The Importance of Location for Outdoor Portraits

The Importance of Location for Outdoor Portraits

Just like in Real Estate, Photography is about location, location, location. Well, sort of. It’s not as much the beauty of a location, but rather, the quality of the light at a location.

Case in point, my shoot this past weekend was of a lovely family in a seemingly lovely location. It was a small, narrow park that wrapped around a large lake. Sounds pretty, but the light was not desirable for portraits. Imagine clear skies and a sun that was as bright as can be! There weren’t structures or large trees to provide shade.

Why is this bad? Direct sunlight on clear, bright days means high contrast, squinting subjects, and unflattering shadows.

Can you still make this work? Certainly, but the kinds of shots are not as varied because of the location.

[FYI: For outdoor lifestyle sessions, I shoot entirely in natural light. This is my style of shooting. This article does not apply if you use lighting equipment or accessories outside.]

Since my clients chose the location for sentimental reasons, it was worth starting
there. Then we got in our cars to find a different location… one that has objects to diffuse the sunlight as well as add interest to the images.

First Location

Even from this one image, you can tell that it is a pretty location, but you can see that the trees are thin and the sunlight is super bright.

Annie Tao Photography San Francisco Bay Area lifestyle photography family in the bright sun LOCATION ONE

Second Location

These images are examples of what can be achievable with the right light and location.

Annie Tao Photography San Francisco Bay Area lifestyle photography mom with her adult daughters

Annie Tao Photography San Francisco Bay Area lifestyle photography young adult sitting on rock

Annie Tao Photography San Francisco Bay Area lifestyle photography parents dancing while their children watch on a bench

Annie Tao Photography San Francisco Bay Area family photography family against a barn with trees and sunflare

Photography Tip:

The key to finding the perfect location for outdoor portraits isn’t to find one that has the prettiest elements, but rather, one that has objects that provide shade when there is bright sun.

That doesn’t mean you have to shoot in the shade the entire time… or even at all!

Having these objects around will give you diversity in backdrops as well as a way to diffuse the harsh light on clear days.

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Annie Tao is a Professional Lifestyle Photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area who is best known for capturing genuine smiles, emotions and stories of her subjects. You can visit Annie Tao Photography for more tips or inspiration. Stay connected with her on her Facebook page

Some Older Comments

  • gnslngr45 April 10, 2013 02:29 am

    Very impressed with the first photo. Hard to get shots in the sun without making the subjects look like raccoons (significant shadows around the eyes).


  • Jai Catalano April 9, 2013 11:44 pm

    So well said. The pretty elements aren't the key.

    What a challenge it was for me to get a great shot outdoors on a sunny day. I felt the sun was everywhere I turned. I managed to make it work.

  • Prashanth Randadath April 5, 2013 11:38 pm

    Location and lighting - two of the most important factors

  • Scottc April 4, 2013 10:19 am

    Nice article, I'm not a portrait shooter either but appreciate the use of natural light.

  • mridula April 3, 2013 03:31 pm

    I am weakest at portraits and one of the reason is that I always associate it with tons of gear which I don't have nor do I have any inclination. But natural light is something I like so maybe there is still hope. Not to do it professionally but in a better way for me.

  • Cramer Imaging April 3, 2013 01:44 pm

    I agree on the sunlight and shade thing. I like to talk about this time I screwed up a portrait shoot because of a light issue. I couldn't redo the shoot as some people depicted live far away. I had a wonderful shady location but the sun was shooting right through the trees onto my glass which resulted in horrendous lens flare I didn't catch until it was too late. Choosing a location is important and so is figuring out where the light is going to be by the time the shoot comes around. I have also experimented with overpowering the sun in strobe to help offset the issues of direct sunlight. There are several good articles on this site teaching and explaining how to do just that so I don't need to repeat how.

    I have also read where the harsh direct sunlight is just the lighting desired. When looking to emphasize certain features like age lines or difficult working conditions, the harsh sun is appropriate. For the flattering portraits, it is not wanted at all.

  • Peter Aikins April 3, 2013 09:05 am

    Great article. Really useful tips on making the most of a difficult situation and the importance of the correct light. I wrote an article on the differences in types of shade. Worth a look when you have some time.

    At the Pergola