Every photographer aspires to shoot professional-looking images, and in this in-depth tutorial we reveale the recipe that makes up all good outdoor portrait photography, offering expert photography tips on everything you need to know about this subject, from composition and kit to camera tips, flash techniques and more.
We’ll start by covering the equipment you’ll need and how to nail the basics down. And over the following pages we’ll explain some of the other key aspects of outdoor portrait photography, such as how to control depth of field, which lenses to use and simple flash techniques you can use to transform your outdoor portraits into something special.
Even if you can’t guarantee wall-to-wall sunshine, summer is the perfect time to shoot outdoor portraits.
There are long hours of daylight that allow you to shoot from dawn until dusk, it’s usually warm enough for both you and your model to spend plenty of time outside, and most people are generally just that bit happier in the summer compared to the depths of winter, which makes getting natural, flattering portraits a little easier.
Capturing great outdoor portraits takes a little more than just a sunny day and a willing model, though. So here’s our straightforward guide to all the shooting and lighting techniques you’ll need to master outdoor portrait photography. From controlling natural light and mastering depth of field to balancing exposure and fine-tuning flash, we’ve got it covered.
What you’ll need
You don’t need masses of costly equipment to get great outdoor portraits. Here are some basic items that you’ll need to get started:
- Standard zoom lens
Want to take your portraits to the next level? This additional kit will extend your lighting options, and help to give your photos a more professional look:
- Fast prime lens (such as a 50mm f/1.8)
- Telephoto zoom lens
- Wireless flash trigger
- Flash diffuser
Master the basics of outdoor portrait photography
Before you delve into more advanced outdoor portrait photography techniques, you need to master the basics. Here’s how to get started…
One of the great things about outdoor portrait photography is that you can shoot almost anywhere, from your back garden to a glorious tropical beach. But it’s important to know how to get the most out of any location you choose.
There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to working a location. If the location adds to your portrait, you can include the background, but if the location isn’t particularly photogenic, try using limited depth of field or tight framing to concentrate attention on your subject.
For the most striking portraits, it’s often best to keep things simple, so try to shoot against uncluttered backgrounds such as the sky, a wall or foliage. This will help your subject stand out.
However, like most rules, there are times when it’s best to break them – particularly when you’re shooting environmental portraits where you want to show the surroundings almost as much as the subject itself.
Composition and framing
Try to position either your subject’s face (on a half or full-length portrait) or eyes (on a head-and-shoulders or close-up shot) using the rule of thirds. This gives a much more balanced composition than if they are in the centre of the frame.
When shooting closer than full length, you’ll need to think carefully about framing. A good rule of thumb is to avoid cropping the portrait so that any joints such as knees or elbows come too close to the edges of the frame.
How to make the most of natural light
Bright summer sunshine might seem like the perfect light for shooting outdoor portraits, but these conditions can also produce the least successful results. With the sun high in the sky, ugly shadows will appear under your subject’s nose, chin and eye sockets.
It’s also worth remembering that looking into bright sunlight will make your model squint, resulting in unflattering shots. Use these simple tips to get the most from the light…
01 Find yourself some shade
A simple solution is to position your model in a shady area. Don’t forget to watch the white balance setting though. If the background is still in bright sunlight it can make your model’s skin look too blue, because it will choose a daylight white balance, rather than shade.
02 Wait for some cloud
If you can’t find any shade, and there are some clouds in the sky, you can try waiting for the sun to disappear behind cloud for a natural diffused effect.
Shooting in changing light means that you’ll need to work quickly to get your shots though, and you also need to watch the exposure.
Make sure that you set the exposure for the model, rather than a bright or dark background.
03 Diffuse the light
If there aren’t any clouds to diffuse harsh light, you can get a similar effect by holding a diffuser between the subject and the sun. The diffuser can be as simple as a piece of translucent white cloth or one made specifically for the purpose.
This works very well for head-and-shoulders portraits, but it can be impossible to find a big enough diffuser to diffuse the lightfor a half- or full-length shot.
Even for head-and-shoulders shots you’ll find it much easier if you have a willing assistant to hold the diffuser in position.
04 Shoot into the light
For a completely different look, try getting your model to face away from the sun, and shoot into the light. You’ll need to avoid under-exposure, because the bright background will fool your camera’s meter. Try using +1 or +2 stops of Exposure Compensation (download our free exposure compensation photography cheat sheet to learn more).
If you find that there are shadows on your model’s face, or it’s simply a bit too dark, using a reflector is one of the simplest ways to add some light. These come with white, silver or gold surfaces, which reflect light in different ways for slightly different effects.
A white reflector gives the subtlest results of the three, while silver reflects more direct light back onto the subject. Gold is similar to silver, but produces a warmer effect that’s perfect for portraits.
Simply position the reflector on the opposite side to the light source to lighten the darker areas of your subject, banishing ugly shadows in order to achieve a more professional finish.
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