Sun, sand, Santa: It’s Christmas card season
Photographers make living shooting family portraits on beach
AVALON, N.J. — Despite what may have stared back at you from a hundred holiday cards over the years, beach photographers plead: Don’t all wear white shirts and khaki bottoms or jeans to your beach shoot.
“It makes me feel like I’m in the 90s,” says beach photographer Andy Macpherson, working a double this day (sunrise and sunset). “I can’t stand it.”
“Overdone,” says Erin McDevitt, a Ventnor photographer, whose advice is let Mom figure out what she wants to wear first and go from there. McDevitt’s got 50 beach portraits scheduled this summer.
Yes, the season has arrived on Jersey beaches: Christmas card photo season.
Take a walk along the beach at dusk these waning days of summer, and a region’s future holiday cards are amassing before your very eyes: Families huddled at the dunes, or in the lifeguard boats, on the lifeguard stand, or at water’s edge, even if that requires a precarious shin-deep trek through a tidal pool with 7-year-old twins eager to just play soccer.
“No soccer till later,” says Monica Lester of Saratoga Springs, New York, eyeing her
three boys, with so-far dry clothes, hair in place, bouncing on the sand, never mind the little dustup just before they left their beach rental house.
“We all look nice for the next five seconds,” she says gamely.
Nah. The Lester boys, Elliot, 10, and twins Sam and Ezra, gave their best camera-ready smiles for another hour, obeying every minute command, hand in pocket, turn slightly, in the boat, legs folded, legs unfolded, out of the boat, through the tide pool, don’t touch that soccer ball, until Macpherson gave them a slightly imprecise direction: Run to the birds.
The boys took off running. And didn’t stop. What a fun game!
Dad, Tom Lester, had to run after them to get them to turn around. But wow the joy! A Christmas card keeper no doubt, never mind Elliot’s wet shorts from returning a horseshoe crab to the ocean.
A day earlier, the Kovachick family of Mendham, New Jersey, tempted fate an hour before a storm rolled in, winds howling.
When Macpherson had them settle onto the sand in front of the dunes, everyone looked just right, and another holiday card was born.
“I’ve had kids throw up, seagulls poop on kids. Some fall in the water. Or the storms coming in, get the shoot done. I bring bug spray.”
— Andy Macpherson, beach photographer
“I don’t care about the windblown look as long as I don’t look like an idiot,” said mom, Liz.
McDevitt relies on a tides app, a weather app and daily knowledge of sunrise and sunset times to make it all work. She says getting children to cooperate on the beach can be a challenge.
“It can be slightly stressful for parents,” she said. “’My child’s not going to behave.’ We’re used to it. You put a child on the beach, where it’s supposed to be playtime, and try to make them behave.”
McDevitt will offer the typical boat and stand shots but is happy not to do those.
“As far as my aesthetic, the boat and the stand aren’t a necessity,” she said. “I will ask the family, are they interested. A lot of times they will say yes because they are on vacation and it says, ‘Ocean City,’ etc.” And into the boat they go! No fewer than five groups were out the other night before sunset on Sea Spray Avenue in Ocean City, a north-end beach with many things photographers like: a picturesque entrance with lush dunes, a lifeguard boat, a jetty, even a view of Atlantic City.
And many photographers gather nightly this time of year, jockeying for position. Typical beach portrait hazards: flies, wind, children who haven’t eaten yet, approaching storms (though Macpherson said he’s rarely had to cancel a shoot altogether).
One family in Ventnor, positioned just right with their dog still, the children wrangled, had to grit their teeth while a dog running on the beach (the magic hour of just before sunset is also a dog-friendly time on Ventnor’s beaches) approached, threatening to upend everything with a doggy photobomb. Luckily the dog moved on, and the shoot continued.
On Monday at Sea Spray Avenue, McDevitt corralled the Yeager family of Manhattan (in various hues of blue) on the rocks, even as Sarah from Lennon Drop Photography arranged the Schray and Splain extended family from Allentown (in blue and white) by the dunes. Yet another family in pink and checks sought out a different jetty, and two other smaller groups arranged themselves.
It was the Schray and Splain family’s first beach portrait with all four grandparents present. A lovely thing.
Donna Splain’s daughter decided on the color scheme. “She came into all our closets and picked out the clothes,” Splain said.
And as long as another dog doesn’t photobomb your wellcoiffed portrait sitting, the holiday card should be just fine.
McDevitt says she’s not sure how the white-polo-and-jeans or khakis matchy-matchy look became so ubiquitous for beach portraits. Macpherson doesn’t even think white looks good on the beach.
But after a while, with the same-looking photo piling up in people’s mailboxes, it finally is losing its appeal.
“It became, ‘This looks just like the Johnsons, which looks just like the Howards,’ ” McDevitt said. “That became dated. That is the biggest question I get — what should we wear?”
The beach photographers are very busy. At $400 a session plus printing costs, Macpherson’s work in the summer carries him for the rest of the year, he says. Weddings are much harder, longer and everyone’s way more stressed. With beach photos, a family is usually pretty relaxed. The main issue is the weather.
Or dinner. “I can tell when families haven’t gone to dinner yet,” he says.
He’s had a child fall out of a lifeguard boat and end up with a bloody nose. One family showed up in Ocean City, Maryland, while he was waiting in Ocean City, New Jersey.
“I’ve had kids throw up, seagulls poop on kids,” he said. “Some fall in the water. Or the storms coming in, get the shoot done. I bring bug spray.”
The photos inevitably end up as holiday cards, or enlarged on the wall.
McDevitt said one family turned their beach photo into a cover for a 50-inch flat-screen television on their fireplace mantel, closing off nightly viewing with their most idyllic selves.
While Macpherson takes an “any beach will do” approach — “the beaches in New Jersey are all fake, they all look literally the same, pumped up in the winter” — McDevitt has her favorites.
Sea Spray Avenue in Ocean City, in the hour before dusk, is obviously the favorite of a lot of beach photographers. “That’s why there’s five photographers here,” she said. “Just your average Monday in the summer.”
A lifeguard exercises atop a rowboat as people walk on the beach in Ocean City, N.J. Ocean City is one of New Jersey’s most popular beaches.