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How to Make Your Location Portraits Even Better

In photography, portraits are an art form to themselves. There are many ways to make portraits, but one of the main divisions is between portraits made in a studio and on location portraits. The end results look very different, so it’s good to choose between them depending on what you’re going for.

Do you have a preference between them, either as a photographer and/or as a viewer?

Portrait in a greenhouse. location portraits

Studio photography is a lot of fun, but when I’m working on a portrait job I usually prefer to photograph on location. Why? Portraits taken in a favorite location – outdoors or at home – are a great opportunity to really bring out the subject’s personality and to enjoy the beauty of natural light.

That’s why I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about location portraits with you. I hope you enjoy the ride!

Sports portrait on location. location portraits

The advantages of stepping out of the studio

There are both pros and cons to on-location portrait photography. The main differences between this kind of photography and studio photography are the light and the environment.

Light

In a studio setting, you’re in complete control of the light. On location, you very likely won’t be, but the advantage is that you’ll have a much richer palette of light and color. So it’s a challenge but also an opportunity.

Instead of creating the lighting setup, you can focus on creating a very unique, natural portrait. Another difference is that natural light feels less artificial, just like a natural setting. Depending on what kind of atmosphere you’re going for, this can be very important.

Portrait of child outdoors. - location portraits

Environment

Depending on the surroundings, a natural setting might not create a portrait with that timeless feel that a studio portrait often has. Again, this is neither good nor bad – it all depends on what kind of feeling you’re going for.

Including the environment in your portraits can add a lot of character and help bring out the subject’s personality.

Wedding portrait in forest. location portraits

The environment can also be a distraction, both in the final photograph and during the session. This can be a boon or a burden when you’re taking photos.

Too much going on might lead to a chaotic photo or the subjects looking (or being!) distracted, but it can also help the subjects relax and be themselves. All you have in a studio setting is the subject, the slightly intimidating lights, and the photographer; outdoors or at home, the setting might feel less oppressive.

Using the Surroundings to Your Advantage

So you’ve decided that you’re going to do a portrait session on location. What are the most important things to remember, and how can you make the session memorable?

Wedding portrait in winter.

Prepare!

You can’t ever be in complete control of a situation, but preparing is always worth the effort. It will help both you and your subject get the most out of the session and the final product. It will also let your creativity flow more freely since you won’t have to worry about all the details you will have dealt with beforehand.

Several choices need to be made before you can start making a portrait, and this can be done days and even weeks beforehand. These are: where, when, what, and what if.

First, you’ll have to find and agree on a location that’s convenient for you and works for the kind of portrait you and the client want. Unless it’s your backyard, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the place before the session.

Wedding portrait with greenery. location portraits

The time for the shoot is at least as important as the location. Both season and time of day have a huge impact on the quality of light you’ll have to work with, so keep that in mind as you plan your photo session.

In general, the hour before sunset until just after sunset is when you’ll find the really beautiful light. Overcast days are also surprisingly good for portraits. Of course, you also have to find a time that’s convenient for your subject so the timing of the photo session is often a compromise between practical considerations and optimal lighting conditions.

Graduation portrait with flowers.

Other preparations you can make are planning the types of photos you and your subject want and the clothing they’ll be wearing. Sometimes these are given – for instance, if you’re making wedding or graduation portraits.

Looking up inspiration for poses and compositions online is a good way to get ready, as is using yourself as a practice subject.

Outdoor portrait with fruit.

By “what if”, I mean you should have a backup plan. When planning a portrait session with a customer, I always make sure to have a reserve day in case the weather doesn’t cooperate, someone gets sick, or any of a million other unexpected things happen.

It can also mean having a reserve place to make the portraits, one that will still work if the original one doesn’t for some reason.

Outdoor portrait in the rain.

Do Your Best and Enjoy the Moment

The time has arrived and so has your subject. You’re in the right place at the right time, and now all you have to do is make some great portraits. There are a lot of great articles that cover the main things that will help you make the best of it, so I’ll only mention them:

  • Always be aware of the background: what kind of patterns are there, what colors, what is the light like?
  • Don’t be afraid to pose your subjects.
  • Make your subjects feel comfortable and calm – this way you can both enjoy both the session and the final portraits.

Portrait of child in the grass.

A Practical Example

Lastly, I want to share a strategy that I sometimes use for location portraits with customers. It’s not always possible or sensible to do this, but when it is, it’s an easy way to have a comfortable and fun photo session.

This is what I do…

After I know when and where the portraits will be made, I visit the place and familiarize myself with it. Then I explore the area, find a nice route to walk along, and choose several places where the portraits can be made along that route. When it’s time for the photo session, I take the subjects on a short walk along the route that I found. I also tell them about the plan, so they know what’s going to happen.

On-location family portrait.

I took this lovely family on a walk with some beautiful backdrops.

This approach offers many advantages. If you don’t know your subjects, taking a little walk is a nice way to relax and chat a bit before you start making the photos. It often also makes the subjects feel less awkward and on the spot, since they get to take in the surroundings a bit rather than immediately being put in front of a lens.

For you, as a photographer, it’s a good way to structure the session, to have a beginning and an end but leave plenty of room for spontaneity. It also lets you use several different settings within the same area so you can offer your subject a range of different portraits afterward.

Conclusion

Knowing how to make location portraits is a very useful skill in many situations: weddings, birthdays, graduations, for families, bands, teams, pets, etc. The list goes on and on.

What is your favorite part about making portraits on location? Are there some specific challenges you’ve encountered? I’d love to see your photos and your thoughts in the comments section!

Goodbye!

Sadly, this is my last article here at Digital Photography School. I’ve learned a lot and really enjoyed it, both writing the articles and taking part in all the discussions we’ve had. Thank you! You can find all my articles here.

Keep learning about and enjoying photography – I sure will!

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Hannele Luhtasela-el Showk

Hannele Luhtasela-el Showk photographs weddings professionally and nature passionately. Based in Finland and Morocco, they love going on adventures, learning, teaching, reading, science, and finding new perspectives. Hannele's photos can be found on their wedding website, blog and Facebook page.