Outdoor portrait photography is all about telling a story using people as the main point of interest. It differs from indoor portrait photography because you don’t have nearly as much control over the lighting conditions as you would in a studio.
What you get in exchange, however, is a nearly endless variety of backgrounds combined with the power of natural lighting. For example, shooting on a sunny day can highlight your subject’s features, while an overcast day will lend some moodiness to your shots.
If you’re planning on shooting some outdoor portraits, you’ll need to consider the time of day, what gear you need, and the weather conditions you’ll be working with. This guide aims to show you everything you need to know to shoot beautiful outdoor portrait photography for your clients or yourself.
Outdoor Portraits and Other Photography Niches
Wedding and engagement photos are popular niches that also fall into the outdoor portraits category. Much like indoor studio photography, the goal is to capture the magic of the moment between the subjects in your shot in an outdoor setting.
Another offshoot of this niche would be outdoor family photos which have exploded in recent years. A lot of families feel more comfortable taking photos if they are out enjoying the outdoors rather than crowding in a studio to get those picture-perfect moments.
The nice thing is that the skills for shooting outdoor portraits are easily transferable into all of these other verticals.
Choosing a Location For Outdoor Portrait Photography
Landscape photographers will tell you that the most important aspects of outdoor photography are location and lighting. This ideology also applies to an outdoor portrait shoot.
If you want to tell a complete story with your portrait photos, then you want them to be in a location that resonates with your subject while the lighting is perfect.
Time of the Year
Seldom talked about is the best season in which to shoot portrait photography outdoors. Most will tell you that summer and fall are the best seasons; while that is partially true, you can still get out some banger shots in the winter and spring.
The season you take your shots in will largely depend on your subject. In the winter time, for example, it’s quite cold outside, limiting the time you can spend shooting.
There is also nothing growing in the winter which makes you focus on making your subject stand out. However, snow provides an excellent reflector in which you can bounce light off your subject on overcast days.
Spring is when all of the plants start to awaken and is popular for family photos with kids. The summer light is high in the sky, and there are plenty of interesting backdrops that you can utilize, including forests and fields.
As a portrait photographer, the season you choose can also reflect your style. If you enjoy a moody atmosphere for your photos, then choose a season that doesn’t offer much sunlight.
Being at the mercy of the weather for outdoor photography is not such a bad thing if you consider the artistic possibilities. Telling a story with your photos involves using all of the tools at your disposal, and the weather can add a lot of life to your photos.
For example, if you want your portraits to showcase a lot of emotion, then consider shooting in the rain to add that extra element of feeling to the shot.
You can let your creativity shine through just by adding a little precipitation.
Just make sure you are prepared for the weather. You don’t want to shoot photography in the rain if your camera isn’t weather sealed against water, or it might end up being an expensive photoshoot for you.
Use Natural Open Spaces
Fields, parking lots, rooftops, and other open spaces are among the typical settings for portraits. They provide a lot of negative space in your photo as there are not too many background elements to get in the way.
Use these kinds of areas for a clean shot where your subject is the main focus of the shot. Add variety using a forested area or some kind of architecture to add some depth to the story.
Choosing the Right Gear
Technique and environmental conditions play a large role in outdoor portrait photography, but having the right gear is the other piece of the puzzle. For many photographers, having a standard kit lens might be the best option, but there are other considerations you should keep in mind.
Focal length should always be balanced between practicality and creativity. It is because of this that there is so much flexibility when it comes to lens choices.
For example, choosing a wide-angle lens (14-44mm) can capture your subject and a large part of the environment around them. This allows you to craft a story by incorporating the different elements within the image.
A telephoto lens (70-200mm) crops out a lot of the background detail while keeping the environment within the shot. These kinds of lenses are great for compressing the background, midground, and foreground to keep your subject in focus while including parts of these planes.
Using your kit lenses works just fine too. You can use a 35mm lens for full-body portraiture a 50mm or 80mm lens to capture just the face.
It’s best to have an idea of what you want your photos to turn out like to help make the choice of focal length much easier. Having a combination of different lenses will allow you to be flexible in your creativity.
Prime lenses have fixed focal lengths and are generally high-quality glass. Unlike zoom lenses, prime lenses cannot be zoomed in or out. The image quality is stunning, and photographers know what to expect from the photos taken with them.
The benefit is that the apertures tend to be much wider on them, allowing more light to come in. If you’re looking for a blurry background that displays the soft bokeh effect, a 50mm prime lens with a wide aperture can help you achieve that look.
Tripod vs. Monopod
Utilizing natural light for outdoor photography is how the magic happens. However, sometimes the best shots are taken when the light is not at its peak, usually during sunrise or sunset.
To compensate, most photographers will crank up the ISO to keep their shutter speed high enough. The problem with this approach is that noise can be introduced at higher ISO levels, which can cause distortion and chromatic aberration in the image.
Using a tripod gives you the stability to use slower shutter speeds to take advantage of lower-light photography. Monopods will work just fine too, in fact, they are much easier to move and set up than a tripod. This is crucial as you may not have a lot of time to photograph your subject as the natural light fades away.
Basics of Outdoor Lighting for Portraits
Many photographers will agree that natural lighting is far more effective at bringing out than diffusers used in a studio. That being said, shooting portraits in direct sunlight can wash out color and introduce harsh shadows into your image.
The Best Time of Day to Shoot
Sunrise and sunset are common times for an outdoor portrait shoot. This is largely due to the sun being low on the horizon, which creates a softer lighting effect on your subject’s face. If you’re photographing at high noon, the direct sunlight can often introduce aberration in your image while also diluting the tones.
Golden hour lighting is the short period after the sun rises and before the sun sets. It introduces a warm, golden glow that is complementary to skin tones. It requires careful planning because you will have to be at your location before the golden hour light appears. Be sure to coordinate with your subject, as you won’t have a lot of time to take advantage of this special time.
The Best Camera Settings for Outdoor Portrait Photography
The key to successful outdoor portrait photography is to be flexible. The conditions will not be the same for every shoot, and as such, you’ll need a deeper understanding of how your camera settings affect your shots. For this reason, it’s recommended that you use manual mode on your camera since it’ll give you the most control over the settings.
Aperture – Wide apertures, such as F/1.4 or even F/1.8 are great choices for outdoor portraits because they offer a shallow depth of field. This shallow depth of field is what gives you a background blur and the dreamy bokeh look. Adjust based on the scene, as some images may tell a better story without a blurred background.
White Balance – White balance can be changed at any time, even in post-processing, so you don’t have to worry about it too much. To keep things simple, using the auto white balance feature is a great tool as it lets your camera decide the optimal setting for your scene.
Shutter Speed – A faster shutter speed setting is ideal since some subjects, such as kids, are prone to moving around a lot. Try not to go below 1/80th of a second if you have steady hands and 1/100th of a second if you shake a bit.
Autofocus – Most cameras will have an autofocus feature that zeroes in on the eyes. In portraits, the eyes are one of the crucial elements in telling your story, and if they’re out of focus, well, it can ruin the entire image.
5 Essential Tips for Outdoor Portraits
Using natural light, a wide aperture, and fast shutter speed settings are all basic components in outdoor portraiture. But you can go above and beyond the basics using these outdoor photography tips.
1. Use the Aperture Priority Mode
Sometimes you can be pressed for time as the golden hour light starts to fade away, so taking advantage of some of the automatic settings your camera has is never a bad idea.
Aperture priority mode lets you take control of the aperture while the camera handles the rest. It’s a handy feature if you’re shooting in direct sunlight and low light, as it takes a lot of the guesswork out of setting your camera.
2. The Sunny 16 Rule
This classic rule comes from the good old film days, and it helps you determine the correct exposure on sunny days without the use of something like an exposure meter.
If your aperture is set to f/16, then the shutter speed will be the same as your ISO. For example, if your ISO is set to 100 and your aperture is f/16, then the optimate shutter speed will be 1/100s. If you change your ISO to 200, then your shutter speed will be 1/200s, and so on, as long as your aperture stays at f/16.
If you’re photographing in a cloudy environment or some shade, then you can reduce the aperture to f/8 and still come up with the same calculations.
3. Using Shadows to your Advantage
Some photographers love using the harsh midday sun for their portrait shots. In the right conditions shooting a backlit portrait is a creative way to add depth to your photos. For example, shooting your subject without a lens hood will create a lens flare as long as the subject is between you and the sun.
However, you’ll need to properly expose the subject’s face, as the sharp light can quickly ruin the exposure. In this case, using flash might help provide the fill light needed to fix the exposure.
4. Using Props and Different Wardrobes
One of the not-so-common outdoor portrait photography tips is to use props to help tell the story of your photo. They can be used to complement your scene while introducing some fun to your subject. Sometimes your clients may not be comfortable with the idea of being photographed, and using props and costumes can help alleviate any anxiety.
Here are some great prop ideas you can use in your next outdoor photography session:
- Picnic baskets
Balloons are great for maternity photographs as they can provide context for the gender of the baby, as well it can be used for inspiration as they are generally in the shape of a pregnant stomach.
5. Avoid Distractions in Your Shots
There is nothing quite as disappointing as taking an incredible shot and having something like powerlines or other obstructions appear after you’ve dumped the photos. Sure, you can edit them in post-processing, but sometimes even the spot healing tool can leave distortion in the area you used it in.
It’s best to frame your shot with those distractions omitted already. This can be achieved by changing the angle of your shot or moving your subject to a different area.
Outdoor portrait photography is an art that needs to be practiced often to be successful. Read our article on outdoor photography for additional tips.
Remember to take advantage of the natural lighting, frame your shot properly, and ensure you have the right lenses on you. Keeping your subject at ease will enable them to look their best and help you crank out some banger shots.