Tips + Techniques

How I Got the Shot: Using Water as a Natural Reflector

September 6, 2023

By Hillary Grigonis

© Elena S Blair

The quintessential beach lighting challenge is that there are no natural elements to block or filter the light. Elena S Blair's solution is to carefully position her subjects and camera in relation to the sun to take advantage of the water as a natural reflector.

As inspiring as a picturesque beach scene can be, shooting along the water presents a long list of challenges. For lifestyle photographer Elena S Blair, those challenges are met with creativity, planning, and the right angle. “In my opinion, beach lighting is some of the most challenging — even at golden hour,” Elena says. “Why? Because there are zero environmental elements to aid in filtering light or blocking light.” Elena recently chatted with Rangefinder to share a behind-the-scenes look at how she tackled the challenge of open natural light to photograph an active family on the beach. Her trick? Using the water as a natural reflector. 

As a lifestyle photographer, Elena photographs around 100 families a year. This particular photo comes from an active family with three kids — ages 10 months, five years and eight years. For this particular family, she wanted an editorial, magazine-like feel to capture their energy and connection. “I am a lifestyle photographer, and my goal is to always focus on the family’s love and connection,” she says of her style. “I want my images to feel nostalgic, like a memory shared. With this photoshoot, I wanted it to feel a bit more editorial, like a magazine shoot. This family is silly, active, and fun. I wanted to capture that essence at the beach!” 

© Elena S Blair

While Elena doesn’t style her clients, preparing the family is an important part of her process. She explains that her client lounge advises families on what to wear for her sessions. As a lifestyle photographer, she suggests comfortable clothing that coordinates but isn’t an identical match. Another important piece of advice? She tells her clients to make sure the clothes fit well and warns against putting kids in clothes that they are meant to grow into. 

As a photographer who works exclusively with natural light, Elena explains that she starts in the shade for a few portraits before moving to a beach or open field in order to get creative with the light. “I love to play with light. I do not play it safe with light,” she says. “That being said, I start my sessions in wooded areas where I can get a few safe shots and portraits. Then we move to the open beach or field, so I can play with light and use light creatively. I am an artist. I don’t play by rules, but I am very intentional when using light and creating flare. Light is one of the most important elements of my work. As a natural light photographer, I almost always schedule my photoshoots one hour before sunset.” 

© Elena S Blair

One of the challenges to shooting on the beach, Elena says, is that there’s nothing to help block out the light — and in order to get beautiful lens flare without a drastic loss in contrast, the sunlight needs to be partially blocked before entering the lens. With nothing on the beach to block the light, Blair instead used the reflection of the sun off the water—rather than the sun itself—to create the backlighting she was looking for. 

“I positioned the family right in the line of the sunshine on the water so that I could back light them,” Elena explains. “I held my camera above my head for photograph one in order to avoid lens flare and expose their faces. By doing this I am angling the lens down toward them so that sun isn’t coming directly into the lens.  As you can see, the glow is beautiful behind their heads. Because it was a completely clear day, the big blue sky in front of them was reflecting light right back on their faces, giving me the catchlights in their eyes and the highlights on their faces.” 

© Elena S Blair

While natural light is an integral part of Elena’s style, so is the relaxed lifestyle feel of her work. Elena explains that she’s constantly directing during her shoots, but with the goal of playful, fun images rather than perfect poses. For this photo series, she asked the family to stand directly in the waves because, in her experience, that always adds a level of playfulness to the images. To add another level of playfulness, she challenged the dad to pick up both older kids at the same time.  

“Every time I pick up my camera, I am trying to capture a little piece of humanity,” she says. “I want to help families go back to the time in their lives that I was photographing them. I want to capture real human connection with my work. Every time.” 

5 Natural Light Tips from Elena S. Blair 

  1. Make sure that you know your location front and back. Do not take a family to a location you have never photographed before. You want to make sure that you know exactly what the light will be like at the exact time you are conducting the photoshoot.  
  1. Schedule your golden hour photoshoot one hour before sunset.  
  1. Use light creatively. Don’t get stuck in the same boring, safe lighting situations. Be creative.  
  1. Learn how to use your angles to control the light coming at your lens. Hold your camera above your head to avoid light coming directly into the camera.  
  1. Use a shorter lens when the light is seemingly intense. A 35mm or a 50mm are perfect for controlling light at the beach. Longer lenses will create images that are washed out when it’s bright out.  

In addition to keeping a busy schedule photographing clients, Elena also offers education for photographers, and she’ll be teaching at The Portrait Masters Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, next week.

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