Mother & Daughter on the Beach

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The beach is a wonderful place to have a fun family outing, but getting great photos of the experience isn’t easy, especially at midday. Most of us agree that the best portraits are the ones that look spontaneous, but getting that happy feeling into the image takes planning and skill.

Photographer Michael Corsentino, assisted by the Photoflex® team, takes on the challenge of producing a ‘Mother and Daughter’ portrait and succeeds. The techniques and the equipment provide interesting lighting solutions, and Michael uses a few additional tricks to get the right composition and expression.

This lesson tells the story of how to get great natural looking lighting when and where you need it.

Topics Covered:

  • The Challenge: A Shoot at High Noon
  • The Solution: Portable Diffusion
  • Be Ready Before the Talent Arrives
  • Getting a Child to Smile
  • Parting Tips


  • Canon 5D
  • Canon L-Series 70-200mm f2.8 Lens
  • Adobe Lightroom 3
  • Adobe Photoshop CS5
  • Kubota Image Tools

The Challenge: A Shoot at High Noon

Recently I was commissioned by a client, Jackie, who wanted a portrait of herself and her daughter. We talked at length about the setting and the mood she wanted in the image, and we settled on a beach portrait. I wanted to sit her down with her daughter on her lap and have them surrounded by grass with the ocean and mountains in the background. Very artsy and memorable.

My challenge came when she informed me that she would want to do the shoot around noon so that she could be sure her daughter would be awake and alert.

Mid-day. Full sun. Words that fill most portrait photographers with dread. Shooting at mid-day can be a scary thing! It’s usually something that photographers of all skill levels avoid. This is due to the hard quality of light coming from the sun and the shadows that can be cast from that particular angle of light.

But I had a solution.

First off, I scouted the location a couple days before. My choice was a sand dune between Ocean Beach and the Beach Chalet in San Francisco. The scenery is great, and the grass I was envisioning grows in abundance here.

One of the many work-arounds photographers use for shooting in full sun is to take refuge under an overhang or find shade somewhere to capture more pleasing ambient light. But you’ll notice, in the location that I had in mind, there was no shade to be found!

Still, I was confident.

Most photographers feel that if you’re unable to locate that all important open shade than you’re stuck! Well, I pose the question: “Why not bring the open shade with you wherever you need it?”

This lesson demonstrates how you can shoot anywhere you want, any time of day. That means noon or otherwise, irrespective of the sun’s position or quality of light. Enter the diffusion panel!

The Solution: Portable Diffusion

To create our own shady oasis, we (we being David, Jaron and myself) decided to set up the Photoflex® 77 x 77 inch LitePanel kit with translucent fabric above where we would have Jackie and her daughter sit.

It was a little windy, so we made sure to weight down the LiteStands holding up the LitePanel with RockSteady bags full of gravel.

Our key light (or main light) would be supplied by a TritonFlash™ battery strobe with a small OctoDome® attached. The TritonFlash™ was set to 1/2 power to 1/4 power for all these shots.

I choose the small OctoDome® because it was big enough to provide just the right amount of illumination and falloff on our subject’s faces, yet small enough not to spill light onto the tall grass in the dunes behind them. I positioned the light in front of our where my subjects would be sitting. I shot from the side to get directional warp-around light from the strobe and for the killer Pacific ocean views, of course!

I also had David stand in the background with a 32 inch MultiDisc® so he could bounce some light behind Jackie for a hair light/edge light.

Be Ready Before the Talent Arrives

When Jackie, her daughter, and her friend Dan showed up, we were set for the shoot. The last thing you want to do is keep your client or model waiting, so make sure you arrive at your location early to account for setup time.

I had Jackie sit down in the sand and grass, while Dan helped get her daughter into position on her lap.

With the light, reflector, and models in position, I was ready to take my preliminary shot.

Using my 70-200mm lens, I set my camera to the following, which gave me a decent result:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/250th of a second
  • Aperture: f/10.0
  • ISO 100
  • Focal Length: 70mm

Though the quality of light in this shot is fantastic, I wasn’t wild about the camera angle and I also wanted to get a happier expression on Jackie’s daughter’s face.

Getting a Child to Smile

Posing children can be one of the most challenging tasks of a portrait photographer’s career. They are notoriously unpredictable and tend to have erratic changes in demeanor.

To get a smile on her face, I had Dan take a couple of Jackie’s daughter’s favorite toys and throw them around behind me. That way I could get a smile on her face and it would look like she was smiling at the camera.

Dan’s antics brought a smile to Jackie’s daughter’s face and elevated the mood of the session.

I kept my camera settings the same and changed my point of view somewhat for the next two shots. Happy expressions from children may only last for a moment, and having the lighting, settings and camera ready make it possible to capture the magic.

These two shots came out beautifully. The background is out of focus, but still visible enough as a mountain range and crashing waves. Both Jackie and her daughter look happy and cheerful, and the lighting is extremely flattering to them both.

You’ll notice no under-eye shadows or nose shadows, which would have been unavoidable without the overhead diffusion. Essentially, by using the translucent fabric on the LitePanel we made the noontime sun into a giant soft box. The hard light reflection from behind adds a perception of depth, which is key in creating any two-dimensional image. Of course, the key light from the TritonFlash wrapped around beautifully and softened the features of the model’s faces, which is exactly what I was going for.

Parting Tips

There is nothing better than a happy client, and Jackie was thrilled with the results. Beginning photographers might think that these photos are too difficult to achieve, and certainly most good portrait images, especially in conditions like this, require extensive lighting manipulation and subject posing. Those are the elements that distinguish a professional portrait from a candid snapshot.

But don’t let the complexity of this lesson deter you from controlling natural light for your portraits. A single LitePanel with translucent fabric is a great starting point for outdoor portrait shooting. If your goal is to produce memorable family photos for your friends, family and clients, approach the process in small steps and work up to the techniques in the final examples of this lesson.

As long as you concentrate on showing a feeling of love and happiness in your photos, your shots will become valuable family treasures.

Written and photographed by Michael Corsentino.

Basic Lighting,

Outdoor Portraits,

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