shot above is from the fashion show.

The 2009 Beats for Boobs event was where I met Katie briefly when I took her picture backstage.  Katie would soon get engaged and ask me to shoot her wedding.  At that point, I had turned down offers to shoot weddings because I was terrified of the huge responsibility of getting it right the first and only time the bride walks down the isle! However, I knew that I was ready now and accepted her request to shoot the wedding.  I had a great time shooting both the engagement and the wedding.  Katie and Bryan are awesome and their wedding was beautiful and so touching.  (More about the wedding in a future post)

By the end of 2009, I was really ramping up my photography by learning as much as I could online and from books and anywhere else I could find nourishment.  I bought a new camera at the end of 2009 after the unspeakable loss of my Nikon D700.  I like to blame it on a cab driver but I think I may have left it on the roof of my car!   (I haven’t drank while carrying my camera since.)  I also went on a camera gear shopping spree at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010.  I knew I was going to shoot the wedding in August and that gave me all the excuse I needed to gear up like a pro!

By the beginning of 2010, I had little interest in anything other than my daughter and photography.  My day job was becoming a grind and lived my real life at night with the camera.  I shot more events and more portrait sessions to feed my creative appetite.

The Best Camera

After reading an inspiring book by Chase Jarvis called “The Best Camera is the One that’s with You“, I started taking a lot of photos with my iPhone.  I was blown away at what I could do with my phone.  There are amazing apps that will shoot and edit photos in a few seconds.  It really can release your creativity!  I’ll do a later post about iPhone photography but here are a couple of my favorites from 2009/2010.

While all of this creative energy was beginning to rise, I was becoming more and more disillusioned with the corporate world where growth for the sake of investors is king.  I wasn’t doing anything in my day job that brought joy to anyone – especially me.  I was dying to do more of what brought smiles to people’s faces and even moved them to tears.  I wanted to do photography!  So, I started to silently – almost subconsciously – plan my escape…

You gotta start somewhere…

I’ve been thinking about doing this blog for a long time but I kept stopping at the point where I asked myself the question, “So what are you going to write?”   Well, I got tired of that question and decided to just start typing and see what came out.  We’ll see how it goes.

The title of this post is suitable to both the blog and my photography career.  So, what’s this blog about?   I’ll tell ya.  It’s my way of sharing my personality with my audience – whomever that audience turns out to be.  I expect I’ll reach some photo lovers, some brides, some moms and maybe even some photographers.  I welcome comments so that I can get to know you as well.

As for my photography career, I had to start somewhere so I chose to go pro when the thought of beginning another corporate job was too much for me to stomach.  But what got me into photography in the first place?

I’ve always LOVED images.  There is something about photographs that captivates me – I think it must be that the photo freezes a moment in time of someone, something as it existed just then, in just that light and preserves it forever – kind of like a memory in my head – and when I see beauty in an image, I can just swim in it.  I had this experience as a little kid looking at National Geographic with its amazing photographs of beautiful and strange far off places.  I have always been in awe at great photography – and I’ve always believed that I could do it too someday!

My brother, George (a lifelong photographer and inspiration to me) gave me my first 35mm camera in 1979 when I was 12 years old.  I fell in love with it and learned as much about photography as I could from the little booklets he gave me with the camera.  I went all over the place taking pictures of everything trying to grasp an understanding of strange new things like depth of field, shutter speed, apertures and film speeds.  Film, unfortunately, took a long time (and some money) to process and this obstacle kept me from really developing any skill until digital came along 20 years later.

Fast forward to 1999 when I bought my first digital camera.  That little screen on the back of my new camera changed everything!  Instant gratification!  This was for me!!

One night in 2001, I was in a club in San Francisco snapping away with my little point and shoot camera and a photographer (Brandon Oelling now with the X-Equals blog) who was there to shoot the DJ and the party told me that I had a great eye and that he would pay me to shoot other parties.  That just sounded too good to be true!  Get paid money to take pictures at a party??  “I’m in!!”

After shooting a bunch of events at nightclubs throughout San Francisco, I had met a few models who wanted photos for their portfolio and I was happy to help them out.  This was when I realized that I could create much more than snapshots and really opened my eyes to creating beautiful images of people.  A gorgeous model named Nadia was my first studio shoot and I somehow pulled it off and came away with images that are still among my favorites and you’ll see her in my portfolio.  Here is one of the images from that shoot.

Soon after, I shot another model and we loved the results.  Other models were coming to me wanting to shoot for their portfolios.  I was on a roll and nothing could stop me!!… or so I thought.  To make a long story short, I soon fell in love, got married, had a baby and took pictures of my beautiful child for five years.

Professional photography would have to wait until I was single again.  And so it did.