13 Tips for Improving Outdoor Portraits

13 Tips for Improving Outdoor Portraits

Outdoor Portraits present portrait photographers a variety of challenges and opportunities. Today James Pickett suggests 13 tips to help you with your outdoor portrait work.

With my very first digital SLR there was a sigh of relief, everything was going to be so much easier now and I didn’t have to think anymore.

You know the scenario; you pull the camera out, charge the batteries, go for a walk around the house and down the street taking the same pictures you have taken every time a new camera came into your life. “This is great!” you think to yourself, “this is going to make my life so much easier!” I was wrong… In fact, I was dead wrong.

There are three very simple things that improve all photography, including portraits. To this day, there is no trick I have found that replaces the need for proper exposure, white balance, and sharp focus. Today’s digital cameras have less exposure latitude than a roll of Kodak gold film. In-camera metering systems have become much more advanced, but the sensors still lack the seven ƒ-stop exposure latitude that negative film has.

1) Never select all of the focus points for portraits, pick one.

When you pick the autofocus option that allows the camera to select focus points, you are doing your portraits a terrible disservice. This feature of a camera is usually designed to pick whatever is closest to the lens and focus there. In some cases, like with my 1DS Mark III, the camera will choose a cluster of focus points and make a “best guess” based on averaging the distance between all of the chosen points. Using one focus point gives you, the photographer, ultimate control.

2) Always focus on the eyes.

The eyes are the windows to the soul, and should be the focal point of any good portrait. Not only are the eyes the most important part of a good portrait, but they are the sharpest element on the face and should be left that way. When you are shooting with a wide aperture value focused on the eyes, the lens’s bokeh will aid in softening the skin as well.

3) Shoot wide open for shallow depth of field.

There are quite a few reasons to invest in a fast lens capable of wide aperture values; the most common is for shallow depth of field. Now that you can shoot at ƒ2.8 or ƒ4 you should use it. Most fantastic natural light portraits are from wide aperture values and it is all because of the wonderful smooth background blur we call “bokeh”.

4) Never, ever, shoot a portrait at less than 50mm; try to stay at 70mm or higher.

The last thing you want to hear from a client is “Why does my head look swelled?” Any focal length below 70mm can distort your subject, however it doesn’t become very noticeable until you are below 50 MM. The compression effect of a telephoto lens will also increase the blur of bokeh. Most of my portraits are done between 120mm and 200mm.

5) Always shoot in RAW.

A thousand times these words have bellowed from my mouth, and it will surely come out a million more. Raw is an unmodified compilation of your sensors data during the time of exposure. It is your digital negative. When you shoot in JPG format, everything but what the image processor needs to make a shell representation of the image you intended to capture is stripped away. For every edit you make to a JPG, you lose more data. With RAW, you can make a vast range of edits before creating the JPG. How can this make you portrait better? Think about the last time your white balance was set incorrectly, and you tried for hours to remove the color cast only to destroy the image with every attempt. RAW would have saved you by allowing you to fix the color before opening the image for retouching.

6) Always bring a gray card or a piece of a gray card for white balance.

You got me, gray cards aren’t free. However, $5.95 US for a cardboard Kodak gray card is darn close. To avoid confusion, I am going to explain this backwards. When opening Adobe Camera Raw or any other RAW image editing application there is always a way to select a custom white balance. Usually it is an eyedropper of some kind that you can use to click on what you think is neutral gray in your image. Imagine a world where your photo shoot involved 4 locations and a total of 800 images, and all day the camera was set to Auto White Balance. That is 800 different white balance values, a post production nightmare. If, at each location, you have your subject hold the gray card on the first shot, you will save hours of work. When you open location one (200 images) in your favorite post production application, all you have to do is click the eye dropper on the gray card, select all and synchronize the rest. Precious hours have been saved. (If you plan on taking your time, it may be wise to do this once every 30 minutes or so to compensate for the changing light of day.)

7) Shoot in the shade (Avoid direct sunlight)

Direct sunlight is harsh, makes your subject squint, and creates hard directional shadows and unpredictable white balance conditions. When shooting in the shade, there are no more harsh shadows, only smooth milky shadows created by your subject’s natural features. With proper exposure and white balance, you can make these shots look amazing.

8) Shooting carefully on an overcast day.

Natures softbox is a giant blanket of clouds. A good heavy blanket of cloud cover can help you enrich your colors, and make some very smooth and pleasing shadows.

9) If you must use hot, hard, bright light…

Always try to control the direction, use some kind of reflector, and try to mimic a studio light. Putting the sun directly behind your subject isn’t a good idea, unless you are trying to make a silhouette. When the sun is at my back, I have the subject look off camera (away from the sun) and get very nice results. Another great trick is to wait for a cloud to move in front of the sun, this usually creates a very bright yet contrasted look.

10) Use an existing reflector.

For example, my guess is that about 75% of the delivery trucks on the planet are white. These big white delivery trucks can make amazing fill light reflectors as long as they weren’t painted with an off white. (A yellow tint can change the white balance in your shadows.) Picture framing outlets and craft stores always have medium to large sized pieces of foam core lying around that have been left for scrap. They are usually more than happy to part with these scraps, and if not, chances are there are pieces by the dumpster.

11) Learn the sunny ƒ16 rule.

Why? So you have a baseline for proper exposure in your mind to work with if no other tools are present. The sunny ƒ16 rule states that on a sunny day, with your aperture value set to ƒ16, your shutter speed will be the inverse of the current ISO speed. For example, if your camera is set to ISO 100, and your aperture value is ƒ16, your shutter speed will be 1/100th of a second. On a cloudy day (or when in the shade) you simply use ƒ8 instead. If you own either an incident light meter, or gray card use either for the most accurate exposure instead. (Note: the procedure for metering exposure with a gray card is not the same as a custom white balance.)

12) Bring a sheet and a few spring clamps from home.

Leave the expensive 200 thread count sheets on the bed. You already got them? Well go put them back. You know that cheap old sheet you stuck in the corner of a closet to use as a drop cloth the next time you paint? Go get it. (Another option is to buy the cheapest, lowest thread count, white top sheet you can find.) A queen size sheet is an amazing, cheap, diffuser. Sort of a sever foot soft box for the sun. Wrap an edge of the sheet around a branch or clothes line and clamp for a side light. (Anchor the bottom corners with rocks to keep it from blowing into your image.) Clamp all for corners to anything you can above your subject for an overhead light.

13) Keep the power-lines and signs out!

We have already discussed keeping your camera focused on the eyes; keep your mind focused on the image as a whole. Power lines, signs, long single blades of grass, single pieces of garbage, sometimes even trees can be serious distractions from the overall focus of the image… The person you are photographing.

Last, and most important, have a great time shooting, enjoy what you’re doing and it will show in your work, and the expression of your subject.

A few Bonus Tips on Shooting on Cloudy Days

Clouds are wonderful. They create a giant blanket of natural sunlight diffusion to make your images rich and powerful. The clouds can fool your mind in ways you can’t imagine, much like your mind corrects for the natural white balance throughout the day.

When you are shooting on an overcast day, custom white balance is especially important. Every day is completely different for color, and that color depends on two things. First, the time of day, as most people understand white balance and how it changes throughout the day. Second, you have to account for all of the wonderful things that light has to pass through before it hits your subject.

Pollution changes the color of the light from minute to minute even if your eyes don’t see it, your camera does. On a cloudy day, pollution particles are being carried around in the sky by little tiny prisms; water droplets. Now your sunlight is passing through nature’s prism and reflecting off of pollution particles in infinite directions.

Don’t forget to white balance with that custom, tricked out, six dollar piece of cardboard, your Kodak gray card.

The ultimate secret to shooting on a cloudy day is a compass. (You either tipped your head like a confused Chihuahua or just had an epiphany.) I am an experienced, internationally published photographer, and rarely can I see where the sun is coming from on an overcast day. The light isn’t omnipresent; it’s just diffused, softened and scattered. Sunlight on a cloudy day is still directional, and your subject still has a dark side. Use a compass to find out where the sun is, put it at your back and shoot like mad. Never again will you look at an image after and wonder why the sky is blown out when it was so cloudy, or why the clouds look great but your subject is dark.

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Some Older Comments

  • Miles April 26, 2013 03:02 pm

    i have worked with a wide angle in outside portraits and this was taken with a 20mm on a 5d https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=146108798903266&set=a.130431373804342.1073741826.130424133805066&type=1&theater&notif_t=photo_comment

  • Kamen Kay October 2, 2012 01:46 am

    A really nice and helpful article on my favourite type of photography. Please check my tutorial as well it has some additional info and samples.
    Enjoy, comment and share!

  • Tanya July 27, 2012 01:26 pm

    I need help understanding camera talk:
    1-never select all focuss points
    2-Shoot wide open for shallow depths of field
    Please give camera settings so I know what it means. Thanks

  • Patuch January 25, 2012 06:56 am

    This was an informative web page. I liked the tips so I copied them for my own photography "things to remember".

    I started shooting just over a year ago. I've had two classes and there's a studio class coming up next month. I bought lots of things; flashes, lenses 2 bodies, backdrop and many other photo related things. I'm sure anyone who is in this hobby knows what I'm talking about. It can get endless.

    I have good lenses so now it's just learning how to utilize them best. Five of them are all 2.8 aperture and I have the Nifty Fifty which I need to start using more. I got caught up with the other focal lengths and forgot how great of a lens it is.

    I've been shooting portraits with my 70-200 but I think I need to get the 50mm involved more after reading the things written here. It's great having people who post informative and knowledgeable lessons learned for all of us to shoot by.

    The comments are good too.


  • Pilgrim Photographer December 30, 2011 11:45 pm

    Thanks for another useful article!!!!

  • kimchanvibol December 9, 2011 01:58 pm

    hi brother and sister may i ask u some question? when i used ef 50m 1.8 II and ef 50m 1.4 got back and front focus problems, but for telephoto len look no problem. i wonder so much please help me. y my camera or len problem? how to solve it?

  • sally December 3, 2011 10:22 am

    Kathleen you are my hero!!! LOL, seriously your explanation just now is the culmination of months of me trying to "get it" in how the relationship works between ISO, shutterspeed and Fstop! I'm passionate about photography and might even make it a business someday. I've gotten by on some basic understanding and mad photoshop skills, lol, but I know if I can just have better control over my camera I could be unstoppable because of my love and passion for the art. Your quick post has changed things for me and I'm so thankful for your willingness to share your knowledge with us!

  • Kathleen Krueger October 13, 2011 04:51 am

    Hillary, You can use a higher number for the f-stop to get a greater depth of field. You must increase you lighting by decreasing your shutter speed or increasing your ISO to balance the lighting. This may be more detail than you would like but it is a recipe for perfect lighting.

    ISO (film speed or sensitivity) + shutter speed + f-stop (the size of the opening of the lens) = perfect lighting

    The higher the ISO number the "faster" the sensor responds to light so the less light it needs But it will also will be more grainy because it isn't using every bit of the surface of the sensor as effectively as a lower ISO.

    The higher the number of the shutter speed the faster the shutter opens and closes and the less amount of light it lets in. Higher shutter speeds allow you to "stop" action while slower speed may need a tripod to keep them from becoming blurry due to hand shake. Shutter speeds are a measurement of time the higher speeds which usually read 250, 500, 1000... are actually fractions of a second. So, 250 is 1/250 of a second, which means the sensor only sees the image for 1/250 of a second and light only hits the sensor for 1/250 of a second.

    (Side note: I was taught that you should avoid hand holding the camera when the lens is larger in mm than the time of the shutter speed you are using. If you are using a 250mm lens you should not hand hold the camera with a slower shutter speed than 250 because of hand shake blur. A 60mm lens can be hand held at a shutter speed of 60 or above and should still have a sharp image.) I don't typically use a shutter speed below 45 without a tripod no matter the lens size because I just can't hold that sill. Even at 45 I try to find a place to prop and shoot at the end of the exhale.

    F-stop is a fraction measurement for the opening of the lens which confuses people very easily because the higher the f number the smaller the opening f16 would be 1/16, were f2 would be 1/2 which is a larger opening than 1/16. Now that I've said that, I can explain how the opening works. The very center of the lens is the most focused part of the lens when the lens is wide open (wide open means the f-stop is the lowest "f" number) then the edges of the lens are not going to be in as sharp of focus as the center (lenses are curved --- think about how glasses work). If you use a f-stop that is higher, like f16 then you are blocking off the edges of the lens because you have closed down the aperture (opening) of the lens. This means that the image the sensor sees is limited to the center of the lens and the more focused area of the lens. It is not cropping your image it is only limiting the part of the lens you use to see the image. Because you are closing down the aperture, which increases focus but makes the hole smaller, you need to get more light to the sensor either by keeping the shutter open longer (which means slowing down the shutter speed) or increasing the ISO number (the sensor's sensitivity to light).

    Adding an additional external light source is necessary when you can't balance the perfect lighting equation without it .

    Hope that helps.

  • Hilary VanBrunt October 10, 2011 11:35 am

    What a great article, Thanks! I wish I'd had this a year ago when I was starting out. The last problem I am having trouble getting over is when I DON"T want a shallow depth of field. When I have a landscape or group and I want everything in focus-I have trouble. I've looked into the infinity manual thing and that hasn't really worked. I know if I use a higher f-stop, that theoretically should work, right? Any help will make my life so much easier. You explained the items in this article so well, I know you can help me out. Thanks!

  • Sharon mallinson September 28, 2011 06:59 pm

    Interesting article backed up by fascinating range of comments!

  • Sarah August 23, 2011 07:57 am

    Folks have already mentioned the problem with "always / never" statements, especially with #4. But it does help to master and know the "rules" first, then you can break them with confidence. Also, #9, harsh light or not, shooting directly up someone's nose is rarely flattering for portraits. I'd use a different image to illustrate that section. Having harsh sun directly in the subject's eyes (sun behind you) is rarely ever a good idea. You just need a flash fill when you have the sun as a back light or split light, which looks better IMO. Oh, be careful advising people to shoot wide open so much. Too many newbies already shoot everything wide open, and it does not work for every situation. Some clients might complain that they don't see the details of the portrait location that you all traveled to. What's the point of a location portrait if you can't tell what the background is in any of the pictures? Some are okay, but not the entire session. It also doesn't work so well with pairs and groups when you need more than one face to be sharp. Wedding photographers typically have to deal with harsh afternoon light since we rarely have the luxury of shooting the bulk of portraits at more optimal times of day. Shade is your rule, then developing your favorite techniques out in harsh sun are also important. Who has time to wait for a passing cloud during wedding portraits? and I'd argue the same goes also for any by-the-hour portrait session. You think small children have patience to wait for the perfect overcast lighting conditions or that they will be "on" when you are lucky enough to have the perfect cloud passing? Yeah, right. You better have several techniques down pat. You certainly can't rely on clouds to cooperate. For weddings, we're restricted to a limited window of time on the overall wedding day schedule for portraits, so if you're primarily shooting weddings, coming up with your best practices to work with less than optimal lighting situations during portraits, and throughout the day for that matter, will be paramount for doing good work consistently.

  • RAKESH August 22, 2011 11:20 pm

    can we shoot video in macro mode with any dslr cameras ?

  • Ken p August 14, 2011 04:45 pm

    One note on white balance: if one is shooting raw then it is not a critical consideration.
    Also rather than never shoot in bright sunlight, it can make a pleasing high- key photo as long as the main subject of the portrait is exposed right.

  • Prophoto Wedding Photographer - Perth, WA August 13, 2011 06:37 pm

    I agree totally with shallow depth of field so much more flattering and focus on the eyes always far more pleasing to see crystal sharp eyelashes and also a medium to long focal lens 85mm f2.8 is the ideal outdoor portrait lens but a versatile all-round 70-200 f2.8 will always be useful in all outdoor portrait situations.

  • Somsubhra Chatterjee August 13, 2011 03:25 pm

    Thanks a lot for sharing those good & useful tips!!

  • Kathleen Krueger August 13, 2011 02:55 am

    I loved this article. Thank you James for giving a simple outline with useful detail of specific tips for improving outdoor photography. I agree with everything you said, especially for beginners that need a good foundation to build on. I also think your advice is great for non-beginners that skipped the rules, jumping in with instinctive talent, and are ready to learn the rules so they can break them with control and depend less on happy accidents.

    @ #4: I agree with the issues with using a wide angle lens and distortion especially for full body shot. As my instructor pointed out, "Look at the feet, did you mean for them to be twice as big as the head?" Oops. If you are going for Natural, the eye sees at about 50mm which makes it natural to us. Take into consideration whether your sensor is full 1:1 or not (say 1:1.5) effects the lens choice. My senor is the second so I multiply my lens length (50mm) times sensor (1.5) which mean my 50mm lens makes an image that looks like it was shot with a 75mm lens. If I want 50mm I shoot with a 34mm.

    I love the comments and responses. The information being passed around is like food for my photographers soul.

    @ Shannon her #1 tip Read the Camera Manual is my #1 tip. I finally read mine 2 years after I got the camera because my teacher needed me to sync it to strobe and I didn't think it could. Not only can it but there is a whole lot of things it can do that I never knew and it is only a Pentax K10D. I know...It let me use my film camera lenses, someday I'll be able to afford a real camera. :) By the way, I really like what Shannon shared.

    @ James tip #5 shoot RAW.... Yes Yes Yes Yes!!!!!! If you have never shot in RAW try it. RAW captures every pixel as it's own color. It is uncompressed. When you process the image either through the camera's raw processor or the raw window when opening it into Photo Shop you can adjust the exposure, contrast, brightness, blacks, fill, recovery, clarity, vibrancy and saturation prior to compression so your adjustments are going to be better. One of my instructors told me to always shoot in RAW until I was good enough to shoot a perfect image every time... and then I should still shoot in RAW. Yes it is more time consuming to process but I only work with the best shots anyways and I want them to be their best so I use RAW. I do shoot jpg on occasion and RAW +JPG when I have enough memory on my memory card and I'm in a hurry but I accept the difference. Not for a limited number of quality portraits though, they get RAW treatment.

    @ Shallow depth of field: It is possible to go to shallow. I do it way too often. I was told to focus on the bridge of the nose if the face is turned. This is how I judge depth of field. From the point of focus, twice as much will be in focus behind as what is in front of the point of focus. If there were 4 rows of people the second row would be the best row to focus on. Applied to a face, If you have a shallow depth of field and focus on the eyes then the nose to the ears should be in focus unless the depth of field is too narrow. If so, increase the depth of field -this means increase the number of the f-stop/ aperture. If you want more of the image in focus raise the number of the aperture (f4, f5.6, f8, f11...), if you want less in focus lower the number of the aperture (f4, f3.5, f2.8, f2...).

    @ ISO: Is a reference to film speed (sensitivity to light). Digital has created an approximation which is base on film ISO. ISO 100 is not very sensitive to light because it has more "pixels" that need more time to react to light which also make it have a finer grain (less pixilated and smoother look). It gives you the most "pixels" to work with but it needs lots of light. It is great for brightly lit subjects that you hope to enlarge to huge print images. ISO 800 is much more sensitive to light because it uses less "pixels" that need to react to light but it is more grainy. It is good for low light caused by environmental lighting or fast shutter speeds to stop action. The higher the ISO the less light it needs but the grainier it will be. The graininess of your ISO is also effected by the quality of your camera and senor. The better the camera the higher the ISO you can go before the image gets disturbingly grainy. I'm using "pixels" as a reference to simulated grain, not the specific size of the image.

    I also break rule about putting the sun behind your subject, slightly to the side. I like the rim light effect it gives but I use a fill flash or white board (sometimes both) to reflect the light back onto my subject so they aren't a silhouette. I also try to avoid shooting directly into the sun because I've heard it is not good for the sensor.

  • Steve Hepburn August 11, 2011 01:22 pm

    Claire has given a thorough start point. May I add a little?>) ISO: = camera sensitivity to light. Aperture is the size of the opening in the back end of your lens: lower fstop number = bigger opening. It is actually a ratio but don't get that involved yet! Shutter speed is how long the shutter opens to let light hit your camera's sensor and make an image (sensor = film in the old days). If you took a photo at ISO 100, f4, 1/100th of a second and it turned out perfect, and you changed the ISO to 400, aperture f4, the shutter would double in speed twice - 1/400th of a second for the same clear picture. All 3 interact. If you set your camera to Aperture mode and turn it as low as you can go (biggest opening), your shutter will go faster and give clearer pictures. Turn up the ISO for better results, but be careful: as ISO goes up and sensitivity increases, the blacks start to get grainy and fuzzy - grey. I'd start about ISO 400 or 800 - see how they work. As Claire said, a great lens to grab is the 50mm f1.8. For my Sony it was $128 Canadian. It's aperture is 1.8, where your lens' is likely 3.5 zoomed out and 5.6 zoomed in. May be a small change in numbers from 1.8 to 5.6, but it would cut shutter speed from 1/30th sec for a clear picture to about 1/250th sec. or same shutter 1/30th in a much darker room. Much clearer final image. Also, as aperture size increases, depth of field drops. That is the amount of in focus part of your picture. If you took a photo of someone holding your baby at f1.8 and you were about 5 feet away, the baby's eyes and maybe ears would be clear. The person holding him / her would have slightly blurry features and fuzzy ears. Great for portraits. Dial the fstop to say 22 and you'll get a clear image 100 feet deep (that's a guestimatimagination)! Hope this helps! Have fun!!!

  • Kelly August 11, 2011 10:41 am

    Have my first photoshoot this Saturday with two toddlers (both almost 2 years old) and a 7 month old baby... feeling nervous and excited - we're meeting at 10am, hoping the light is good at that time! I have a Canon T3i and I'm not sure if I should use my 50mm lens or my 18-55mm lens. Any thoughts/tips/advice anyone has for me would be greatly appreciated!


  • Photozen10 August 11, 2011 09:04 am

    I love love love your blog posts! There is always something to learn and it is always something of quality and not just BS blogger content. I did not know about the 50 mm distance rule when shooting portraits! Thanks and keep up the good work! :)

  • michelle August 10, 2011 11:38 am

    @ Claire; Thank you so much for your advice and suggestions. I will put them to use very soon :0)

  • Claire August 9, 2011 02:10 pm

    @michelle: My first piece of advice is to swap the 18-55 lens with a 50mm 1.8 (a very inexpensive prime to start out with)...if you have the money then I would upgrade to the 50mm 1.4. Secondly, if the manual isn't sinking in, try going onto Nikon's website and go through your camera's digital instruction manual. The site has a lot of examples that really helps you comprehend what you are reading. After that shoot as often as possible...you will learn a lot from your mistakes. If you can sign up for any classes that will really help too. Since you are a mom, I recommend Clickin Moms (clickinmoms.com). It is a website for all types of moms (not actually a requirement to be a mom or even a female)...and is for beginners to professionals. You can buy a lifetime membership for a relatively low cost. It has a lot of resources plus it has online and in person workshops. I highly recommend it in addition to this site. Books are also great references and just studying others work is great for training your eye.

    For the live show shots, I am assuming that there is low lighting. Are you shooting in manual mode? If you are not, this will make the biggest difference in the overall look of your shots and you need to learn it but that is a whole other overwhelming discussion. The 50mm 1.8 will help you in the low light situations esp if you are shooting in manual mode and you'll have to learn the proper iso, shutter speed and exposure settings. (look up the golden triangle rule when it comes to iso, shutter speed, and exposure...it'll explain how they are al related.) However, a tripod will also help minimize any shake. If you have a remote shutter release, that will help reduce shake as well. I would concentrate on getting a few good shots instead of rapid fire shooting and hoping that one comes out...that ability will come in time.

    Oh and just as a reference for ISO...remember back in the day when you had to buy film? Well keep in mind that when you were outside on a sunny day, you would use 100 speed film, inside 400...same thing with the ISO...the less light you have typically means the higher the ISO needs to be set.

    Lastly, it sounds like you are trying to tackle a lot of things at once. Maybe it would be less overwhelming if you started taking outdoor shots (I would recommend late in the day...closer to the golden hour for the pretty lighting) as you learn your camera. Not to say you shouldn't practice on the stage stuff but don't focus on it because it is too advance to really learn if you are just starting out. Photography is a very time consuming hobby but if you are really interested in it then it is very rewarding.

    Best of luck in your journey...remember, everyone has to start from scratch at some point.

  • michelle August 8, 2011 08:23 am

    Wow! I am a bit over whelmed by all the information here. I just went from a basic kodak pocket digital camera to a Nikon D3100; 18-55mm. I've bought nothing else to go along with it yet. I am a mom who wanted better home photos of my children and family and the wife of a musician who would like to start taking better live shots of their shows. So my range of pictures to take is all of the above; indoor, outdoor, on stage, close up, far and action and learning all of the attributes of camera has been a bit daunting. There is so much information that I just don't understand and specs of my camera that i don't know how to set or when to use them. I have read through the manual over and over but the info just hasn't sunk in yet. Your information here has helped some. My biggest problem so far has been the live show shots where I am taking multiple photos in fast succession and half turn out blury. The guys are very interactive with the crowd musicians and use the whole stage when they play, often getting into the crowd. So catching some of these shots are difficult because while I am shooting several pictures per second they're not clear... And what is ISO mean exactly, what is the purpose of this feature? Thank you for any guidance.

  • Andy August 7, 2011 02:36 pm

    Good lauzzy...I didn't think anybody knew what a compass was anymore, much less that they could be used for something else than navigation!...(but if the overcast is so thick you need a compass to find the sun, I'd suggest another high tech device to use in conjunction...a watch...

  • Keith Brown August 6, 2011 03:39 am

    I've had great success & positive feedback from breaking rule #4. Probably a third of my portrait work involves telling a story that links a person with either their work or hobby place. I often shoot at 20-45mm and limit DOF by shooting wide open. The trick is to shoot level to avoid horizontal distortion.

  • Lou August 5, 2011 10:58 pm

    Great tips. Thanks.
    On the sheets though...............200 count = expensive?
    See someone else had the same humor
    ALBEIT refuted as were most comments.

    I loved the article even more after taking the time to read every comment.
    Reading the "tips" from the perspective of classic portrait, everything made great sense.
    All the lens comments against the under 50 didn't not seem to hold true against the intent of the article.

    Thought too it was great that James took the time to explain what he meant after specific comments.
    As others pointed out additionally, it was concise

  • Steve Hepburn August 5, 2011 03:53 pm

    @Amy F.-presuming you mean a wide open aperture by "wide", say f1.4 or f1.8, you may be limiting your gear's ability to capture mother and daughter sharply. If the plane in focus is only 4 inches and the subjects are one behind the other, there is no way both sets of eyes can be in focus. Stop it down to 2.8, 3.5, even f4 - experiment a little to find what you like. Give a little bokeh and gain tack sharp subject.
    Also, remember that the closer you are to a subject the shallower your depth of field. Back out a little and watch that plane of focus grow, so long as it doesn't compromise the perspective of your subject to background, although if this is the problem, I doubt you can even tell what the background is if it's more than 5 feet behind the subject.
    Hope this helps! Snippets of wisHdom from an amateur that longs to capture great images!

  • Claire B. August 5, 2011 01:37 pm

    I agree with the others on #4...esp the never ever part. I am a child photographer and shoot with a Nikon D700. I love the quality and bokeh of the 85mm 1.4, however, I felt too far away from my subjects...esp the little ones. I used to shoot mostly with my 50mm 1.4 but was getting bored with how predictable the images were becoming since it is essentially what the human eye sees. For fun, I asked for a 28mm 2.8 (a very affordable lens) for my birthday and LOVE IT. The pictures are more fun and create a sense of whimsy plus I can get much closer to my subject and the interaction allows me to capture their personality. Another plus is that since the lens is so short, I can hand hold in much lower light situations, which is great since I prefer shooting only with natural light. I appreciate this article and feel it has helpful tips but definitely think that NEVER EVER should be kept from a photographer's vocabulary. You never know what you are going to get when you use a lens for something other than what is "advertised"...that is half of the fun of photography - being creative and an individual.

  • Matthew August 5, 2011 08:36 am

    It seems that there are always people that disagree with what is posted. To me these post serve as guide lines on how to achieve a specific style or type of photography, a starting point. I've learned in Photography classes in college, is that once you know the rules than you can break them. So when it says never ever use any lens under 50mm I see it more as, IF YOU DO THAN UNDERSTAND THAT IT MIGHT NOT GIVE YOU THE DESIRED RESULTS. This post seems more focused on the photographer who doesn't know where to start. I love reading DPS and will continue to do so for all the tiny bits of information that I pick up that I didn't know before. Even the wisest of men can learn from the most foolish (not calling anyone a fool, but that you should never stop learning, cause once you do you shut your mind off and you cease to grow).

  • david smith August 5, 2011 03:13 am

    Thanks for a great series of tips. I am already a RAW convert. I damaged a lot of JPEG images before realising what was degrading my images (too much manipulation/re-saving). Now I only convert to JPEG when I need to for prinitng or forwarding images, I still retain the original RAW picture with all it's data.

  • Joe August 5, 2011 03:03 am

    Thanks. When you mention focal length, what sensor size are you talking about?

  • Amy F. August 5, 2011 01:36 am

    Question for #1...when shooting wide, with one subject and one focal point, which eye should you put it over? Or should you do bridge of nose? I've had trouble where one eye (where focal point was placed) is sharp but the other is soft. Also, when you are shooting wide with one focal point, but you have more than one subject (mother and daughter say), who's eye do you choose? Again, I've struggled with getting multiple subjects tack sharp when shooting really wide, even when they are on the same plane. A brief description on how you compose a shot like that would be helpful (focus where?, recompose?, etc.). Thanks! Love this site BTW...have learned SOOOO much!

  • Jessica August 5, 2011 12:46 am

    Great tips, but that second photo (with the little girl) is so photoshopped, it shouldn't even be in this article! It looks like she's been spray painted with fake blush and contact lenses. Sorry, I'm throwing the b.s. flag. Beautiful images ARE possible with photoshopping. IMO, it is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.

  • Heidi in PW August 4, 2011 02:33 am

    @Shannon: Thank you for sharing what has taken you years to learn. I would love you thoughts on my work if ever you have the time. www.beachplumphotography.com.

  • Jean-Pierre August 3, 2011 06:08 am

    My take on outdoor photos:


  • PhotoshopWarrior August 2, 2011 08:43 pm

    Thanks for the awesome lessons,

  • rimple August 2, 2011 11:12 am

    I want to learn more about gray cards and how to use them, i use a canon t2i and having a bit of trouble finding a ideal tutorial with example shots...

  • Griff McGrath August 2, 2011 05:37 am

    This was a really great article. As someone that's just getting into portraiture (and who has made more than a few mistakes) these tips will really help me out. Thanks for contributing!

  • marty holden August 2, 2011 04:24 am

    Thank you for the lesssons. Ive read all the tips u sent me and i have been reinspired.

  • bryan August 2, 2011 01:26 am

    focal length also affect the compression of an image i agree shoot longer lengths unless the distortion is what u are going for

  • Oscar James July 31, 2011 07:49 pm

    I hardly ever comment but this article was really informative. Thank-you :)

  • Jim B July 31, 2011 06:08 am

    I love these tips!

  • Rosie Rogers July 31, 2011 05:52 am

    Great tips. A love these kinds of posts on this blog. More please!

  • scottc July 31, 2011 05:31 am

    I'm not a portrait photog but these are great tips! #10 is unusual, never thought of those options as reflectors before.

    Unfortunately, no delivery trucks parked on the Acropolis in Athens (at least, not yet).


  • Vibeke Dahl July 27, 2011 08:06 am


    Great tips! If you want some more tips for out door photography with photo illustrations, click on the link above.

  • Shannon June 4, 2011 04:41 pm

    First, let me say that I shoot portraits for pay, but it's not the only source of my income, so I'm what you'd call "semi-professional". That said, outdoor portraits I shoot with a Canon 5D-Mk II, a 24-70 2.8 L, a 70-200 2.8 L II IS, a 580EX II flash, Gary Fong "Cloudy" diffuser and a flash bracket.

    I avoid using on-camera flash if I can, because I *despise* flash shadows in my work, and even with the bracket and my diffuser, I still get them on occasion - especially from the jaw onto the neck. If you must use a flash on the camera, avoid "pop up" flash at ALL costs. Get one that sits in the flash shoe on top of the camera. I have yet to find the better of the Fong "Cloudy" flash diffuser for studio quality light on the go, and a flash bracket will put the shadows behind the subject in most cases. Well worth the expense.

    My lenses: I want to like the 70-200 more, but I find that the 24-70 stays on my camera 85%+ of the time. It's not quite as sharp, but I find that I prefer working closer. Makes it much easier to communicate with the model or subject when you are trying to do a full length environmental shot if you're not down the block from them.

    F/stop: I shoot f/stops between 5.6 and 8.0 for portraits. Why? Because that gives me sufficient depth of field to get both eyes sharp no matter what, while giving me the maximum background blur. 6.3 is my usual favorite. Working fast, I don't always have time to find a way to make everything I need to be sharp in a portrait, sharp, at wider f/stops. If you have the time to slow down and the opportunity to position the subject just right, 2.8 etc is great, but it requires you slow down considerably and be very precise with plane of focus.

    Color balance: bring a piece of white paper. Hold it up. Fill the frame. Turn AF off. Shoot paper. (Make sure it's flat.) Then use the image for custom wb. Cost: Nil.

    Exposure: You can meter on a lot of free things and get accurate exposure. The blue sky, for example. Most grass. You can meter on Caucasian skin and adjust by +1. You can meter on plain ol' cardboard, too. The unprinted side of cereal boxes work fine. Generally, unless you're filling the frame with the metering subject, use spot metering mode. Or, you can just use Matrix metering, and adjust for the lighting conditions.

    The biggest tips I would give an aspiring portraitist:

    1. Master your camera. Read the manual a dozen times, and then read it again. You should be comfortable with knowing how to make your camera do anything it can do without slowing down or looking it up.
    2. Master exposure. Once you have done that, the world is your oyster. You can turn day into night and night into day and everything in between. Properly exposed images also tend to have much better saturation, richer colors and more "pop".
    3. Choose one portrait lens, shoot it till the cows come home, and master it.
    4. If using a flash, favor a flash diffuser and bracket unless you specifically want to produce an image that lacks the results these tools give you. Proper flash work will make people drool at how good the results are if you know when, where and how to use it.
    5. Shoot RAW + JPEG, and shoot it right IN CAMERA. Then you have the backup of RAW if you need it, but can just drop it out of camera, slap a copyright watermark on it, and print/publish. Redundancy, insurance and speed: the best of all worlds.
    6. Train yourself to notice everything in the camera's view BEFORE you snap the shutter. Look at your subject. Look at your background. Make adjustments as necessary. THEN snap the shutter. Stray hairs, hands out of place, wrinkled dresses, telephone poles, power lines, stray branches, signs - all these are easily avoided if you consider the the final image before you snap the shutter.
    7. Humans like angles, so angle the body. In probably 80% of the portraits I shoot, I have the subject tilt their and turn their head to one side or the other to some degree. In almost 100%, I have them facing their torso at about a 45 degree angle to the camera. In about 50%, I have them looking off to the side of the camera (a couple feet to either side of me). It really makes the difference.
    8. Learn to capture genuine emotions. This is a combination of timing and knowing how to evoke the responses and expressions you want without directly asking for them. Want your subject to smile? Make them laugh. Kind of hard not to smile when they're laughing. And how do you make them laugh? Tell a joke, and laugh at it yourself. They'll usually take the cue of laughing when you laugh. Or, you can "snipe" the best expressions. I did a shoot yesterday with a girl who I told a joke to and made her laugh, but I didn't shoot when she thought I would. I waited until the smile had faded about 2/3rds from her face instead. Why? Genuine expression. Sure the smile was *mostly* genuine, but she was expecting me to take the shot when she smiled, so it was not entirely natural. What I got by waiting another 1.5 seconds was a natural, contemplative look, with the hint of a smile. A portrait with a genuine expression is always a better seller than one with any other kind, in my experience. And remember, the eyes and mouth both need to be considered to know whether the expression is genuine and natural. If the eyes are not smiling, but the mouth is, it's not a smile. The eyes lead the emotion.
    9. Learn to read expressions, too, and pay close attention to them. Fire the shutter when the expression on the subject's face "says" what you want it to say. Happy? Having fun? Contemplative? Curious? Delighted? Wistful? All these and more can make for wonderful portraits.
    10. Prefer shade, but don't forget to consider the background. Shade is wonderful, but when the background is blown out, it's not much good unless you did it on purpose. Also, avoid dappled splotches of sunlight on the subject if you place them in shade, as these will blow out and usually look terrible. Also be careful to make sure your subject isn't looking into the sun, because they'll squint. Squinty eyes bad.
    11. If you can, get a 5-in-1 diffuser at least 24" circular and find someone to assist you by holding it. Gold tone is wonderful for warming up skin, and the translucent white can be used as a beautiful studio quality diffuser for close ups and quarter length shots, with the sun coming through it. My diffuser is 3' x 4' and definitely requires an assistant. Not much use on windy days, but if I have to shoot in flat out noonday sun, I have my assistant hold the white diffuser between the subject and the sun, and then I shoot close in, with as wide an aperture as I think I can handle. The diffuser can be part of the background at the same time, too.
    12. Know your area. Know what makes a good background, and know where such places can be found. Know the light characteristics for those areas for all times of day, and know how to get your shot no matter what time of day the subject is being photographed. Know how to be safe getting to and from those locations, and remember that too much background blur will negate the value of even the best background.
    13. Learn to see color casts. The image at the top of the article, for instance, has a horrible blue color cast. If you can see them, you can avoid them much more easily in camera.
    14. Follow the Rule of 3rds for body placement if you're doing an environmental shot, and feel free to use it for eyes only on closer shots. Not a hard fast rule, but definitely useful. I typically place the body to one side and one or both eyes where two "thirds" would intersect in one corner. For face only, or close-ups, I usually center the head and put the eyes on the top "third" line, sometimes have each one at the corner "thirds" intersection points.
    15. To master portraiture and develop your own style, study the work of everyone who does it who you can find, and figure out what they do that you like, and how they did it.
    16. Practice, then critique. Critique the day you shot it, and then wait a few weeks or months and look/critique again. Find every flaw you can, and then avoid doing what caused that flaw in the future. Ask others to help you critique your work, and look for more experienced photographers especially, even more especially those who do this for a living.
    17. Don't be afraid to fill the frame with the subject's face, or even just their eyes alone sometimes.

    This is how I ended up getting paid for my portraiture. Hope it helps. :)

  • JRF May 25, 2011 08:34 am

    Thank you, helpful to remember those little things that make a great photo

  • val kelly March 30, 2011 10:49 pm

    Great tips James thanx - exactly what I was looking for.

    I'm an aspiring self teaching photographer who's recently made the decision to take that leap and immerse myself more in to my photography, particularly portraiture. Coming across your article has been a god send, now just need to put the things I've learnt into practice.

    Thanx again


  • Behnam Safarzadeh October 14, 2010 05:50 am

    amazing article, thank you.

  • Action Sports Photographer October 13, 2010 04:20 am

    Very good advise. I liked them all, but my favoriet that stands out is your example in #9. Something about the nice blue sky and the subjects angle and look just make it very inviting to me, almost angelic. I bookmarked for future reference.

  • Candy October 11, 2010 06:15 am

    I sincerely appreciate this article and the advice (presented with some humor!). James, your patience in explaining your rule #4 is saint-like, truly. People who are experienced enough to argue with your advice probably do not really *need* the advice to begin with. I am a complete and utter amateur (as far as actually trying to understand the science of my photography) and it HELPS tremendously to have some straight and narrow rules to follow while I get to know my camera and the relationships between my settings. I also donate my services to those who could not otherwise afford it. So having some great tips works well for me to make the best use of my donated time and to provide my subjects with portraits they will be proud of. There is NOTHING more frustrating as a beginner to get home and find a ton of blurry shots (oh wait, but her left ear is in perfect focus!) because I strayed from the rules without yet having mastered them. LEARN THE RULES FIRST, then go break them. Excellent article!

  • Techward September 8, 2010 11:17 pm

    Thanks for the tips on lighting. Good stuff.

  • Melinda B. August 18, 2010 08:15 am

    Though I think the focal length can be played with, this was still a great article!

  • leanne August 7, 2010 07:08 pm

    great article with some really good points, I will definitely try the grey card and compass idea. Thanks!

  • Tyler Wainright July 21, 2010 05:26 am

    It's articles like this that makes me wish DPS had threaded comments...hell, I even have them on my tiny blog. It would make the conversation so much easier to follow.

  • John Goss-Custard October 17, 2009 03:02 pm

    Wonderfully helpful article on taking portraits outside!

  • Joe Marfice September 30, 2009 12:33 am

    Just to clarify:
    "A wide-angle lens necessarily is up close, if you’re taking a head shot"
    "If you use a wide-angle lens to take a head shot, you are constrained to take the shot up-close (which will cause those problems I just mentioned)."

  • Joe Marfice September 30, 2009 12:31 am

    Ken, you've nailed it. For head shots, straight-on, a picture taken from up close exaggerates the nose, wrinkles, and may recede the chin as well (if taken from above center). A wide-angle lens necessarily is up close, if you're taking a head shot.

    However, most of his shots, even up close with wide angles, have a broader scope than the face. This one:
    Joe McNally swimmer shot

    is a perfect example. You can see how exaggerated the swimmer's nose is - she might even be self-conscious and dislike this photo - but it's a great shot! Because there's so much there than just the face, you don't dwell on facial proportions when you look at it.

  • Ken September 29, 2009 03:37 pm

    I appreciate and enjoyed the majority of your tips and I applaud you for your efforts to help people. The only thing I take issue with is the statement "Never shhot a portrait less than 50mm) Joe McNally is one of the wrolds most reknown portrait photographers and mentions in his website he shhots the majority with wide angle lenses. It is how close you stand andwhat type of portrait you are shooting. For headshots I agree with you, but for so many other portrait styles wide angle works great.

    Check out Joes's work here...http://portfolio.joemcnally.com/

  • Julie July 4, 2009 03:12 am

    Great tips. I shot a wedding (first time) last weekend, and followed some of these instinctively, but I wish I had read this first!

  • James pickett June 23, 2009 03:37 am

    @ Fp Mulligan, excellent point for everyone with natural landmarks.

  • James pickett June 23, 2009 03:36 am

    @david I personally always leave my camera set on 5400 deg K to simulate daylight film. I Like to see what the light actually would look like when i open the images in PS and do the WB with the gray card from there.

  • Zim June 8, 2009 01:10 pm

    Thank you for the tips!

  • F. P. Mulligan April 30, 2009 12:31 am

    Correction to the compass tip: If you are shooting in an area where you have a large landmark, such as a mountain range, a compass is unnecessary. The landmark should be far enough away that there is no significant shift in direction when you move around in between shots. i.e.- I live in the Denver area, and so I always have the Rockies to the west. Thus, I can always estimate the sun's direction based on the time of day, time of year, and the relative direction of the mountains. The great part about this technique is that it is hardwired into the brain, as landmark based navigation was an essential instinct before the days of maps, and thus intuitive and nearly automatic.

    So just a little tip for those of you who weren't Boy Scouts.

  • David April 17, 2009 05:46 am

    Hey James.

    I really liked the gray card / white balance tip in #6, but wanted some clarification.

    I understand that you use PS to set the neutral gray value based off the card the model holds, but are you also setting up and shooting with a custom white balance during the shoot? Or, are you just shooting on auto white balance mode on location, and then letting PS do all the leg work later?

    I guess the question is auto white balance and post processing compensation, or custom white balance on location, and post processing compensation.


  • Biliana April 16, 2009 07:07 pm

    Thank you so much for all these TIPS :) some of them I knew but it is helpful - esp. the Tip 4

    Thank You


  • Joe Marfice April 15, 2009 01:46 pm

    Nick, you totally caught me goofing my terms up! Perspective remains constant; it's foreshortening that changes with focal length. D'oh!

  • Nick April 14, 2009 12:09 pm

    joe -- Do you have any examples showing the perspective change in cases where camera position remains constant?

    BTW, here are a couple of poss. helpful links:



  • Joe Marfice April 14, 2009 11:38 am

    Nick(April 2nd, 2009 at 1:32 am), you said:

    Re: Focal length — it’s not the focal length that causes (or prevents) perspective distortion. It’s where you stand when you use the lens. If you try to fill the frame with a 35mm lens, you’ll be standing a lot closer than if you fill the frame with a 105mm lens; this is what changes the perspective — not the focal length itself.

    You can stand back with a 50mm lens, crop in, and get the same perspective as with an 85mm or 105mm lens — at the cost of some resolution.

    Sorry, but that's incorrect. A relatively simple raytracing will prove it.

    "Perspective distortion", as it is referred to here, seems to actually refer to perspective, or foreshortening, which is based on focal length, and perfectly even across the detector (so no amount of cropping will affect it).

    For a salient example, think about the super-zoom views of major league pitchers on the mound. The batter seems to be about 10' in front of the pitcher - massively foreshortened! - but no distortion, which is to be expected for high-quality telephotos.

  • alan April 14, 2009 06:25 am

    Good article.

    Like others, I also disagree with "Never ever..."

    For people, tis true that close up shots with wide-angles will distort facial images, but not all clients may want a "normal" portrait.

    Wide-angle, close up shots of pets make for great pictures.

  • jamie April 14, 2009 04:50 am

    You forgot one of the best rules. Convert to B&W if the photo is beyond repair.

  • James pickett April 12, 2009 12:05 pm

    @EVERYONE Thank you for the compliments. Always appreciated!

  • James pickett April 12, 2009 12:02 pm

    @David Marrapese I personally say use the biggest flash you can and diffuse it "somehow" even if that means bouncing off a ceiling or wall.

    @cheri, I am using camera raw in CS4, I believe you should have a dropper method in LR2, not entirely sure.

  • Sarah April 12, 2009 10:05 am

    Thanks for all the tips, really appreciate it!

  • Lucian April 10, 2009 06:54 pm

    one of the best 'classes' I attended to, thx a lot !!!

  • Cheri April 10, 2009 03:16 pm

    This is one of the most informative portrait photography posts I've seen to date. Great stuff! Thanks for the seeds! I would be interested to know what raw post processor you are using that allows you to use an eyedropper to correct color. I use LR2 and, as far as I know, I don't have that option.

  • David Marrapese April 8, 2009 01:56 am

    I shoot with a Nikon D100 & D200 I use a SB900 Nikon flash and a SB50 DX for a slave when needed.my question Do you believe in using a flash diffuseness on a flash.like the one that comes with all flashes,or the whale tail ,and the list goes on. Paul hogan said a diffuser takes a small flash and makes it smaller, he said he never uses a diffuser,I would like you idea on the subject .

  • Mark-B April 7, 2009 07:08 am

    "Any focal length below 70mm can distort your subject, however it doesn’t become very noticeable until you are below 50 MM."


    This isn't exactly true. Using a wide focal length does not distort your subject. If, when using a wide focal length, you get close enough to your subject to fill the frame, your close distance can cause perspective distortion. If you keep your distance from your subject and crop the image or if you shoot full body or environmental style portraits, focal lengths wider than 50mm are just fine.

    Here's one taken with the Sigma 30mm f/1.4, then cropped to a head & shoulders portrait:

  • kenjiK April 7, 2009 05:50 am

    These are "tips". Feel free not to follow them or add more to it. Free your "creativity". But for beginners and amateurs these are valuable tips not rules. Thanks for the tips. I myself always bring a reflector and an external flash for fill in lighting when I shoot outdoors.

  • Mr.Moha April 6, 2009 09:54 pm

    thanx for the advice.

  • Kenneth Hyam April 6, 2009 08:11 pm

    This is a phenomenal post. There is a fantastic array tips which together make a whole new understanding of how to use a camera out of doors. Many thanks.

  • Edsar April 6, 2009 04:49 pm

    James, excelent post so much to learn thank you!

    #4 as i read the advice not to take portraits with focal lenght less than 50mm, immediately I reviewed and compare and look for obvious difference that i took last night for my 1 year old son before going to bed I used 20mm focal lenght lock it there actually it was funny distorted and some kind of stretched images as you have to be very close to your subject, but the result that i took last week end during saturday was far better with minimumfocal lenght of 70mm since the lens I used was canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS USM.

    This only proves that taking portraits with not less than 50mm in focal lenght will give you more formal and more natural looking image.

    Although as a non pro. photography in general image result still belong to anyones perspective and preference. remember you are the master of your own work.

    Thank's everyone. happy shooting

  • nazir April 6, 2009 04:13 pm

    very good thing i learned from you tips
    i am not a professional photographer but i like to be
    i don't even have a good camera
    any way thanks

  • Justin April 6, 2009 12:59 pm

    Great article. I think #4 is a great general rule, but "never, ever" and creativity in photography don't mix. I believe I was reading something from Joe McNally (may have been someone else though) about some photographers using wide-angles and pushing-in close for portraiture.

  • James pickett April 6, 2009 08:15 am

    @Turki Al- Fassam In tip number one I am saying to use the autofocus, not manual, just choose one point. when doing fast subjects you may want to choose the AI-servo focus mode (for Canon, some other mfg's call it dynamic or continuous) and see if you get better results that way. Tip number 4 was definitely designed around portraits that focus on a waist up crop or shoulder up crop. Will get back to you about the gray card tutorial soon.

  • Turki Al- Fassam April 6, 2009 05:04 am

    Thank you! VERY useful article. on the 1# tip are you saying not to use autofocus in portrait? or have to choose one point of focus? if so, I did this before and I had a fuzzy focus. and take along time to focus to the point I want! so I don't find it very useful in shooting portraits especially when you take a photos of very fast moving subjects like children. also the tip #4 you mean the close-up portrait or that focusing on one person, right? cause shooting a portraits using wide lenses needed when you shooting a group of people or if you want to show the hole scene in your frame. I saw amazing portraits results using Canon 24mm f/1.4L but I think I know the swelled look you talked about. Cause I got this result when I tried to take a close-up portrait of my niece with the Sigma 10-20. and it looks really as you said. but not in every situation. and this is the first time I read about using a gray card. is there a tutorial you know explain how to use it in the photoshop?

    Thank you!!

  • MonstarPink April 6, 2009 04:11 am

    I still don't get it how you can tell the direction of sunlight using a compass, but the article was pretty informative for me :) Deffinitely some tips I'll be using :)

  • CJJohnson April 6, 2009 01:59 am

    Thank-you very much for many things to think about. I am a beginner and I like your simplified explanation of the rules.

    My mother is an expert who can't explain her knowledge and likes to go off on tangents about little examples of why the rules might be made to be broken (much like many of your commenter's)

    I finally understand why I need the neutral card.

    I have thought to myself that all those focal points were creating disasters (especially with shallow depth of field), but you made it much clearer why and that I should merely make a menu adjustment and stick to one focal point. I **think** that means I will have to center my subject and crop more to get away from that centered subject look.

    I for one despite the nay sayers really liked your 50 or 70 or 100mm focal length. I have been shooting too close most of the time, I see that now. Seems to work well with the children who have chubby little heads that don't mind a little swelling... but no adult woman wants to look even 1/2 pound heavier. I will be trying this out immediately.

    And the reflection ideas... dang that makes sense. For sure, something to think about.

    Thank you for a well written and easy to understand article. And thanks to the nay sayers for posting the links to their spectacular galleries and for helping me to understand even more about what these rules mean.

  • Eric April 6, 2009 01:16 am

    Fog, shoot outside in fog. It's like a softbox the size of the sky.

    I did a jewelry shot outside of a butterfly piece in a model's hands. It was gorgeous, and no set-up time. Nail the white balance and you have the idea way to shoot highly-polished metal and faceted gemstones, not to mention you get gorgeous skin tones.

  • Keith Clover April 5, 2009 10:20 am

    short enough for me to read and understand ! excellent !

  • JustaMinute April 5, 2009 05:22 am

    The sunny 16 rule is great if you want to estimate exposure when you are using a camera that does not have a built in meter, or does not have any auto settings or you want to use your camera in 'seat of the pants' mode (switch to manual mode and ignore any metered readings. But using the sunny 16 rule loudly and in public to impress the bystanders is OK even if you don't understand it properly as long as you don't let anyone see the resulting images.

  • James pickett April 4, 2009 09:52 am

    @keith In my opinion yes, senior portraits are a much more traditional product, and I personally would shoot them in a much more traditional manner.

    @jared As advanced as our cameras are, reflected readings are not as accurate as incident readings. When using a light meter, gray card, or the sunny 16 rule (in the case of shooting wide open with the sunny 16 rule in place one would just have to do the math, nothing about the sunny 16 statement says you have to stay at ƒ16, it is merely a way to calculate exposure with ones eyes and mind). In camera meters will re-calculate for nearly every shot, and what the camera reads will change based on how much of a specific color is in your image. When you employ a means of incident reading, you are giving yourself a product where the exposure is more consistent, saving alot of time in post production. Note: this will be very obvious when shooting an automobile, if there is a specular highlight from the sun reflecting into the lens and you are shooting on an automatic mode or following the in camera meter this shot will be extremely dark (the specular makes the camera think the image is much brighter than what is the reality).

  • Jared April 4, 2009 08:20 am

    its somewhat contradictory to say use the sunny16.. but shoot wde open..
    i dont see the point of the sunny16.. we have built in light meters.. we're not in the film days anymore.
    our results are instant on LCD.

  • Keith April 4, 2009 07:58 am

    So I guess for shooting senior portraits outside I should use my 70-200 lens more that the 18 -55? I like the 70-200 better anyway.

  • Honza April 4, 2009 06:46 am

    This is a nice bunch of good advice, but I certainly disagree with #4. I recently ran across portraits taken with 24mm on full-frame body and they were really good, but it is certainly an extreme. I find most of the telephoto portraits rather formal while those on the wide end are more personal or intimate. You also have to consider the purpose of the picture and think about the feel it should have. A little bit of context in a wide angle shot can add a lot to a portrait. 24-35mm on APS is definitely my favorite.
    Oh, and sun behind the subjects is the way how to produce some cool flares in the photo. Only you need strobe or maybe reflector could do.

  • James pickett April 4, 2009 03:45 am

    @robin Please try to remember we are talking about portraits specifically, where the purpose is to convey the emotion of the subject, not their environment. Not necessarily street photography or candid (as your last 3 examples are listed on your own website). You have some great work, and some of the best fine art candid images I have seen aren't usually at an ideal portrait length, but I wouldn't call them portraits by definition either. (I will be the first to admit there are some images classified as portraits on my site that shouldn't be, however that happens when you have an assistant do it for you who isn't a photographer)

    @Distortion There are many types of lens distortion that we have identified here (Perspective, pincushion, barrel, etc) and we can hack it out all day, the amounts of distortion of any kind from 70mm down to about 45 mm are minuscule but are still there in most lenses. Canon L users, if you take a shot at 70mm with the 24-70 2.8L and put it side by side with one done at 70mm with a 70-200 2.8L you will see more distortion in the 24-70 image even though the images were taken at the same focal length.

    Art, creativity, street photography, candids, full body shots, even when your stuck in a small room, do what you have to do to get the shot. Just know where the guidelines or rules are before you break them.

  • Robin Ryan April 4, 2009 01:41 am

    While many of these "tips" are helpful, I get annoyed by made-up rules that limit the creativity of new photographers, especially rules #3 & #4

    First off, what is up with #4? Optical distortion begins at less than 70mm??? (I'm assuming the photographer is working with the assumption of a 1.6x crop camera). This is an exaggeration, imo. If you are using a good 35mm (such as Canon's 1.4L) you are safe, but even with a cheapo 50mm 1.8 lens you aren't in danger of distortion.


    35mm: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/1953849382/in/set-72157601769220969/

    New photographers: the exceptions to these artificial rules are often the best shots. By having wider lenses you can contextualize the shot much better and create an atmosphere unreproducible in having a tight 85mm portrait. At the same time, long lenses put that much more focus on the subject, so if that's what you're after, go for it! Just know *why* you're using the focal length you are.

    #3 - shoot wide open for nice depth of field. Maybe. Once again, depends on your intent. Also, the wider your aperture the less room for error you have in your focusing. If a wide aperture is your only way of drawing attention to your subject, you should rethink why you've got such a boring shot. There are many ways to do this in photography (leading lines, negative space, the spread of light, calm backgrounds).

    leading lines and negative space: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2771824802/in/set-72157601769220969/
    internal framing: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2351240410/in/set-72157601769220969/
    eyes! direct attention by having secondary subjects looking towards your main subject! it will force you too look, too: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robinryan/2968982312/in/set-72157601769220969/

    hope this helps. remember newbies, never accept never.

  • digitalisieren April 3, 2009 06:49 pm

    well, overall a good 95%-guideline for me!
    some of the tipps although are not valid always.

    #2 might be correct in 95% of the cases, but sometimes it's nice to have other areas sharp.


  • Emil Avasilichioaiei April 3, 2009 05:02 pm

    True. Eyes are the light to the soul. In addition to focus:
    Get some light in your subject's eyes! (This one I got from Kris Krug's video)

  • James pickett April 3, 2009 02:36 pm

    @nick I should have clarified, I am basing my statement on a standard definition for portrait when we as photographers are taking an image that is dominated by, and focused on the face. (not full body shots) In these situations with a wide angle we would absolutely have to step in closer.

    @Alejandro Another place where i should have had more detail, I was thinking of EXTREME simplicity when I wrote this, things you can do with a camera alone if you don't own a flash. I have seen shotty optics make a choppy bokeh in some aftermarket lenses as well. The number of blades in the canon 70-200 2.8 L IS (9) is what made the decision to spend the extra money easy, the non IS version is only 7 blades.

  • Bran Everseeking April 3, 2009 10:17 am

    bonus tip

    Always look for ways to break the "rules." rules represent ordinary thinking and give ordinary results. make your own way but always thinking about what you are doing so you can repeat the spectacular.

  • Stevo April 3, 2009 10:07 am

    >>>>> “This is great!” you think to yourself, “this is going to make my life so much easier!” I was wrong… In fact, I was dead wrong.

    So very true. When I moved from my 400D to a 40D I was amazed at the learning curve.

    Great tips, all. I'll look into getting a cheap white sheet. Wonderful idea.

  • Jeremy April 3, 2009 07:48 am

    I also disagree with #4. NEVER is always wrong. I would argue that understanding "rules" and then breaking them consciously is how you find your eye and establishing your style. if you follow these rules religiously, you'll be just like everyone else, and so will your work.

  • Alejandro April 3, 2009 04:04 am

    I have a few disagreements:

    1) You can easily get OoF blur without wide apertures using telephoto lenses. And bokeh doesn't have to be smooth: it depends on the number of blades in the lens diaphragm. It's very easy to defocus with the EF 50mm f1.8 but the bokeh is harsh.

    2) Raw is only useful if you PP. Otherwise, JPEG can be useful for fast continuous shooting. It comes down to personal taste, I suppose, but RAW doesn't automagically create perfect pictures.

    3) Having the subject with their back to the sun isn't necessarily a bad idea - just use fill flash and/or a reflector to bring out their features from the shadow,

  • KBeat April 2, 2009 11:39 pm

    I actually use WhiBal cards for my white balance, rather than generic gray cards. I keep a small one clipped to me, and a larger one in my bag. They're more consistent for getting accurate white balance than grey cards. No matter which you choose they're a must. They make post correction much, much easier.

  • Eric Mesa April 2, 2009 10:09 pm

    Good, well written article. I knew most of the tips, but the images were invaluable in giving me some inspiration.

  • MeiTeng April 2, 2009 11:40 am

    Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips. I am learning something here.

  • Nick April 2, 2009 10:02 am

    @James -- The appropriateness of a focal length is relative to different factors. For example, a full-body shot or waist-up environmental portrait will be unwieldy to shoot at 105mm. For example, the image at the top of this post was made with a moderate wide angle focal length, judging by the EXIF data.

    But even for head shots, the traditional, as you say, rule of using longer lenses for portraits isn't a bad one, but it's important to understand that it isn't the focal length that's the problem -- it's using a wider length and then stepping in to the fill the frame. If you're aware of any data showing that perspective distortion can result from a lens change that is not accompanied by a camera position change, I would love to see it.

    (This is separate from barrel or pincushion distortion which result from particular lens design, and can be present or absent at any focal length, although certainly ultrawides are more prone to it.)

    Obviously standing back and cropping isn't the best solution, because you lose data. But for those who don't happen to have a lens long enough for the shot they want, it's a good way to get the shot without running into perspective issues -- or having to shell out cash for a new lens that they may not use very often. : )

  • Augustine April 2, 2009 09:47 am

    I just had a mental "lightbulb" moment. Thank you so much for the detailed explanation of the sunny 16 rule. I have read numerous explanations but never quite got it before. This could revolutionise my thought pattern. Gotta love the lightbulb moments.
    Thanks heaps, and DPS - keep 'em coming.

  • Marcus April 2, 2009 08:14 am

    Thanks James and Reznor :)

    I'm not a total beginner when it comes to photography. The sunny 16 is one of those things I've come across in the past and have always been curious about how it works.

    Thanks for your responses.

  • Reznor April 2, 2009 07:44 am


    Shooting with f8 doesn't affect your other settings, since it's meant to be used on cloudy days. When there's less light, you have to open up your aperture to compensate. If you want to keep using your f16 on a cloudy day, you have to change your ISO accordingly and increase it one stop.

  • StCars April 2, 2009 07:24 am

    Gray Card, White Card and a solid black, Need one Cheap? Checkout the paint counter at the hardward store. Color chips are free.


  • James Pickett April 2, 2009 06:57 am

    Sorry I haven't gotten to these yet, been running around today but I'm here now!

    @dcclark and @llan @nick My view of a 50mm minimum on a cropped camera and 70mm on a full frame camera is a very traditional school of thought. There have been many studies that show lenses distort below these numbers even if it is a very slight amount. This is very much opinion, but you will rarely find high end shooters shooting people at less than 100 mm. 85mm has been called the "ideal" portrait focal length at times. Most magazine editors I know, unless very avant guard, tend to shy away from wider angle images. There are writings on this in Canon's book, EF Lens Work

    @Rick RE: gray card exposure. Just fill the frame with nothing but gray, use manual mode and line up the exposure... when you take the gray card away the meter will go a little screwy but you will have a true incident light reading. if your shooting a lot in one day, I would suggest doing this about every 30 min.

    @nathan There are some cheap, cardboard gray cards that are Kodak knock-offs and sell for 6.00-10.00 USD, I have found them in my local camera store, at last visit they are still $5.95 over the counter, may be a little tough to find based on your location. the cheap card is MFG by "Delta"

    @kuoirad Not neccessarily, I was merely suggesting you buy the least opaque sheet you can find.

    @Marcus RE: Sunny 16... If you break down your exposure into single, full ƒ-stops it will be easier to understand. (eg. ƒ2.8,ƒ4,ƒ5.6,ƒ8,ƒ11,ƒ16,ƒ22 and 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, etc.) On a cloudy day you can usually play the "open it up 2 ƒ-stops" game... anywhere you wish. you could either change your apature value to an ƒ8, or slow your shutter speed down, or increase your ISO speed to 800. It is generally my advise to use the aperture value to avoid slow shutter speeds. The sunny 16 is a way to achieve a baseline, from there you just do a little math... for every full ƒ-stop you open the lens to get to your desired depth of field, you simply increase your shutter speed the same amount of full ƒ-stops. if on a cloudy day you are set to ƒ8, 1/125, ISO 100 and you want your target aperture value to be ƒ5.6 (one full ƒ-stop less) you would increase your shutter speed to 1/250 which is one full ƒ-stop higher to compensate.

    I'll be back soon, keep 'em coming!

  • anaamli April 2, 2009 06:55 am

    I shoot almost exclusively outside, and almost always in Oregon where this is 90% chance of clouds no matter what season it is! Thanks for the tips. I'm going on an outdoor maternity shoot in SoCal tomorrow, and the part about pollution and the possibility for cloud cover tomorrow give me alot to thing about between today and tomorrow. Wish me luck!

  • Marcus April 2, 2009 02:39 am

    One more question (sorry).

    I'd also be interested in learning about using your flash on a sunny day for fill light. I have a 40D and the 430 EX II which I've been able to use with a decent amount of success, but I'd like to get a good understanding of settings and stuff to use it more confidently and effectively.

  • Branden Williams April 2, 2009 02:38 am

    One additional tip on cloudy day shooting, you still should look for shade to prevent the main source of your light being overhead. Or, use a silver reflector to bounce light into the eye sockets of the people you are photographing. Otherwise, your subjects eyes will be wide open, and a good 2 stops underexposed due to the shadow cast by their browline.

  • Marcus April 2, 2009 02:37 am

    I'm interested in learning more about the "Sunny 16" rule. I understand how it works if you're shooting at f/16, but as the article mentions, if you're shooting at f/8, how does that change your ISO and shutter speed? I've tried reading up on it but have never really fully understood.

  • Mel April 2, 2009 02:37 am

    To the commenter about the gray card: How about $1.99 for a gray card? http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/231564-REG/Delta__Gray_Card_4.html

  • Eric Magnuson April 2, 2009 02:30 am

    Great article. I had never heard if the sunny ƒ/16 rule, but it's an interesting concept. What else do people use for cheap, makeshift reflectors? I'm a student, so I'm on a limited budget.

  • kuoirad April 2, 2009 02:01 am

    A little off topic, but 200-thread count is an "expensive" sheet? ;)

  • frombrandon April 2, 2009 01:47 am

    Great advice, and it was an enjoyable read. I especially found the comments about cloudy days interesting because generally, almost everywhere you read, all the advice given on cloudy days is to shoot like crazy. He gave some interesting things to think about.

    Oh, and I bought my gray card at a local camera place for seven or eight bucks.

  • dcclark April 2, 2009 01:42 am

    Ilan -- good example! As with most "rules" -- I think the point must be to learn why it's a rule first, so that you know how to break it. I do portraits of a local improv group using the widest lenses I have, because they want to look as weird and funky as possible.

  • Nathan April 2, 2009 01:37 am

    $5.95 for a gray card? Where? Cheapest I've found online looks like $17 new or $12 off of eBay... and there seem to be a good handful that are more expensive (cir. $30).

  • Nick April 2, 2009 01:32 am

    Re: Focal length -- it's not the focal length that causes (or prevents) perspective distortion. It's where you stand when you use the lens. If you try to fill the frame with a 35mm lens, you'll be standing a lot closer than if you fill the frame with a 105mm lens; this is what changes the perspective -- not the focal length itself.

    You can stand back with a 50mm lens, crop in, and get the same perspective as with an 85mm or 105mm lens -- at the cost of some resolution. Not an ideal solution, but a lot cheaper than buying a new lens, especially if you don't do enough portraiture to justify the cost of a new lens.

  • Rick April 2, 2009 01:31 am

    Great information but I would like more on the exposure settings using the gray card. I bought one some time ago but never really use it much. So I guess I need to get it out at start working with it more. I also have a special reflector that has a white reflector on on side and a gray, White and Black patch on the other (see it here http://tinyurl.com/d8aoqg) works like a dream but you have to actually USE it! lol

  • scott April 2, 2009 01:23 am

    thanks for the article! a lot to chew on there

  • Webdevel April 2, 2009 01:15 am

    Those are great tips. I especially like #11. That's the kind of info I would have liked to have had a few days ago, as I was in that exact situation. Great read.

  • Ilan April 2, 2009 12:56 am

    I totally disagree with section 4. Never, ever ? why not?
    Here is an example of an outdoor portrait taken with 28mm - http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/01/moment-of-joy.html

    Is there anything wrong with that?

    Just thought about, 28mm on DX is actually 42mm, but still.... Never, ever sounds too harsh.

  • dcclark April 2, 2009 12:27 am

    Interesting advice. I especially noticed the 50mm / 70mm advice. I suppose it's worth adding that this varies a bit depending on your camera's crop factor. After all, 35mm is "normal" on a Nikon DX camera (1.5x crop factor), which by definition is the same field of view as your eyes -- so, perspective distortion will appear only in the amount that we expect to see. But, longer focal lengths are generally nicer for that compressed depth and bokeh instead.