From finding the right location to understanding natural light, here are essential outdoor portrait photography tips to take better portraits on location.
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September 2019. It’s been freshened up with new pictures and commentary on January 1, 2020.
Why natural light is important
Natural light is a great way to learn portrait photography because it’s everywhere. By shooting in natural light, you’ll learn the following:
- Navigate tough lighting situations.
- Understand the direction of light.
- Shoot during all times of the day.
- Work with different backgrounds and sceneries.
- Shoot in harsh and soft light.
- What different camera settings do and how to adjust them.
- Perfectly expose images.
These are all benefits of shooting in natural light and when you practice often, you can better understand your camera and light.
8 outdoor portrait photography tips
Here are 8 simple outdoor portraits photography tips that’ll immediately elevate your portraits.
1. Use a prime lens
Using a fixed focal length will help you grow quickly because you’ll have to move around and shoot from different angles instead of being able to zoom in and out.
Although zoom lenses are great, practicing with a prime lens can help you be more creative and understand how a specific focal length affects the look of an image from different distances.
Now, many will say to never use a lens that has a shorter focal length than 50mm but you can.
Portraits that are up close and only show half of the body requires a 50mm or longer but if you’re shooting environmental portraits, which is a type of portrait where the background plays a role in the photo, a wide-angle lens is key.
Often, lenses with a fixed focal length have larger apertures. A large aperture is important because it allows you to capture a shallow depth of field. This means that you can blur out the background and focus on your subject.
A challenge that you’ll experience shooting outdoor portraits is the background. Due to the many factors and environment, there’ll be distractions behind your subject.
Using a large aperture such as f/1.8 or f/1.4 can create a smooth background without distractions.
2. Shoot towards the darkness
Shooting with the darkness behind your subject will ensure that the image is well-exposed. When the background is brighter than the foreground, you’ll either have to underexpose your subject or overexpose the background.
Shooting into the darkness will save you a lot of time and help you capture beautiful outdoor portraits.
3. Use a reflector
A reflector is a great way to light up your subject’s face. This is great when the light is behind your subject because their faces will naturally be underexposed.
Another way to use a reflector is to illuminate your subject’s face when they’re in the shade. If you’re shooting in harsh light and don’t want to get hard shadows, have your subject stand in the shade.
When you’re in the shade, you may notice underexposure or uneven lighting, this is where the reflector comes in. Use the reflector to add light to your subject’s face and move it around to get even light.
Tip: Have your subject close their eyes while you find the perfect spot for the reflector.
A collapsible reflector is awesome for travel because it folds to a smaller size and is affordable too. They’re one of the best ways to add light to underexposed areas without a flash.
4. Diffuse harsh light
The purpose of a diffuser is to soften the light and are helpful during midday sunlight. When you’re using a diffuser, keep in mind that the closer the diffuser is to your subject, the softer the light will be.
Soft light is directly correlated with the light source. If you want to get softer light, the source needs to be big and close.
5. Turn the other way
To create an eye-pleasing portrait, have your subject point their nose towards the light source while turning their body away from it. This creates contrast while illuminating their faces.
This type of pose can be done standing or sitting. Remember to crop your subject between their joints. When you crop them at their joints, it causes the photo to look awkward and unpleasing to the eye.
6. Head above or below the horizon
When there’s a line going through your subject’s head, that’s called spearing and it’s distracting as viewers look at the portrait. This is especially important when you’re shooting outdoor portraits because of the horizon.
The way to resolve this is to ensure that your subject’s head is either above or below the horizon. This will keep lines from going through their heads in the background.
7. Foreground blur
Capturing foreground blur makes the portrait more interesting to look at and creates depth in the photo. There are many ways to add foreground blur, you can use a leaf, tree branches, your hand, or any other item in front of the camera lens.
You can also use the foreground to frame your subject. For example, if there’s a bush nearby, shoot through the bush and focus on your subject because the blurred out bush will create a frame around your subject.
If you add foreground and background blur with a sharp focus on your subject, it’ll be obvious that the focus is on them.
8. Check for squinting
You’ll know when it’s too bright because your subject will squint. No one looks good when they squint so make sure you check your subject’s eyes before you press the shutter.
Instead of looking at the sun, tell your subject to look towards the sky or use a diffuser to soften the light. If you need to shoot with your subject facing the sun, you can have them close their eyes as you position the shot.
Once you’ve found the perfect position, count to three, and have them open their eyes. You might only be able to capture a couple of photos if you do this method, so preparation is key.
Commonly asked questions
Here are answers to common questions you may have about outdoor portrait photography.
What’s the golden hour?
Golden hour occurs during the early morning or as the sun is setting which creates a warm glow.
What are the best settings for outdoor portraits?
Settings quickly change with the environment when shooting outdoor portraits. However, here’s a good baseline: ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/500. If the image is too bright, increase your shutter speed and if it’s too dark, decrease your shutter speed.
Does white balance matter if you shoot in RAW?
Technically, it doesn’t matter because it’ll be easy to adjust in post-processing but what you should consider is time. By getting the perfect white balance out of the camera, you won’t have to spend time adjusting it when you edit the photos.
Use these tips and techniques when you’re shooting outdoor portraits. By applying these tips, you can shoot during any time of the day regardless of the lighting situation.