When it comes to deciding on what to wear for a photoshoot outdoors, you need to think beyond putting everyone in white shirts and blue jeans. It looks okay, but it doesn’t look great and if you want great portrait photos outdoors, you need to start with clothing. Good outfit selection is the easiest way to take outdoor photoshoots to the next level for professional portrait photos.
In fact, portrait photography composition starts with outfit selection. It’s that important.
Planning what to wear for a studio session is easier than for an outdoors session, because in a studio the background is usually just one color and doesn’t stand out. In an outdoor photography session the background is very much part of the image so it really influences what to wear.
My top tips for choosing the perfect outfit for outdoor photos cover:
- Type of outdoor photoshoot
- Color palette
- Style of clothing
- Time of year – seasonal outfits
- Accessorize and layer clothing for variety
- Clothing details
- Bare feet or shoes?
Now let’s have a closer look at each of these factors and at the end I’ve included my absolute top tip as a professional photographer for planning what to wear for outdoor photoshoots.
1. Type of outdoor photoshoot
Not every portrait session has its own style of clothing, but while some outfits are perfect for one type of shoot, they just won’t work for other shoots. Even with outdoor family sessions some are more formal than others.
So it makes sense to first establish the type of outdoor session by answering these questions:
- How formal or casual is the photo shoot?
- How many people are involved?
- What are the ages (roughly) of the subjects?
- What type of location is it – beach, woodlands, urban, sports ground, the yard, etc?
2. Color palette for outdoor photography outfits
Choosing the right color palette is crucial, regardless of whether the outdoor session you’re planning is family photography, couple photography or for just one person.
Maybe the photographer decided on the outdoor location, or maybe the subject did. Whatever the case, the location is chosen for a reason. So the clothing color palette needs to work with the location colors for a cohesive look.
Color palettes for outdoor family photography
When choosing what to wear for a family photoshoot outdoors, rather than everyone wearing matching colors, like jeans and white shirts, choose a color palette of about three colors. For an even better look use different shades of the chosen color palette to style everyone’s outfits.
To figure out the best mix of colors, use the color wheel to select either a complementary color scheme or an analogous color scheme that also suits the natural elements of the outdoor location, time of year and mood of the photo. Complementary colors add a vibrant mood and analogous colors a harmonious mood.
Here’s what I mean:
Summer family photoshoot at the beach – the location colors are neutral, so a neutral palette works well. Pastels are also great, especially in the golden hour.
Fall family photoshoot in woodlands – the location’s natural elements are earthy browns and greens, so rich, bold colors help to create a warm, cosy look to fall photos outdoors. That said, a neutral and blue palette works in all situations.
Outfit color choice warning for outdoor photoshoots
Skin tones also have a big impact on what colors to wear for photoshoots. There’s a good reason why we look good in some colors and not others.
When light bounces off an object, it reflects the color of the object. This is why a white, silver or gold reflector creates neutral, cool and warm light respectively. So outfit color, particularly near the subject’s face, will affect their skin color in photos.
Some skin tones suit pastel colors and others suit bright colors. Green or strong yellow near the face for somebody with white skin can make them look ill, depending on the green or yellow tone. However, bright green or yellow against dark skin looks great.
If considering bright colors for an outdoor photoshoot it’s a good idea for the subject to take a mirror outside and hold different colors up to their face to see the impact they have on their skin.
3. Style of clothing for your outdoor photoshoot
Clothing is one of the ways that we express ourselves and show personality. So it’s important that the people in the photograph feel able to dress in their own personal style. In an individual portrait it’s easy, but when photographing groups or families, you need to accommodate the possibility of different styles of clothing. This is why color palette is step one – it creates unity in composition for group photos.
For an outdoor photoshoot clothing style needs to suit the location
Wearing a slick business suit on the beach is going to look odd in outdoor portraits, unless you want to juxtapose the outfit and the location to make a statement.
Outdoor photoshoot locations fall into 4 categories:
- Open country
Do you want the photo to stand the test of time or tell the story of the time?
We all know an 80’s photo the moment we see what the person is wearing. For a timeless look clothing should be classic rather than the latest trend. One is not better than the other, because it comes down to personal choice. It’s just one of the factors to consider when thinking through outfit ideas.
4. Dress for the time of year
You’d think this would be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve had to warn clients that the season they’ve chosen to have an outdoor session may not fit with their vision.
The best thing about the northern hemisphere is the clear change of seasons, because it offers great variety for outdoor portrait photography. Each season has a color palette and a type of clothing.
Colors – neutrals, pastels, yellows, greens, blues
Clothing – dresses, skirts, pants, jeans, shorts, t-shirts, long sleeves, cardigans, jackets
Colors – neutrals, pastels
Clothing – flowy dresses, short skirts, shorts, t-shirts, bare feet
Colors – earthy browns, greens, blues, purples, reds, oranges, yellows
Clothing – long skirts, pants, long sleeves, cardigans, jerseys, boots, scarves, hats
Colors – neutrals, browns, blues, greens, reds
Clothing – trousers, long sleeves, jackets, scarves, hats, boots
5. Accessorize and layer outfits for variety
Above I mentioned hats, scarves, jackets, cardigans and gilets. They’re great accessories for adding pops of color to outfits while also offering a quick variety of looks so that you can give your client a wider selection of images to choose from.
Layers and hats aren’t just for the winter months.
Texture is important in photography composition, so should also be considered when choosing what to wear. Outfits with different textures add interest to the image.
6. Clothing details of what to wear
What do all high end professional portrait photos have in common? Carefully selected outfits.
a) No logos, text or cartoon characters on clothing!
Our eyes are drawn to text, but they’re also drawn to eyes in a photo. So if your subjects wear clothing with logos, or text of any kind, it will create tension because attention will be split between the person in the photo and what they’re wearing. If they have cartoon characters on their clothing the eyes of the character draw as much attention as the subject’s eyes.
The viewer’s eyes will bounce back and forth from the eyes to the text or character. In portraits the first place we want the viewer to look is at the faces of the people in the photo. And we want the faces to continue to hold the viewer’s attention.
b) No bold patterns
Small patterns, are fine, because they don’t shout for attention. Big, bold patterns on clothing, however, demands our attention. So instead of the viewer’s attention going to the people in the portrait, their eyes keep getting pulled back to the loud pattern.
In a family portrait the person wearing a loud pattern will stand out more than the others. In a family photo this is very unsettling as you want to create an image of unity. You don’t want a family member to seem separate from the group.
Speaking of busy patterns, be careful of stripes. While big stripes are fine, fine stripes create a moire effect in digital images, which is very distracting. It’s the visual equivalent of nails being drawn down a blackboard.
Clothing should enhance an image, not dominate it. The only time that an outfit is more important than the person wearing it is in fashion photography.
c) Wear solid colors
When we say solid colors we mean that an item of clothing is a single color, like a blue shirt or brown pants or a red hat.
Clothing should be mainly solid colors. If you’re going to include patterns, make sure that you also include clothing with solid colors that match some of the colors in the patterns.
d) Ensure clothes fit well
Baggy clothing will make a person look bigger than they are. On the other hand, clothing that’s too tight will create dents and bumps in the wrong places, which will also be unflattering.
So clothing should be fit well to allow comfortable movement and not swamp a person.
7. Bare feet or shoes?
For beach photoshoots bare feet work well, but in woodland it’s generally not a good look. However, advising clients on footwear is more than a choice between bare feet or shoes.
Outfits for photoshoots involve the whole body, so the type of footwear can also make a big difference. For example:
- Wellington boots is a great choice for young children for a winter or fall shoot in woodlands.
- Teenage siblings wearing different color Converse trainers (or similar) can look good for a styled, but casual look.
8. Top tip for planning what to wear for a photoshoot outdoors
A successful portrait session always starts with good planning.
Create a Pinterest board for different looks and locations
Pinterest is a wonderful resource for portrait photographers. I always tell my clients that the easiest way to show them what’s in my head is to show them a Pinterest board that I’ve created with their shoot in mind. If it’s not what’s in their head, they can create a board and share it with me so that we can “get on the same page” before the photo shoot, rather than afterwards when it’s too late.
Click to see an example of one I made for you on The Lens Lounge Pinterest account
To make my life easier I’ve created several boards that I can pull pins from to create a personalised Pinterest board per client. I have Pinterest boards for different:
- Color palettes
- Types of outdoor portrait photography (family, couples, swimsuit, etc)
One last thing, because most photoshoots outdoors use natural light, you also need to bear in mind that the color of light changes throughout the day. Golden hour at the start and end of the day offers a wonderfully warm light that looks great with all skin tones. Unlike the harsh cold tones of midday sun.
It also changes with the seasons. In winter natural light is cooler than in summer, so you might want to add a bit of warmth with a different white balance setting or add it in afterwards when processing the shoot.
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Now that you know what to wear for an outdoor photo shoot, you might be interested in how to pose a family of 4. You can also adapt these poses for bigger groups.
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