Outdoor portrait photography is so much more interesting than portrait photography in the studio.
When you choose to photograph outdoors, the world is your studio and you have an endless variety of backdrops to suit every imaginable style of shoot. Sure, you have the weather to deal with and here in the UK that can be a bit of a pain. However, it’s also what’s great about outdoor portrait shoots, because a windy day, a dramatic sky or rain soaked ground/streets adds so much interest to a photo.
Just because you’re photographing outdoors, doesn’t mean that you have to photograph with natural light only. Combining flash and natural light is so much better than using just flash or just natural light. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s first look at what’s involved with photographing outdoors, regardless of whether you use natural light, flash or both. We’ll look at:
- What is the best time to shoot portraits outdoors?
- Where’s a good place for outdoor portraits?
- What equipment do you need for photographing portraits outdoors?
- What camera settings suit outdoor portrait photography?
1. What’s the best time to shoot outdoor portraits?
I could just say the best time of day for portraits is the golden hour and leave it at that, because the golden hour, no matter where you are in the world, is amazing for photography!
Golden hour is the hour or two after sunrise and before sunset. The actual length of the golden hour varies, depending on where you are in the world.
The reason golden hour is so well suited to portrait photography outdoors is the:
- angle of the sun is flattering for portrait photography
- golden light is great for skin tones and adds great background color
Further reading: Golden hour photography; when is it and why is it so amazing?
But you don’t just have to shoot at that time of day. It all depends on the look that you’re going for and where you’re shooting – out in the open or in shade
I’ve photographed at all times of the day with good results. It’s just a matter of being aware of the angle of the sun and the shadows it’s casting on your subject.
Once you know about portrait lighting patterns, you can position your subject in relation to the sun for flattering shadows.
Further reading: 5 portrait lighting patterns you need to know
Also, if the sun is too bright and at an angle that it’s shining in your subject’s eyes, they’ll screw up their eyes, which isn’t flattering either. If this is the case, position your subject with the sun behind them. This will help to cut out unflattering shadows on their face and they won’t have to squint to see.
This of course means that you’ll be facing the sun, which is fine – you can wear sunglasses. What’s not fine is that if the sun strikes the front of your lens, the quality of the image will be reduced. It makes the image very faded and hazy. Sometimes so much so that even using the dehaze tool in Lightroom won’t help.
To avoid hazy photos make sure that the front of your lens is in shadow. This is why a lens hood is essential when photographing outdoors. If you’re still getting light on the lens, try to stand in shadow, or position your hand over the top of the lens the same way you would shield your eyes from the sun with your hand. Be careful not to let you hand show in the shot though.
Personally, I struggle to do this as I find my camera, with a heavy lens, a bit much to hold steady in one hand.
The worst time of day for portrait photography is midday.
When the sun is high in the sky the shadows it casts are very unflattering for portraits – your subject/s will end up with shadows below the eyes. If they have deep set eyes, it’s even worse as their eyes could be really dark with no catchlights.
A hot summer day with wall to wall sunshine looks and feels great, but it’s not as easy to photograph in as a heavily overcast day. Direct sunlight can be really unflattering on skin.
So on sunny days it helps to find shade for your subject to avoid harsh shadows.
That said, just because it’s overcast, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to worry about light direction or unflattering shadows. The shadows may not be obvious to your eyes, but your camera doesn’t see as well as you do and your subject could still end up with racoon eyes if you’re photographing at midday in overcast conditions. They’re just softer shadows than on a sunny day.
Further reading: How to use the sunny 16 rule for quick exposure settings outdoors
Which brings us to the next point…
2. Where’s a good place for outdoor portraits?
Before you set out on a shoot have a location in mind. Make sure that you know the location and what the light will be like at the time of day you intend shooting.
Scouting locations is absolutely essential to good quality outdoor portrait photography. Some of the requirements to consider when looking for outdoor photography locations:
- colors to suit the style of your shoot
- protection from the wind or rain
When you find a great location, you’ll end up going back many times. Each time you’ll become more familiar with the location, which is great for experimenting with new ways to use the location.
But just because you’ve found a few good outdoor locations, don’t stop looking. A portrait photographer can never have too many locations in their back pocket. You’ll need locations for different:
Further reading: 14 top tips for choosing the perfect photography location every time
I particularly like this location, because it is covered, so there’s no light from above to cause unflattering shadows. Also, there are windows on two sides (behind the model and behind me) and it is open to camera left. So there is a lot of natural light coming from different directions with different strengths. Perfect for portrait lighting with natural light only.
3. What gear do you need for outdoor portraits?
The honest truth is that to take great portrait photos all you need is a camera. Not even a fancy camera. Just a camera that you know how to use well. And we’ll get to camera settings shortly.
So now that you know you don’t have to rush out to the shops to buy more gear for outdoor photography, let’s look at what is used for portraits outdoors and why you’d want to use it.
If you’re outdoors you have all the space in the world, so it’s a great time to use a telephoto lens. For two reasons:
Using a longer focal length helps to blur the background, which is great in portraits for separating the subject from the background.
Shorter focal lengths can distort your subject. If you can step back and use a longer focal length, more suitable to portrait photography, you can create a more flattering photo of your subject. Anything from 70mm upwards is flattering for portraits.
This is why I use my 70 – 200mm lens more than any other lens, even though it’s my heaviest lens.
The other advantage in these present times is that you can shoot from a distance. So, if you want to get out there with your camera while maintaining a safe distance, a telephoto is the way forward.
If you use anything below a 70mm, don’t worry, you can still photograph portraits outdoors. Standing further back you’ll just have more of the background in shot. So, if this is the case, make sure that your background is good and there are no distractions to draw the eye.
As I mentioned, depending on the shoot, style and circumstances, I use a combination of:
- Natural light and flash light
- Just natural light
- Just flash
The same rules of lighting portraits apply to all types of light.
Of the three, my favourite is what I think of as “flambient light” – a combination of flash and ambient light (which is most often natural light).
It is true that the more you spend on lighting equipment, generally the better the flash output will be, which increases your ability to use flash even on very sunny days. However, you don’t have to spend a fortune on fancy lighting.
Start by using a speedlight and putting it on a tripod, or light stand, instead of on your camera. When you take the flash off camera it’s much more flattering than on camera.
Being able to position the light at different angles to suit your subject’s face shape will be much more flattering than blasting them with light head on from an on camera flash. It all comes back to the portrait lighting patterns I mentioned before.
Regardless of what type of light you use, it’s how you use the light on your subject that makes all the difference.
The sun is shining through the leaves behind the model and she is lit by flash (Profoto B1X).
Reflector – essential outdoor photography gear
When shooting with natural light in particular I highly recommend using a reflector.
If you position your subject with the sun behind them, a reflector is necessary to bounce light back into their face. This helps to make their face brighter so there won’t be such a big contrast between the background and the subject.
A reflector doesn’t have to be an actual reflector, although they’re so cheap and easy to pack into your bag, that I see no reason why you wouldn’t use one. You can however use anything that reflects light. In fact, a wall that the sun is shining onto is a great reflector – just stand with your back to the wall and position your subject facing you. It will reflect a very even light back into your subject.
Of course, you can’t just carry around a handy wall – which is why buying a reflector is a good idea. Or using a piece of white card, or a white sheet.
How you use the reflector is very important. Don’t just hold it below the subject’s chin as the light will be reflected back up into their face. This is neither natural (light shines down from the sun, not up) nor flattering.
Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one
4. What camera settings suit outdoor portrait photography?
With outdoor portrait photography you have to be able to adjust to different lighting conditions. On a cloudy day the light will change constantly as the clouds move across the sky and alternately block and reveal the sun. Knowing your camera settings will help you to adjust as the light changes.
These camera settings are:
- White balance
- Exposure triangle
- Shooting modes
- Drive modes
- Metering modes
- Autofocus area modes
- Focus modes
White balance settings for outside
I highly recommend not using auto white balance when photographing outdoors. Rather set your white balance manually using the most appropriate pre-programmed setting, such as sunny, cloudy or shade.
This way your photos will have a consistent white balance. Background, subject clothing and light will all make the auto white balance change throughout a shoot. Trying to then adjust the white balance afterwards on the computer will be time consuming as you’ll have to adjust each individual photo.
In Lightroom you can edit the first photo from the shoot and then sync global settings like exposure and white balance across the rest of the shoot, which is a massive time saver.
Further reading: What is white balance in photography and does it matter?
Shooting modes for outdoor photography
I recommend using manual mode, because it puts you in control of every aspect of the image. However, there are some situations where there’s a lot going on and manual mode can be trickier to use.
If you’re not comfortable in manual mode, here’s a quick rundown of when to use the different shooting modes:
Aperture – when depth of field is important and there’s not a lot of movement, especially erratic movement
Shutter speed – when your subjects are moving and you want to either freeze the movement or record the movement as a blur. Especially necessary with fast moving subjects.
Program – if you can’t face using either aperture priority or shutter priority. Use it while you’re learning, but try to move on from program mode as soon as possible.
Further reading: What are the best shooting modes to use and why?
Exposure triangle camera settings
Your exposure settings are dependent on a number of factors, including:
- how much light is, or isn’t, around
- where you’re photographing
- what you’re photographing
For example, if you’re in a dense forest, you’ll have significantly less light, even on a sunny day, than on the beach. You won’t be able to use high shutter speeds, so your subjects won’t be able to move fast. Unless you want blurry subjects.
Set your ISO low to 100 or 200, to avoid noise, especially if it’s not an overcast day and you’re not in a thick forest (for example).
Aperture – for a blurry background and or foreground, you need a narrow depth of field, so use wide apertures like F1.4 – F4.
Be aware though that the wider your aperture, the narrower the depth of field will be, which increases the risk of out of focus subjects, especially if they’re moving.
If it’s really bright, you might not be able to use the wide aperture that you want. On the other hand, if there isn’t much light around, you’ll have to use a wide aperture to let in more light.
Shutter speed – when there’s a lot of light, use a higher shutter speed. The wider your aperture the faster your shutter speed will need to be to compensate for the amount of light allowed into the lens.
A fast shutter speed of 1/500 is great for freezing the movement of moving subjects, but on very overcast days and in thick forest your shutter speed will have to be lower to allow more time for light to pass into the lens.
Further reading: How to use the sunny 16 rule for quick exposure settings outdoors
Metering modes for outdoor portrait photography
In portrait photography the person you’re photographing is the most important part of the image, and must be correctly exposed. So spot metering is always best.
Spot metering is particularly essential if the sun is behind your subject. Use spot metering to meter the exposure off their face so that your subject is accurately exposed, rather than the background.
If the sun is behind you, you can use matrix metering to meter the entire scene. Be aware, though that the background will influence the camera’s reading, especially if it’s much brighter or darker than the subject.
The best drive mode to use outdoors
Do you want to take just one shot at a time, or is there a chance you might need to shoot several frames per second? Portrait photography outdoors involves a lot of movement, so you need to be prepared for it.
For this reason continuous servo is the best drive mode to use. You can keep taking photos for as long as you hold the shutter button down, until the camera needs a break to catch up while buffering to the memory card.
You have two choices – continuous low and continuous high. The exact number of frames per second for each depends on your camera.
- Continuous low – take a few frames per second. Ideal for moving subjects.
- Continuous high – take several frames per second. Ideal for fast moving subjects.
Autofocus mode for outdoor photography
The great thing about photographing out in the open is that you have a lot of space to move around in. That of course means that in outdoor portraits, there’s a lot more movement than when photographing indoors. Especially if photographing young children, as they never stop moving.
So the best autofocus mode to use outdoors is continuous servo, rather than single servo.
With continuous servo, as long as you hold the shutter button part way down, the camera will continue to focus. For the best results with moving subjects, use this with back button focus.
Using back button focus will ensure a much higher rate of in focus shots.
Best autofocus area modes to use for outdoor portraits
With people moving and backgrounds changing constantly, there’s a lot going on when photographing outdoors. You need to ensure that you’re always focused on your subject, no matter what they’re doing.
For this reason I recommend using single point autofocus for portrait photography, even when photographing young children outdoors, or groups. It’s ideal for focusing on both still and moving subjects.
Don’t be tempted to use auto area autofocus, even though by default it’s the autofocus area mode set on your camera when you first buy it. The camera doesn’t know what you want to focus on and can often guess wrong, especially when photographing outdoors, where there are a lot of other things in shot.
Further reading: Nail your autofocus, get the shot
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By Jane Allan
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