Swimwear Photoshoot: No Beach Access? No Problem

Swimwear Photoshoot: No Beach Access? No Problem

I'll be honest, when it came to shooting swimwear, I went straight to Pinterest looking for whatever ideas and inspiration I could find. Swimwear is different enough from the other types of shoots that I was typically shooting that I really had no idea where to begin. Granted, my clients weren't clothing line companies, so I wasn't aiming for the more routine, catalog-style shots. Since the people wanting the shots were the models themselves, I wanted to make sure that the end results looked as good as possible and hopefully a bit more stylish. 

But, the techniques that I was typically using for my work didn't exactly translate straight across into this genre. I found that I was in for some learning and this article is merely a collection of some of what I learned as I approached a few of my more recent shoots.

I don't get exorbitant amounts of requests to shoot swimwear here in Southern Utah, but those sorts of shoots have come up often enough that I had to figure out my own way of shooting the genre. Here in the middle of the desert we don't have much in the way of beach access. We have a few freshwater lakes and ponds, but nothing remotely close to what it would be like to shoot at the ocean. Certainly not much that was similar to the majority of sample work that I found on Pinterest and other sites used for research. This ended up creating an opportunity for me to find new and different ways of trying to shoot swimwear.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZE
135mm | f/2.0 | 1/40 | ISO 50

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | Canon EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
85mm | f/1.2 | 1/200 | ISO 400

Specifically for Saint George, Utah, where I live, the one lake that we do have near town that actually does have a sandy beach is not one of my preferred places to shoot. The sandy areas, when not being used by boaters, are a popular ATV recreation area. That, and the lake water right now is fairly infested with a parasite that gives anyone who enters the water a really irritating itch, not unlike a collection of mosquito bites. The rest of the larger bodies of water here have really rocky, uncomfortable beaches. Not the place where you'd be likely to have a model try to sit down and pose. So for me, shooting swimwear in Southern Utah, I opted to try and find locations that would allow me to create the shots that I had in mind without compromising my subjects' ability to be comfortable on the shoots.

Trying to make the most of my location options here in Southern Utah, while working with swimwear styles, all while still trying to shoot in a way that stayed true to my own personal style of imagery, was (and still is) a fairly unique and fun opportunity. It is definitely something that evolves over time with every single shoot. I think it's safe to say that on every one of these shoots I learn something completely new. Over time, I have started to figure out which sorts of poses tend to work really well and which ones don't work at all. Back with the original Pinterest board, I had collected a wide variety of ideas and inspiration for shooting swimwear, but I quickly found out that all that most of what I had pinned really wasn't helpful at all.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | Canon EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
85mm | f/1.2 | 1/100 | ISO 50

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | Canon EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
85mm | f/1.2 | 1/160 | ISO 200

A lot of the images that I had found and pinned of things other photographers had shot on nice, clean, oceanside beaches didn't really translate like I thought they would when shooting in a place that is about as far from a beach as they come. With these shoots, we tried a couple different setups where we had the model try laying down, but laying down on rocks or stiff grass just wasn't super comfortable for them and made it more difficult to capture any quality shots. So instead of simply trying to re-create poses found online and attempt to just make them work in our scenarios, we just started experimenting with poses to figure out what worked and what didn't.

I found that most of the best poses we ended up figuring out were ones where we had our model either standing or sitting fairly upright. We tried a couple setups having them lay down, but it was much harder to come up with laying down poses that still looked natural. I don't know, perhaps it's just easier on a beach because sand is a lot more comfortable than rocks or stiff mountain grasses. Either way, my favorite poses almost always ended up being ones that didn't involve laying down at all, which I was somewhat surprised by because of how many examples of swimwear shots online involve some variation of a laying down pose.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZE
135mm | f/2.0 | 1/15 | ISO 50

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | Canon EF85mm f/1.2L II USM
85mm | f/1.2 | 1/250 | ISO 200

One of the tricks that I found incredibly useful for these shoots was to have the model play with her hair, with one or both hands. If you scroll back up and look at the shots included in this article, you'll see that in most of them the models have at least one hand doing something with their hair as part of the pose. I'm sure someone with more artistic training could detail, better than me, why that ends up looking good on camera.

I think it has to do with the fact that it gives the model something natural to do with her hands. That way the hands aren't just hanging there awkwardly at her side. Also, by raising the hands near the hair or head, the angles that naturally form with the arms create these nice triangle shapes in the figure, which is a fairly common shape that has been used in figure drawing for ages. I remember my art teacher pounding that into our heads. "Look for circles, squares, and triangles," he would say. In addition, from a basic anatomical standpoint, by lifting the hands and arms and engaging them in some fashion that brings them near the head, the muscles engage and the skin tightens which gives the arms a leaner and more toned look.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III | Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZE
135mm | f/2.0 | 1/40 | ISO 50

The last thing that I tried on these shoots was to play around with different lengths of shutter speeds. Specifically since we shot in, near, and around mountain streams, we would try longer shutter speeds just to see how far we could push the time to have different effects with our water. Sometimes it was just too difficult for the models to stay still long enough to get the desired effect, so we would either modify the pose and give them something to rest against or to stabilize against. If that didn't work, we would simply scratch that idea and try something else. Some of the shots we tried ended up looking like pure crap, others ended up looking pretty good. We just experimented and slowly figured out what worked best.

In summation, the following list is basically my go-to principles of navigating a swimwear shoot while on location in a place that might seem suboptimal for the shoot.

  • Does your location justify shooting swimwear, or does a swimsuit just look out of place?
    • Does that really matter, or will you be able to shoot what you need anyway?
  • Which poses will allow your model to be most comfortable?
    • Even if a pose is uncomfortable, does it still look natural?
  • What justifies your pose?
    • Does having hands/arms near the face make sense?
    • Is the pose flattering?
    • Does the pose allow you to make the most of your light?
    • Does your model even like the pose? (important)
  • To maximize your composition, will a tripod help you or hinder you?
  • Don't be afraid to get in the water.
  • Just try it, even if you think it might look stupid.
  • Plan ahead.

Like I said at the beginning of this article, some of this may seem like common sense to our more experienced swimwear photographers, but I do hope that some of what I learned might benefit someone else. If you have any other suggestions, or experiences, or ideas of things that you have found particularly useful for shooting swimwear, make sure to comment. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Rex Jones's picture

Rex lives in Saint George, Utah. His specialty is branding and strategy, working closely with businesses to refine their branding, scale internal structure, and produce high-quality marketing efforts. His photography is primarily commercial, with intermittent work in portraiture, product imagery, and landscape photography for his own enjoyment.

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Great, Rex. Thanks. The Salt Flats are still waiting for you :)

Thank you, Daniel! The Salt Flats are definitely on my horizon!! I'll have to let you know as soon as I can plan a trip up there!

I totally agree.
I much prefer a river, it's banks and it's beds to any pool or beach for great series.
When ready haul my lights down, my tripod and of course a great body. Be it commercial or editorial it works well and while there may have been some early hesitations however I have managed to prove my process works well.

Seriously Glen, those images that you shared here are absolutely fantastic! That second one, of the girl standing, makes me all self conscious, she's got much better abs than I do hahahaha!!

Thank you Rex. Yes, my world is filled with hard bodies. A blessing and a curse.

No complaints. I totally enjoy my work.

Excellent article. Being in BFE TN, beaches are hard to find. I really like your out of the box approach.

Thank you, Dave! I'm glad you enjoyed the read! I can tell you this, I am pretty solidly jealous of the terrain you get to play with in Tennessee. I sure miss that place!

Yeah, what we lack in beaches we make up for in some exceptionally gorgeous mountains, fields, and forests. Especially now that Fall is getting close. :)

Nothing screams fashion like a good ol' down by the crick bikini shoot.