Capturing outstanding outdoor portraits is an essential skill, whether you’re looking to create refined shots for clients or casual images of friends and family. Outdoor portraiture is also incredibly rewarding; you get to create beautiful shots illuminated by gorgeous light, and you also get to appreciate beautiful natural and cityscape scenes along the way.
That said, creating gorgeous shots is no walk in the park. You have to work with your subject, choose the right settings, handle the light, consider your compositions, and much more. It’s no wonder that many would-be portrait photographers struggle to get started!
Fortunately, I’ve been shooting portraits for years, and in this article, I offer an array of helpful tips and tricks to improve your images, 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!
Ready to level up your outdoor portraits? Let’s dive right in, starting with:
The best gear for outdoor portrait photography
Outdoor portraiture is one of the least gear-heavy types of photography you’ll ever encounter. To get good – and even professional – results, you essentially only need a camera, a lens, and some creativity.
But what’s vital is the choice of your camera and lens. This combination forms the backbone of your outdoor portrait setup, and while it’s true that creativity often surpasses equipment, equipping yourself with the right gear can significantly elevate the quality of your images. Fortunately, you don’t need to break the bank; a few careful selections can go a long way. Here’s my basic advice:
Choose the right camera
You can create beautiful outdoor portraits using literally any camera model, from the most basic smartphone to the most complex full-frame DSLR – but if you want to give yourself the best chance of success, I highly recommend you choose your camera carefully.
First, make sure you grab a DSLR or mirrorless model. These cameras offer major advantages over fixed-lens point-and-shoot units; for one, you can use a variety of lenses to capture a variety of perspectives and looks. Whether you choose a full-frame, APS-C, or Micro Four Thirds camera is up to you and will depend on your level of interest, your budget, and your portability requirements.
In general, full-frame cameras will offer the best image quality, especially if you want to shoot in low light (e.g., at dawn and dusk for ethereal blue-hour shots). But APS-C cameras also boast professional results, and Micro Four Thirds models are plenty capable (and very compact). Regardless of your choice, make sure you choose a camera that feels comfortable in your hands. Nothing is more off-putting than trying to use an uncomfortable camera for hours on end!
One additional feature to look for is eye-tracking autofocus. It’ll lock onto your subject’s eyes and keep your photos looking tack-sharp, even if you’re photographing in fast-paced or action scenarios. No, it’s not essential – and portrait photographers have worked without eye AF for centuries – but it’ll certainly make your job easier.
Pick the perfect portrait lens
Focal length and lens choice may not seem important, but the effect they can have on your photos is massive. You see, different focal lengths require you to be closer or farther from your subject, and the closer you get, the more you’ll end up with perspective distortion. Perspective distortion, if left unchecked, can often result in unflattering body proportions – and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a line of unhappy clients. (After all, the last thing you want to hear from a client is, “Why does my head look swollen?”)
That’s why I’d encourage you to avoid working with wider focal lengths, such as 28mm, 35mm, and even 45mm. Instead, pick a lens in the 50mm to 85mm range, which will allow you to capture tighter images without problematic distortion.
Note that you don’t need to go out and purchase a dedicated portrait lens; pretty much every kit lens covers some of these focal lengths, so even if you only own the lens that came with your camera, you’ll be just fine.
That said, if you want to really level up your outdoor portrait potential, it’s worth looking to a 50mm or 85mm prime, especially if they offer a wide maximum aperture, such as f/2.8, f/1.8, or f/1.4. Longer lenses naturally provide better background blur, but the wider the maximum aperture, the more you can lean into this effect to achieve professional results.
And while specific portrait lens recommendations are beyond the scope of this article, bear in mind that 50mm lenses tend to be better for full-body shots, while 85mm lenses will help you capture tighter images (e.g., headshots). If you like the idea of capturing close-ups, you can also look into 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses; while they aren’t cheap, the results are outstanding.
Consider a few useful accessories
Great portraits can be captured using just a camera and a lens. But as with many things in photography, sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference. A few select accessories can elevate the standard of your portraits, enhancing both the quality and creativity of your images.
For instance, if you’re stuck shooting in intense light, you may find yourself unable to shoot at the aperture you want, and that’s where a neutral density (ND) filter proves invaluable. An ND filter acts like sunglasses for your lens, and in extremely bright conditions, it helps you utilize wider apertures – and achieve beautiful bokeh backgrounds – without overexposing your shots.
But light isn’t just about intensity; it’s also about direction and quality, and that’s where a handheld reflector can be your best friend. Whether you’re battling deep shadows under your subject’s nose or trying to add some detail to a backlit subject, a reflector can help balance the light beautifully. Consider investing in a five-in-one package; these reflector kits typically come with multiple reflector colors, such as silver for a cooler tone or gold for warmth, and often include a diffusion panel.
Lastly, while many photographers swear by natural light (and with good reason), there’s no harm in having a speedlight in your arsenal. Even if you’re primarily a natural light shooter, understanding the basics of flash can be a game-changer. When mounted on a light stand, a speedlight can fill in shadows, balance uneven light, and add some extra pizzazz to your portraits.
Essential outdoor portrait photography settings
Outdoor portrait photography is dynamic and unpredictable. The sun doesn’t wait, and neither do fleeting expressions. That’s why having the right settings dialed in can make all the difference. While many factors influence your choices, I’ve found a few settings that consistently yield stellar results:
Always shoot in RAW, not JPEG
These words have left 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.
On the other hand, 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.
For instance, a RAW file lets you recover clipped highlights and shadows, which can be a big deal when shooting contrasty outdoor scenes. A RAW file is also essential if you want to make heavy color modifications to your shots (e.g., you want to do artistic color grading). But a JPEG won’t allow for much detail recovery, and a JPEG will severely limit your photo’s color-grading potential.
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.)
Use Aperture Priority or Manual mode
For many photographers, venturing into outdoor portrait photography can be an exciting yet slightly daunting experience. Aperture Priority (often labeled as ‘A’ or ‘Av’ on most cameras) is my recommended mode for beginners, and here’s why: in this mode, you choose the desired aperture and ISO, and your camera intelligently picks a shutter speed based on the available light. In other words, you and your camera work together to get a good result.
This mode is also useful when working in changing light conditions, such as when clouds are alternately blocking and revealing the sun; Aperture Priority handles the shutter speed for you, freeing you up to focus on composition and connecting with your subject.
That said, for those who desire total control over exposure, depth of field, and image quality, Manual mode is the answer. In Manual, you’re free to directly adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to your liking. This mode is especially excellent for situations where the light is stable and will ensure consistency across multiple shots.
Note, however, that if you’re apprehensive about diving into Manual mode, that’s okay. You can always start with Aperture Priority and switch to Manual as you gain confidence. And always remember that both modes have their strengths. Many professionals switch back and forth depending on the situation.
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. This is an essential part of the “look” that professional portrait shooters love, and it’s one of those things that can instantly elevate your images from mediocre to amazing.
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).
Pick a reasonably fast shutter speed
Picking the right shutter speed is essential for capturing sharp images of your subjects, so even if you’re using Aperture Priority, make sure you regularly monitor the speed to ensure crisp results. But what shutter speed is best for outdoor potraiture?
For your standard posed portraits, I’d advise starting with a shutter speed of about 1/250s. This should be enough to freeze any minor movements, like a slight sway of the hair or the subtle flutter of clothing.
However, if you’re dabbling in more dynamic shots – perhaps capturing a model in motion or a child running – it’s advisable to crank that shutter speed up a notch. Aim for around 1/500s or even faster to ensure complete clarity across the board.
Finally, if the light is limited, you might be tempted to lower that shutter speed substantially. While dropping it to about 1/100s can work, tread with caution. Even the slightest movement from your subject at slow shutter speeds can lead to an unwanted blur, turning a potentially captivating portrait into a missed opportunity.
Use a low ISO for the best image quality
The ISO setting on your camera is often a topic of debate among beginner photographers. As you increase your ISO, you do gain more detail in your shots, even if you use a fast shutter speed – which can be helpful in low-light scenarios – but it comes at the cost of adding noise or grain to your images.
Now, many of your outdoor sessions will have ample natural light. In such conditions, you’ll want to stick to your camera’s base ISO, which is typically ISO 100. This ensures you’re getting the crispest, cleanest image quality possible.
However, don’t be too afraid of increasing ISO when necessary. If you find yourself shooting under a canopy of trees or as the sun drops below the horizon, nudging your ISO to 400, 800, or even 1600 can still yield great results. Modern cameras handle noise remarkably well at these levels, so while starting at a low ISO is ideal, don’t hesitate to adjust as the situation demands. Plus, a slightly grainy image is always better than a blurry one!
Adjust your focus settings for sharp shots
If you want to take beautiful outdoor portraits with real consistency, then you’ve got to nail focus.
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, especially if you’re working with a wide aperture.
Instead, I recommend two options:
- 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).
- 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 most Eye AF is very impressive, and if you do a test and come away with lots of sharp photos, then use it all the time!
Outdoor portrait photography tips
So you know how to choose the right camera, lens, and accessories for outdoor portraiture. And you can effectively set up your camera to capture consistently well-exposed, sharp images. That means you’re well on your way toward producing pro-level portrait shots – but you’re not done yet!
For the best results, you’ll need to master a few more essential elements, including lighting, posing, and composition. Below, I share my best advice to help you out:
1. Scout the location in advance
Preparation is vital in any form of photography, and outdoor portraiture is no exception. Scouting the location before the actual shoot can be the difference between an average photo and an exceptional one.
Arriving early allows you to understand the environment. It’s not just about finding the perfect backdrop or scenic locations for breathtaking compositions, but also about identifying any challenges you might face. This can include avoiding spots with too many onlookers or identifying potentially slippery surfaces after rain.
Cities often hide gems in plain sight: an interesting mural, a hidden alley with a play of light and shadow, or a viewpoint that offers a unique perspective on a common location. Similarly, in natural settings, the position of the sun at a particular time could illuminate a flower bed or create dappled sunlight on a forest path, and if you don’t scout, you often won’t know about these features!
On a related note, scouting gives you insights into the light’s behavior. Lighting can drastically change the mood of a photograph. Knowing how the light falls, its intensity, and the shadows it casts can be hugely important!
While scouting does require extra time, it can make a huge difference – so do your best to scout in advance!
2. Always focus on the eyes
It’s important that you nail focusing in your portrait shots, but what does that mean? Keeping the eyes tack-sharp, of course!
You see, 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 carefully rendered.
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!
One more tip: If your subject is turned to the side, make sure you focus on the eye that’s closer to the lens, not the more distant one.
3. Always use a gray card
Some outdoor portrait photographers prefer to work without gray cards. However, I’m a huge gray-card fan, and I encourage you to use one for each and every photoshoot.
Why? 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.
By the way, it can be wise to take a gray card shot once every 30 minutes or so to compensate for the changing light of day, and if you’re working in the evening or the early morning, you may want to add in that gray card even more frequently.
Note: If you forget to use a gray card, or you don’t take gray-card shots frequently enough, it’s not the end of the world. You can still fix any white balance problems in post-processing; it’ll just take far longer.
4. Shoot when the light is soft
Outdoor portrait photography thrives on the magic of soft light, which beautifully illuminates the subject’s features without producing harsh shadows. It offers an even, diffused light across the face, minimizing the appearance of imperfections and creating a gentle, dreamy atmosphere. But how do you find this type of illumination?
Firstly, shoot on overcast days. Clouds act as a massive diffuser, softening the sunlight and dispersing it evenly. This neutralizes harsh contrast and allows for flattering portraits.
Alternatively, consider the golden hours (just after sunrise and right before sunset). The sun’s position near the horizon casts a soft, warm glow so that portraits taken during these hours often have a romantic quality – thanks to the long shadows and a rich color palette.
Finally, the blue hour, which occurs shortly after sunset or just before sunrise, provides a cooler, mystical hue. While it can produce enchanting images, the limited light may be challenging. During these moments, don’t hesitate to raise your ISO, use a wider aperture, or even add a touch of fill flash as needed.
And whatever you do, avoid direct sunlight whenever possible. It’s harsh, it’ll make your subject squint, and it creates hard directional shadows and unpredictable white balance conditions. (By direct sunlight, I’m referring to the hard light of late morning and early afternoon, not the golden-hour light produced just after sunrise and just before sunset.)
5. 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.
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. Another option is to work with a flash, which can give great results (though it does come with a real learning curve!).
6. 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. So if you don’t want to carry a reflector (or you forget yours for a shoot), you can always rely on the surrounding environment.
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 you double- and triple-check your setup to make sure you bring one along. As I mentioned above, you can buy a pop-up reflector, though you can also make one out of foam core or white cardboard.
7. 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.
8. Try capturing some environmental portraits
When it comes to outdoor portraits, the environment plays a pivotal role. It’s not just a backdrop; it’s a character that complements your subject, telling a richer, more layered story.
Imagine a portrait where the subject is standing against an expanse of golden fields, swaying gently with the wind. Now contrast that with a portrait taken amidst urban chaos, with tall skyscrapers looming in the background. Both environments offer different narratives, emotions, and dynamics.
So don’t merely focus on tight, close-up shots. Allow some breathing space in your frames to include elements of the environment. Capture the essence of the location, whether it’s the serenity of the countryside or the hustle of city life.
You can use a wide-angle lens to highlight a person wandering amidst towering trees in a forest, making them seem small yet connected to nature. Or depict a subject against a mural or graffiti wall, letting the colors and patterns accentuate the graphical elements of the composition!
9. Incorporate outdoor elements into your poses
The beauty of being outdoors is that it offers an almost infinite palette of backdrops and props. This provides a unique opportunity to produce natural, captivating poses that incorporate the environment.
Instead of relying on traditional studio poses, invite your subjects to interact with their surroundings. It not only adds depth and context to the photo but also allows the subject to feel more relaxed and connected to the scene. Here are some ways to integrate the environment:
- City portraits: In urban environments, instruct subjects to lean against graffiti walls, perch on the edge of a fountain, or casually stroll across a pedestrian crossing. The textures and structures of the city can add dynamic lines and patterns to your shots.
- Nature portraits: These environments offer a myriad of organic elements. A subject can playfully hold leaves, dangle their feet in a stream, or gaze upwards towards the canopy of trees. The idea is to make the person look as if they belong to the environment, blending seamlessly into the nature around them (see the previous section!).
Remember, while the focus is on the subject, the environment can greatly influence the story you’re trying to tell. So encourage subjects to explore and engage, while you, as a photographer, find that perfect balance between person and place.
Outdoor portrait photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
Plenty of advice 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!
Now over to you:
How will you improve your outdoor portrait shots? Do you have any tips that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
This is a guest post by James Pickett.
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 13 Tips for Improving Outdoor Portraits
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES