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Outdoor Portrait Photography: 12 Tips for Beautiful Results

12 tips for outdoor portraits

If you’re looking to capture stunning outdoor portrait photography, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, I’m going to share my absolute favorite tips for outdoor portraits, including:

  • How to choose the perfect focal length
  • How to focus for tack-sharp results
  • The best light for outdoor portrait shooting
  • Key settings and file types
  • Much more!

So let’s improve your images, starting with my number one tip:

1. Never select all of the focus points for portraits

If you want to take beautiful portraits, consistently, then you’ve got to nail focusing.

And a huge, huge focusing mistake I see beginners make? Using either the Auto AF area mode, where the camera picks the focus point for you, or using a large number of focus points in the hopes that one will cover the subject.

Unfortunately, neither of those options works, and you’ll often end up with out-of-focus, blurry shots.

Instead, I recommend two options:

  1. For photographers using older cameras, pick a single focus point (the one in the center of the viewfinder works well). Then use that single point to lock focus (and recompose as necessary).
  2. For photographers with newer cameras, consider using your model’s Eye AF technology. This will hone in on your subject’s eye and (ideally) nail focus. Not all Eye AF is created equal, so before you devote yourself to it, make sure your camera does a good job. But if you do a test and come away with lots of sharp photos, it’s a great setting to use.

2. Always focus on the eyes

The eyes are the windows to the soul and should be the focal point of any good portrait. Plus, the eyes are the most detailed element on the face and should be portrayed that way.

(When you are shooting with a wide aperture and you’re focused on the eyes, the shallow depth of field effect will soften the skin, too.)

As discussed in the previous section, you should be focusing with either a single AF point or your camera’s Eye AF function. If you’re working with a single AF point, place it over the eye and lock focus, then recompose if required. If you’re working with your camera’s Eye AF, then make sure it’s finding your subject’s eye, then shoot with abandon!

tips for outdoor portrait photography man coming out of the water

3. Shoot with a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field

A wide aperture will produce a shallow depth of field effect, which blurs the background and makes your subject stand out.

So if you can shoot at f/2.8 or even f/1.8, you should. Of course, not all lenses can use such a wide aperture; some fail to go past f/5.6 and beyond. I’d recommend investing in a wide-aperture lens if possible (and there are plenty of wonderful budget options, such as a 50mm f/1.8).

4. Don’t 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 swollen?”

Which might happen if you insist on shooting at 35mm, 24mm, or wider.

Sure, it provides an interesting effect, but the distortion you get at focal lengths wider than 50mm generally isn’t flattering and should be avoided in nearly all circumstances.

(The exception is in the case of environmental portraits, where you can keep your subject small in the frame and use the wider focal length to provide context.)

Personally, I like shooting at 70mm and beyond. The longer the lens, the greater the compression effect, which in turn creates better background blur (i.e., bokeh). Most of my portraits are done between 120mm and 200mm.

If you’re just getting started with portrait photography, consider purchasing an 85mm lens. There are decently priced 85mm f/1.8 lenses on the market, which are relatively compact and will provide a nice background blur.

5. Always shoot in RAW, not JPEG

These words have bellowed from my mouth a thousand times, and they will surely come out a million more. The RAW file format is an unmodified compilation of your sensor’s data during the time of exposure. It is your digital negative. And it gives you immense post-processing flexibility, not to mention improved image quality.

When you shoot in JPEG format, much of what you capture is stripped away. You lose lots of key information, including color nuance and tonal range. It’s a recipe for disaster.

So stick to RAW files. Yes, they’re larger and require processing. But unless you’re a photojournalist on an ultra-tight deadline, they’re worth the extra effort.

(If you love the shareability of a JPEG and can’t see yourself shooting without it, then consider using your camera’s RAW+JPEG mode, which saves both a RAW file and a JPEG file at the time of capture.)

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

To avoid confusion, I am going to explain this backward. 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.

Now, imagine a world where your photoshoot involved 4 locations and a total of 800 images, and all day your camera was set to Auto White Balance. You might end up with 800 different white balance values, a post-production nightmare.

But 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 images in your favorite post-production application, all you have to do is click the eyedropper on the gray card, select all the photos from that location, and synchronize the edit. Precious hours will be saved.

(It may be wise to take a gray card shot once every 30 minutes or so to compensate for the changing light of day.)

7. Avoid direct sunlight in your outdoor portraits

Direct sunlight is harsh, makes your subject squint, and creates hard directional shadows and unpredictable white balance conditions.

Which is why you should avoid direct sun as much as possible.

Instead, shoot in one of three conditions:

  • Shade
  • Overcast skies
  • A low sun (i.e., around sunrise or sunset)

That way, you can lose the harsh shadows and photograph your subject in soft, flattering light. With proper exposure and white balance, you can make such shots look amazing.

8. If you must use direct sunlight, work carefully

In the previous section, I explained why you should never shoot in direct sunlight.

But sometimes you get stuck. A client insists on a particular photoshoot time and place, or the sun comes out from behind the beautiful clouds, and you’re forced to work with what you have.

woman standing in a field

And in such situations, you can take certain steps to get the best possible results.

First, pay careful attention to the direction of the light. Putting the sun directly behind your subject isn’t a good idea, unless you are trying to make a silhouette. Instead, try putting the sun at your back, then have the subject look off-camera (away from the sun) to prevent squinting. Another great trick is to wait for a cloud to move in front of the sun; this usually creates a very bright-yet-contrasty look.

Also, if possible, use some sort of reflector to minimize shadows on your subject. Invest in a portable, pop-up reflector, or – if necessary, use an existing reflector, which I discuss in more detail in the next section.

9. Work with a natural reflector

While outdoor photography might seem reflector-free, there are actually plenty of natural and human-made reflectors you can use to improve your photos.

Here are just a few outdoor reflector ideas:

  • White delivery trucks
  • White building walls
  • White cars
  • White sand
  • White signs
  • White tables

You get the idea? And if you’re heading into a location where a natural reflector might not exist, then make sure to bring one. As I mentioned above, you can buy a pop-up reflector, though you might also make one out of foam core or white cardboard.

10. Learn the Sunny 16 rule

The Sunny 16 rule is a classic guideline from the film days, one that lets you determine the proper exposure on sunny days – without an exposure meter.

Of course, pretty much every camera comes with an exposure meter these days, but it’s not always accurate, and it can be good to have a technique to fall back on in uncertain situations.

So here’s the Sunny 16 rule:

On a sunny day, with your aperture value set to ƒ/16, your shutter speed will be the inverse of your current ISO speed. If your camera is set to ISO 100 and your aperture value is ƒ/16, your shutter speed will be 1/100s. And if your camera is set to ISO 200 and your aperture value is f/16, your shutter speed will be 1/200s.

On a cloudy day (or when you’re shooting in the shade), you can simply use ƒ/8 instead.

woman staring at the camera outdoor portrait photography

11. Bring a sheet and a few spring clamps from home

You know that cheap old sheet you stuck in the corner of the closet to use as a drop cloth the next time you paint? Add it to your kit and take it with you every time you head out for an outdoor portrait shoot.

(Another option is to buy the cheapest low-thread-count white top sheet you can find.)

What should you do with it? Well, a sheet is an amazing, cheap diffuser – sort of a seven-foot softbox for the sun.

So take note of the sun’s position, then use the sheet to block the light. If you need a sidelight diffuser, clamp an edge of the sheet around a branch. Anchor the bottom corners with rocks to keep the sheet from blowing into your image.

For an overhead diffuser, clamp all four corners to branches above your subject.

12. Avoid powerlines and signs

We have already discussed keeping your camera focused on the eyes – but you must also keep the viewer’s mind focused on the image as a whole, specifically on your portrait subject.

Powerlines, signs, long single blades of grass, single pieces of garbage, and sometimes even trees can be serious distractions in an otherwise great outdoor portrait photo.

So before you take a single shot, look carefully at the area surrounding your subject. Do you see any distractions? Anything that might take away from the photo? If so, either clean it up, or move your subject into a position where such background distractions aren’t visible.

Look at the photo below. Do you see how clean the background is? That’s the goal.

woman in nature at sunset

Outdoor portrait photography: final words

Well, there you have it:

12 tips to take your outdoor portraits to the next level. Whether you’re capturing outdoor headshots, full-body shots, or even group shots, these tips should serve you well, so commit them to memory and use them the next time you’re out shooting.

Most importantly, have a great time! Enjoy what you’re doing, and it will show in your work!

This is a guest post by James Pickett.

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