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How I Got the Photo - Costa Rica Beach Shot

When I shot my first wedding, I had already been studying the dramatic sunset portraits, but I had been missing something. Over time though, I was able to find videos on YouTube and tutorials that helped me overcome obstacles I was dealing with.

In my first "How I Got It" piece, I am going to use an image that I created on the destination wedding in Costa Rica I shot in July. Unfortunately, the sky did not give us the epic light that we were hoping for. I did come away with an image though that looks good and it allowed me to utilize techniques that I had been honing over the last year or so. In some corners of the photography world, images like this are referred to as "Environmental Portraits".

The "Environmental Portrait" is, simply put, a portrait where the subject is placed in a scene that encompasses the landscape around. It is like landscape and portrait photography came together to be one. There are numerous ways to create these images, and the photographer does not need lights if they choose not to. For this particular piece, I did use a speedlight for the shot.

The final image

I am of a rare breed as I shoot Pentax. Creating an environmental portrait doesn't require a certain camera body. Lens selection is somewhat critical as you want something with a fairly wide focal length. For me, I am still banging away on a kit 18-55mm, which might be the toughest lens in the world. Several days before the trip, I was storm chasing and dropped the camera with the lens on it. This was not the first time I had dropped the camera and lens, but this time things looked desperate. A piece had come off the lens, rendering it useless. After a quick Google search, I was able to put the piece back in place, and the lens was back in action.

More often than not, I am a one man show, so for these shots, I utilize my Vanguard Alta Pro 263 AT tripod. I also have a wired remote release for the camera which I will use for these shots.

For lighting, I use one of my Yongnou 560-IV flashes with a 560-TX transmitter. The flash is attached to a pole that I scavenged out of a light stand. For a diffuser, I use either a white shoot-through umbrella or a MagMod MagSphere. I prefer the umbrella, but when the wind is blowing, or in the case of this shot I left my umbrella behind, the MagSphere was perfect. A lot of photographers use a softbox for these shots, and that is the pinnacle as it provides the best light. I currently do not have a softbox, so I am somewhat limited. The umbrella is in second place when it comes to the quality of light, with the MagSphere in third place.

Yup, we're getting wet

For the most part, I am a one man show. There is a little more work when you are the photographer and assistant, but once you hone the technique, there is nothing to it.

The first thing I do is I will place my subject in the scene. The next step is I will place my camera where I want and compose the shot in the camera. I will then look at my light meter and dial in the camera settings to expose for the background. One thing to note, photography is subjective. The real masters of this type of shot will be able to add artificial light on the subject without making it look like light was added. My main goal is to create a dramatic feeling portrait so if my final image has obvious artificial light, that is not a deal maker.

Once I have my camera settings where I want them for the background, I will then dial in the flash. There are times when the flash is right on from the start, and there are times when I will have to make adjustments. Take it from me, do not rush the process. Get your settings dialed in and go from there.

Like I mentioned before, I am a one man show for the most part, so the next part is critical. I explain to my subject that this shot is a two shot process. The first shot will be the flashed shot, the second shot will be for the background. What I do is I turn on the shutter timer to 12 seconds. I explain to the subject that I will count "1, 2, 3" and then activate the shutter and that we have 12 seconds to be ready. The 12 seconds allows me to jump into position with the light and most times, we nail the first shot. Once that shot is taken, I will run back to the camera, check the shot to make sure the lighting is on and if it is, I will turn off the transmitter and take a quick shot without the light. This will give me two clean shots to blend together in Photoshop.

One thing you really need to do when doing these shots is to study the terrain you will be tripping and falling over. Okay, not really but because you will be moving from the camera to lighting position in a couple of seconds, you do not want to take a header with a flash on a pole. You will notice in the image where I appear I am wearing regular shoes while the groom is wearing flip flops. Even though footwear was highly discouraged for the ceremony and I was anticipating shooting in bare feet or flip flops, I went with full on shoes. Once I had scouted where we were going to do this shot and the fact that the groom had stepped on an urchin several days prior, wearing flip flops or walking around on the rocks on bare feet was going to be potentially hazardous. Once I get the two shots in the can, it is time to process and blend.

Background and "Lighted" Shots

The first step I do is load everything into Lightroom. I then identify the two images I will use. I have two basic edit presets I use in Lightroom. They cover the basics, contrast, skin tones, lens corrections. One preset is for shots that use natural light and the other is for the artificial, or flash shots. Before leaving Lightroom, I will compare the two images side by side. I want to make sure that both images are the same in color and exposure. Once that is done, I will then import them into Photoshop as layers.

Lightroom Comparison

If you are not familiar with using layer masks in Photoshop, stop now and educate yourself. You will thank me for this. There is so much power in layer masks it is not even funny.

The first step I will do is align the layers, using the "lighted" shot on top. Once the layers are aligned, I will then add a white layer mask to the top layer. I will then use a black brush to conceal me in the image. When doing these types of shots, you might not even appear in the "lighted" shot. For most of the shots I have done using this technique, I am pretty much done with the blending. Everything came together perfectly and it's time to move on.

For this shot though, I wanted to add some little things in the final shot. For example, in the background shot, there is a small wave crashing into the rock where the couple is standing. In the "lighted" shot, the wave is not there. I felt like the final image needed to have a wave in it. We were in a cove with not much wave action, so I got lucky. Again, I used a black brush to conceal the top layer which allowed the wave to show through. You can also see I had to blend more of the ocean on the left side of the image.

Blending the images together


Images like these are not hard to create if you have the appropriate tools for the job. The photographer does need to think these shots through first. Once you have done it once or twice, it is all downhill from there.

If you would like to read what I learned from this destination wedding, please head over to to this article for those tips.

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