It might seem easy these days to go shoot on a beach. I mean, you could just throw an action camera into a protective case and all is good. Perhaps that works—for some shoots.
And if that is all you need, then more power to you. However, I’ve done a few shoots on beaches, and my experience is that the beach can be one of the most difficult environments in which to shoot. From getting the look you want, to protecting your gear from sand and salt spray, a little bit of planning can make a huge difference.
The Look of Your Shoot
On a sunny day at the beach, light is everywhere. Bouncing off the sand, it can provide a fair amount of fill from below. This may, in fact, be the look you are going for, and it would make sense—after all, you are shooting on a beach and it is bright and sunny. But even when shooting with the wide dynamic range of some of today’s cameras, don’t forget the production tools that you have available to you. Just because you are shooting in this environment doesn’t mean that you put the camera on auto and let your DP and grip crew take a nap.
1. Negative Fill No, this is not some dour guy named Phil who walks around proclaiming doom and gloom; rather, it is usually a large flag held in position much in the way you would use a bounce card. The black flag will block a lot of reflections from striking your actor’s face, and can help with visually creating tone and depth. Additionally, cutting out excess reflections from the sand can help keep your on-camera talent from squinting as a result of glare. Flags (also known as solids) are available ranging from 18 x 24", to 4 x 4', with many sizes in-between. Something else to consider would be to lay down black duvetyne on the sand itself, like a blanket. This will help control the amount off fill bouncing off the sand. If you need more fill light, you can always float (handhold) a show card or foam core in close or pull up some of the fabric.
2. Too bright When you are thinking about your flag order, don’t forget about nets. As with flags, these are available in a variety of sizes and are excellent for controlling the amount of light falling on your subject in tighter shots.
3. Reflectors If you have a really small crew, then you will probably try to use those collapsible reflectors. They can be great, but if it is windy, you may want something a little more rigid, and for that you would be looking at some beefy stands or low boys and hard reflectors. Yep, it takes a bit more planning and crew to set these up, but for getting strong edge light or backlight when someone is front lit or top lit by the sun, these reflectors are invaluable. Unless you are bringing large HMI lights and a generator to the beach, they are your best bet.
4. Lights Speaking of lights, as you are fighting the sun and your background is most likely the sky and open horizon, this really is the best environment for bounce cards and reflectors. However, battery-powered lights like those in this Rotolight NEO 2 Explorer Kit might be of some use here, especially around sunrise and sunset.
5. Silks As with flags and nets, silks can be a tremendous aid when shooting on a beach (and outside in general). You can find many sizes of silks or butterflies, from 6 x 6' to 20 x 20' and beyond, that you stretch on a frame. Use these over the head of your talent to soften the sun—you can also stretch black fabric, or net/scrim material to cut the sun for creative control—or use the silk as a large bounce card. Remember, the larger the frame, the more grips you will need to support it, and the more stands to steady it, especially if it is a windy day.
6. Filters Polarizers and ND grads are your friends here. The polarizer will allow you to adjust glare and darken the sky and can help with reflections on the water, providing you some control over these. ND grads are extremely useful, because you can line up the transition from light to dark with the horizon. They are available with either hard or soft edges, which refers to the transition between dark and clear. And while you are at it, might I suggest exploring colored grads, which can be a creative way to create emotional impact in your movie? For more on filters, please check out Optical Filters in a Digital World.
Sure, “survival” might sound a bit dramatic; after all, most people go to the beach to have a fun. Still, it is quite a different thing to go hang out at the beach all day, versus bringing delicate gear and work in what can be a challenging environment, so I wanted to share some concerns as well as some precautions to take.
1. Sun Don’t forget your sunblock and sunglasses. Also remember you can’t drink seawater, so you will need plenty of drinking water. If you are shooting on a sunny and hot day, you might want to consider some kind of light shield to keep your camera from overheating. An umbrella to keep the sun off your camera isn’t a bad idea. It couldn’t hurt to keep your fair-skinned talent under an umbrella between takes, as well—I’ve seen actors go from very light to very red after only a few hours in the overhead sun.
2. Wind This can be very strong, so lots of sandbags to hold things down is not a bad idea. I know, bringing sandbags to a beach sounds redundant. Also, some 4 x 8' pieces of foam core or bounce board can be extremely useful to block the wind from blowing against the camera while on a tripod of gimbal rig. That will require a crew person or two to hold them, but sudden gusts of wind can destroy a smooth camera move and a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
3. Rain Slicker/Camera Cover/Splash Bag Sand is going to get everywhere, and sand is definitely a bad thing to end up in your camera and lenses. Even one grain of sand can cause damage to the mechanics of your lens, making a smooth operating zoom, focus, and iris mechanism bind up. While digital cameras have few moving parts compared to film cameras, getting sand inside your camera is still a bad idea, especially if it gets onto your camera’s sensor. Additionally, a grain of sand on the lens mount can throw off the flange focus distance—which is normally calibrated to hundredths of an inch—causing focus issues. Don’t forget, salt spray is much more corrosive and damaging than fresh water; you’ll certainly want to protect not just the lens mount of your lenses and camera from sand and salt spray, but all the electronics, as well. So, if you are going to shoot on the beach, a rain slicker of some kind is highly recommended, and they are available for nearly every camera out there. If you can’t find a rain slicker you like, then you can check out splash bags, which are great for when you are shooting in the water—but not submerged. If all else fails, a clear plastic trash bag will be better than nothing.
4. Clear/UV Filter Screwing a clear/UV filter onto the front of your lens before you get to the beach is a good idea. Once on the beach, front lens threads can become clogged and gummed up, making it hard to add screw-in filters. The UV filter will help with haze and has the added benefit of being a lot cheaper and easier to replace than the front element of your lens, so if it gets scratched there will be a lot less crying.
5. Carbon Fiber Legs These are highly recommended for shooting on a beach instead of aluminum legs. Salt water is very corrosive to aluminum, and carbon fiber is far more resistant to salt water corrosion. So, if you are shooting around the water, or even putting your tripod in the water, carbon fiber is the way to go.
6. Distilled Water and Rags Washing off any stands, tripod legs, and even heads with distilled water as soon as you get away from the beach is a very smart idea. If you can’t get distilled water, tap water will be better than nothing. Remember to clean as much sand off of your gear as possible with a brush or cloth, before wiping down your gear with a slightly damp towel, and remember to dry the cleaned gear after.
7. Clean Area If you can work out of a car, that can be very useful, especially if you have any complex issues to work with. The car will get filled with sand, but at least with the doors closed there will be less sand flying around. If you can’t get a car onto the beach, you might want to consider bringing a small tent and setting up on the beach. Once closed, it will protect you from sand and salt spray while you work, and it isn’t a bad place to keep your more delicate gear out of the elements while you shoot, reducing the amount of time you spend cleaning your gear after the shoot.
8. Time After the shoot, make sure that you schedule time back at the office, hotel room, or your home to give your gear a good and thorough cleaning and evaluation before your next shoot. Check out this introductory article on lens cleaning to get a start.
Life’s a Beach
The beach can be a beautiful and cinematic setting, and while each beach will present its own individual problems to overcome, with a little extra effort and planning you can have a successful shoot and create moving and cinematic images, without ending the day feeling like you survived a shipwreck.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on filming on a beach, both aesthetic and survival, in the Comments section, below.