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:
1. Pick 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.
2. Use the right focal length
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.
3. 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.)
4. 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).
Every DSLR and interchangeable-lens mirrorless camera will allow you to tweak the aperture in a handful of ways. I’d recommend working in Aperture Priority mode to start, which will let you select the aperture while your camera selects a shutter speed to balance the exposure. Once you become more comfortable, you might try switching to Manual mode for even greater control (though that’s certainly not a requirement, and plenty of professionals prefer to work in Aperture Priority at all times).
One problem with using a wide aperture, by the way, is that you have to be very careful to get the focus right (given the ultra-shallow plane of focus). Therefore, it’s important that you choose your focusing settings very carefully, as I discuss in the next section:
5. Never select all of the focus points for portraits
Remember: 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!
6. Always focus on the eyes
Yes, 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.
(When you’re 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!
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.
7. 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.
8. Avoid direct sunlight in your outdoor portraits
Not all outdoor lighting is ideal for portraits, and while you can’t always control the weather, you can carefully position your subject and set out to shoot at a time of day when the light tends to work great.
So here’s my first portrait photography lighting tip: 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.
What light is best? I’d really recommend working in two main scenarios:
Overcast skies, when the clouds act as a softbox and create soft, diffused light.
And sunrise and sunset light, when the low sun turns soft and warm.
You can also capture great shots just after sunset, though you’ll need to be careful to keep your images sharp and well-exposed in the dim light.
9. 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!).
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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.
Outdoor portrait photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
13 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!
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
- 1. Pick the right camera
- 2. Use the right focal length
- 3. Always shoot in RAW, not JPEG
- 4. Shoot with a wide aperture for a shallow depth of field
- 5. Never select all of the focus points for portraits
- 6. Always focus on the eyes
- 7. Always use a gray card
- 8. Avoid direct sunlight in your outdoor portraits
- 9. If you must use direct sunlight, work carefully
- 10. Work with a natural reflector
- 11. Learn the Sunny 16 rule
- 12. Bring a sheet and a few spring clamps from home
- 13. Avoid powerlines and signs
- Outdoor portrait photography: final words
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES
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