Why outdoor portrait photography anyway?
Outdoor portrait photography is great, it offers features and benefits that indoor photography can only dream of providing.
First up, the background.
Try taking a picture like this in a studio setting.
The almost limitless choice of backgrounds that being outside provides is just incomparable to the choices that you’d have inside in a studio type setting.
Also relating to that picture is the sunlight, if only you could bottle that and use it inside then you’d be laughing.
Natural backdrops are also far more effective at creating an atmosphere in an image than any artificial under one could. They are also good at allowing you to create a story within your portrait and lend themselves well to provoking thought.
So lets get into some great outdoor portrait photography tips!!!
Outdoor portrait photography tips to take your portrait game to the next Level
1. Shoot at wider Apertures (lower f numbers)
Shooting with a wider aperture will create a shallower depth of field. This will create the blurred background effect you can see above.
This really makes the subject pop and stand out, this is an important step to take as the photo should be about the person and not so much the background.
Using a wider aperture also lets you use a lower ISO setting meaning that you should end up with a better quality picture.
2. Avoid Distortion
Using lenses with lower focal points, more than likely to be wide angle lenses at 50mm or less can lead the to the subject becoming distorted, they kind of end up looking like a sneezing puffer fish.
Not a good look in anyone’s book… sorry puffer fishes reading this!
To avoid this either shoot at a higher focal point or the effects of distortion can be reduced by not getting too close with a lower focal point setting.
Don’t worry if you realise after the shot that you have some distortion though as in most cases this can be rectified in post processing.
3. Increase your ISO
Now I know in point 1 I said that you should try and shoot at as low a ISO setting as possible for better image quality and this is exactly what you should do…. most of the time.
But don’t let that limit you, for instance, if you’re in a darker environment or maybe you need a super quick shutter speed, just up your ISO setting.
This will allow you to increase your shutter speed and reduce any subject blur that would occur if you’d have needed to keep the shutter open for longer.
A good way to do this is through the aperture priority mode. Just set your aperture to a wide setting and increase your ISO setting until the shutter speed adjusts to what you desire, giving you a crisp shot in low light conditions without compromising shutter speed.
The effects of the increased ISO will likely be negligible and nothing that would render the image unusable.
4. Get the right Lens
One of the most important outdoor portrait photography tips is lens choice.
The right choice of lens can make a huge difference to the quality of your final picture.
I would recommend using lenses with a focal length of 70mm at minimum as anything below this can cause a distorted effect, not very flattering!
For shots that require an even shallower depth of field to really make your subject pop out from their background go for even higher focal lengths somewhere between 130mm and 200mm, this will keep your subject in focus and add a nice blur effect to anything beyond them.
Relating to tip number 1, you’ll need to be using a lens that allows for wider apertures so that you can achieve the blurred background effect.
If you combine a wide aperture with a longer focal length you’ll get an even shallower depth of field that can make for a really nice effect that as well as blurring the background will also blur parts of the subject that are at different depths to the focus points.
Bear in mind telephoto lenses with higher focal lengths and wider apertures do come at a cost.
So overall, you’ll probably want to have a range of lenses to suit different situations but to start with, I would recommend a good telephoto lens around the 70-200mm focal range and as low an aperture as you can afford.
This will give you a versatile lens suited to many different types of shot, from zoom to almost wide angle and everything in between.
Some of the best telephoto lenses for outdoor portrait photography are:
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L is III USM
- Tamron AF 70-200mm f/2.8
- Nikon 70-200mm f/4G ED VR
- Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS
- Sony FE 70-200mm F4 G OSS
If your’e after something lightweight, quick and generally speaking offers a higher quality image, then a prime lens may be a better match to your needs.
Adding to this, good quality prime lenses tend to suffer less from distortion so a lower focal length is not so much of a problem.
Some of the best lenses for outdoor portrait photography are:
5. Always focus on the Eyes
The windows to the soul, the eyes are arguably the most important part of any portrait. Eyes can tell stories on their own with very little else to guide the viewer, this is why they are a very powerful part of any portrait and also why they should be in perfect focus.
Being human, the eyes are also the first place on any face we are instinctively drawn to and so it is very important that a viewer’s first impression of a picture is a good one.
The eyes are also a useful focal point for when you are using wider apertures and higher focal lengths as this will create a very shallow depth of field.
With this setup, focus on the eyes and everything else at a different depth will have a blur to it, have a practice and you’ll soon be rewarded with some remarkable results.
6. The Golden Hours
The golden hours should be on any outdoor portrait photography tips list.
The golden hours occur approximately one to three hours after sunrise and about two to three hours before sunset and offers the photographer the golden opportunity to take photos with a pleasing golden hue.
Complimentary to any and all subjects, the natural and soft rays cast by the sun can be a godsend to photographers struggling to find “that shot”.
The softness of this form of light also removes any harsh shadows that may appear earlier or later in the day and so shooting during these hours can really help you to create those softer more intimate shots that you’ve envisaged.
Positioning your subject between you and the sun can also give a nice golden outline to your subject almost creating a golden silhouette.
Make the most of these hours as the time will fly!
7. Use a Reflector
You may think that with shooting outdoors you are completely out of control when it comes to lighting, well you kind of are but you can still manipulate it to better suit your goal.
Light, affordable and easy to use they should be an essential bit of kit for any outdoor portrait photographer. I like this one due to its price and portability factor, a must when shooting outside.
Coming in a range of shades for different effects, reflectors are a very versatile piece of equipment. For example golden shades can add a soft, warm and natural looking light, used in conjunction with the golden hours and you can get some real nice shots.
The brighter shades such as the whites will produce more neutral lighting and works well as fill lighting, something similar to the photo above could be achieved with this white reflector.
With the image above it probably wasn’t a reflector, they were just looking into the light but you can see that lighting up parts of the face with fill lighting really separates the subject from the background.
Another good tip for using reflectors is use your environment, if you’re out and about and there’s a large solid coloured billboard, use it as a reflector. You’ll come across plenty of reflectors in your environment both natural and man-made so make the most of them.
8. Avoid direct Sunlight
Shooting in direct sunlight can add a certain harsh, sharpness to your images that can diminish detail and give you a poorly composed shot.
When you do take photos in direct sunlight, you are likely going to end up frustrated as you won’t be able to manipulate the light to compose a better shot.
Aim instead for covered areas that still allow plenty of light but due to the cover the light will be much softer and natural looking and the shadows far less harsh.
In these covered areas, the lighting will more than likely be more manageable, combine that with the above tip about using a reflector and you can manipulate the lighting to get the result you’re after.
9. Shoot in RAW
Shooting in RAW format allows for far more control in post processing.
There two main formats that the majority of cameras allow you to use, JPEG and RAW.
You can think of the RAW format as the image being in its most raw state, that is it includes all of the data that your camera has just processed, nothing stripped back.
RAW is better because it allows you to make more adjustments without compromising picture quality.
You will need to have a RAW converter program to be able to work with RAW files on your computer, most use Adobe Lightroom.
10. Bring a Grey Card
A grey card is very cheap, but vet useful piece of equipment, if you can call a piece of card equipment!
This grey card is great, it’s easy to take with you anywhere and it also has a cross-hair for you to focus on, something that not all grey cards have.
Most cameras come with an option to set a custom white balance and this is where this bit of “kit” comes in very handy.
You simply take a picture of your grey card in the position your subject would be in and then navigate to your camera’s custom white balance option and select the photo you just took of the grey card. This should give you a good white balance.
You will need to repeat this if the light should change or you move location.
Another way of using the grey card is to use it for post processing purposes.
Just take a picture of your subject holding the grey card and in a post processing software such as Lightroom, adjust the white balance to you’re liking and you can apply those settings to all of the photos you took in that location, this can save you a lot of time.
11. Check for Distractions
This is a very simple composition tip.
Be aware of your subjects background, for example say you are taking a photo out in the countryside and you set your subject up, you take the shot and realise there’s a great big pylon behind ruining the whole feel of the shot.
By simply checking the borders and background of your shot you can avoid this annoyance.
With most photos you can always crop out the distraction in post processing so don’t worry if you’re unable to take the shot again.
Another tip you could try if everything in the shot is perfect but there’s just that one niggling thing you can’t get out of shot is to really widen the aperture to make the background and the distraction just a blur.
12. Sunny f/16 Rule
When in doubt a good place to start is with the sunny f/16 rule.
It dictates that on a sunny day with little cloud with your aperture set to f/16 your shutter speed will be one over your ISO setting.
Here’s an example:
- It’s a sunny day so you set your aperture to f/16
- Your ISO is set at 100
- So you set your shutter speed to one over your ISO which would be 1/(your ISO setting)s, in this case 1/100s
- Snap away!
This offers in most cases a very good exposure level but as always you may find that it needs some fine tweaking.
13. Consider a Flash
Maybe not what you’d expect to see on an article about the best outdoor portrait photography tips.
It might seem a bit odd to be using a flash when you are more than likely surrounded by much coveted natural light, but there are times when a flash can be used outside to get the best result.
A fill flash would be particularly useful when brighter lights cast a dark shadow across a part of your subject’s face and muffles the details.
I would recommend using an external flash as pop up flashes are just not as good even on high end cameras.
Some to consider:
- Canon Speedlite 430EX
- Neewer TT560 Flash Speedlite (great for those on a budget)
- Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight
- Altura Photo Professional Flash Kit for NIKON DSLR (comes with some pretty nice accessories)
If you decide to use a flash do make sure to adjust your exposure levels via narrowing or widening of the aperture, adjusting shutter speed and your ISO setting.
You can get pretty creative with the flash, just try lighting your subject from the side or head on to create a dramatic look to your photo.
14. Exposure Compensation
You can use exposure composition to quickly brighten or darken any shot by either increasing the EV (exposure value) so you’d have +1EV, +2EV etc. this would brighten the scene or decreasing the EV to -1EV, -2EV etc. to darken the scene.
For a lot of your portrait shots I’m sure you’ll probably use manual mode and so exposure compensation may not be needed, however there are times where manual mode can’t be used and exposure compensation can be a handy tool to use.
Exposure levels can be a matter of preference and for some shots the exposure levels are vitally important to the feel that the photographer wants to create.
With the image above I’ve exaggerated the exposure levels to show how different levels of exposure can evoke different feelings about a photo.
The under highly underexposed one has a more solemn and intriguing feel whilst the other has more of a summer vibe.
Darker shots generally evoke feelings of mystery and deep thought whilst brighter shots seem more happy.
Exposure compensation is the one of the quickest and easiest ways to quickly lighten or darken your photos.
15. Creative Compositions
You can follow all the composition rules to a T and you’ll get nice shots, great shots even, but it’s when you push, bend and even break the rules when you get truly outstanding shots.
Implement the composition rules that you learn and then try and add something new to add interest.
We don’t want the generic school photo pose, if you saw mine you wouldn’t anyway!
With the image above you can see that the photographer has taken the typical well lit, head and shoulders shot with a beaming smile stereotype and thrown it out the window, but the image still works.
It tells a story and I think they’ve used just enough of the subject’s features to do that, any more would just be unnecessary.
All I’m saying is that yes you do need to learn about the composition fundamentals but once you have, have a bit of fun with them, combine them, do the opposite of them, do a composition mashup and over time you will start to learn what you like, what you don’t like and ultimately it will help you to improve.
16. Scout the Location
This tip is quite an obvious one yet few will actually take the time to do it.
If you’ve been to a location with outdoor portrait photography in mind, then you’ll have a rough idea of where will have good lighting, possible areas for a good composition, softer lighting areas, backdrops, good locations to make use of the golden hours, etc.
Make a note of all of these things and then when the time comes to go and shoot there you won’t have to mess about trying to find the best places, angles and lighting.
Also do a bit of research to find out things such as:
- Footfall – will it be busy on the day you plan to shoot and how can you work around this?
- Weather – what will the weather be like and how can you prepare?
- Hotspots – are there any areas that other photographers recommend?
- Permissions – will you need permission to shoot on the day you plan to shoot?
- Anything else that will apply to your shoot.
A pose can make or break a shot and so you might find it useful to try several poses so that you can pick the best one after shooting.
Be sure to offer advice to your subject as without guidance they probably won’t know what look you are trying to achieve…. they’re not psychic!
The word pose can often conjure the image of teenagers on Instagram with the biggest pout known to man, but proper posing is absolutely nothing like this.
Of course posing can be bold and in your face (hopefully intentionally!) but it can also be subtle and barely noticeable.
The image above has a very subtle pose but adds far more than if he had a huge smile or no expression at all, in this case less is more.
Poses are great storytellers, done correctly they can help the viewer to empathise with the subject and this makes the picture far more engaging.
You should mix this tip with our next one to get the best out of both of them.
Possibly one of the most important tips of all, building rapport can mean the difference between a good photo and an outstanding one.
It is your job to help your subject feel completely at ease and relaxed, if they’re not then it will show in your photo.
Keep it fun and talk to them about what you want to achieve and what you’d like them to do.
If your subject feels comfortable with you then they are much more likely to be receptive to suggestions such as poses.
Sometimes you don’t even need to tell them to pose, just try to evoke the pose you’re after through what you say, something one photographer did by telling their subject that they were beautiful before taking their photo.
Go and Experiment!
Take these 18 outdoor portrait photography tips and experiment with them, different tips will suit different styles and situations.
Remember that these are just tips and that you can take them, rip them apart and make your own that will get you taking the best outdoor portrait photographs of your life!
What are some tips that you have for outdoor portrait photography? Comment below.