Simple Tricks for Better Outdoor Portraits
CAN THESE TRICKS MAKE YOUR PORTRAITS BETTER?
Learning to shoot outdoors is as valuable a skill set as learning to shoot in a studio. Unlike often tightly controlled studio work, shooting outdoors requires photographers to pay attention to a host of variables that are either outside their control or must be accounted for.
Light can change quickly, environments are unpredictable, and both people, objects, and animals can change the entire look and feel of a scene. These tips will help any portrait photographer take advantage of the benefits of shooting outdoors.
But before we get into the tips, let’s look at some quick reminders:
- Take your time and pay attention.
- Choose your location carefully, and remember to be safe: mountain trails are beautiful, and city streets are exciting but wild animals and speeding cars are a real thing.
- Frame your subject purposefully, keeping the background in mind.
- Be careful of your white balance when large objects and varied light sources can introduce color contamination. The open shade of a canopy or light on the grass can introduce lots of green to your skin tones.
- Shooting in raw can help you retain information for post-production even in difficult lighting situations.
- Drink water.
- Wear sunscreen.
Now that we’ve covered a few of the basics, let’s look at some simple tips that can improve your outdoor portraiture.
USE THE SUNLIGHT IN YOUR PHOTOS
Model Bradley Garcia with grooming by Kimberly Davis
It’s easy to default to open shade while shooting outside. It’s generally even, big, soft, and flattering. But full sunlight is very dynamic, and it can add contrast, depth, and shape to your portraits.
Of course, it may require some concessions, such as a smaller f stop and deeper depth of field, but sunlight can create surprisingly flattering light and interesting shapes.
Tip: find areas that create natural fill light, such as concrete buildings, sidewalks, windows, or neutral colored cars.
In this image, the sun bouncing off the sidewalk creates natural fill light that reduces the light ratio on the subject.
In this shot, the sun creates a standard loop light pattern that makes the subject’s skin glow.
FIND PROPS FOR POSING SUBJECTS
Models Tessa Hooper, Bradley Garcia, Ari Williams, Dakota Leffler with Makeup by Kimberly Davis
Most portrait photographers have props, posing tables, apple boxes, stools, and other tools to help their subjects pose. But outdoor spaces can also provide numerous natural props portrait photographers can use to help their subjects pose naturally.
Trees, fences, the sides of buildings, railings, stairs, rocks, there is an abundance of tools photographers can take advantage of to help them create compositions as well as give their subjects something with which to interact.
When you’re shooting outdoors, don’t forget to keep your eyes open for places in the environment that can create visual interest while giving your subject something to do. Posing with no prop can be incredibly difficult for most people, and having something to interact with takes the pressure off and lets them relax into more natural and comfortable postures.
ADD A STROBE TO YOUR SHOOT
Just because there’s often an abundance of light outdoors, that doesn’t mean you can’t add more! Bringing a strobe outdoors lets you create eye-catching effects because you options you can’t create with only available light.
You can do things like underexpose the sky for drama or create a flattering light shape on your subject’s face in the shade for contrast.
And while open shade is lovely, it often benefits from a slight pop of fill flash. When done subtly, so it doesn’t damage the overall light shape, fill flash will keep light in the eye sockets, brighten up the skin, control the contrast, and help your subject stand out against the background.
Actor Rodrigo Tactaquin
PLAN FOR THE SUNSET IN EVERY PHOTO SHOOT
There’s a reason photographers love that golden sunset light: it’s softer than standard daylight, more diffuse, warm, and the air is filled with atmosphere that helps create mood.
And while the directional light of a sunset is fantastic, don’t stop shooting when the sun goes down! Continue shooting even when the last rays of the sun disappear, as twilight just starts to set. There is still lovely light coming from the sky, and clouds will often be at their most dramatic just before the light fades.
USE COLORS FOR YOUR CLIENTS TO TELL A STORY
The wealth of colors and textures is one of the best parts of shooting outdoors. There are color pallets of every kind to be seen, and if a photographer keeps their eyes open they can find colors to use and take advantage of.
Contrasting colors can make for a striking portrait, complement the subject's outfit or skin tone, and speak to the personality of the location.
USE A SHALLOW DEPTH OF FIELD
Shallow depth of field is a tool photographers can use while outdoors to separate their subjects from the background and control the focal point of the image while still creating a sense of place.
Depending on the situation, lighting conditions, and whether or not you’re also using flash, shooting with a wide aperture outdoors may require the use of an ND filter, but most of the time can be accomplished with a fast enough shutter speed.
A creamy background is something most portrait photographers drool over, and it provides a clean backdrop for portraits that lets the subject shine.
FIND AND USE OPEN SHADE FOR LIGHTING
Open shade is one of the easiest, most accessible, types of outdoor lighting to use. It's generally flattering, can be found almost anywhere, and makes a portrait photographers job infinitely easier when they can't carry around lots of gear.
Find a place where there is a large source of shade, then pay attention to how the light strikes the face of your subject. The close you get to the edge of the light, the more distinct light light shape on the subject's face will become. As you watch the light on your subject, just be sure their eyes get plenty of light. If it's too dark, you might have them raise their chins a bit, or add a reflector or a pop of fill flash to brighten up the shadows.
Models Janelle Tejan and Caitlin Badinger, with hair and makeup by Kimberly Davis
Shooting portraits outdoors can be an amazing experience, but photographers have to be quick on their feet, paying attention to a hundred details and changing scenarios. With so much to think about, these tips should take a bit of the weight off and provide direction for what you can take advantage of when you shoot.