How to Outdoor Portrait Photography
Daniel • updated February 2, 2023 • 13 min read
Daniel • updated February 2, 2023 • 13 min read
Attention all portrait photographers! Are you looking to take your outdoor portrait photography to the next level?
Well, look no further. In this article, we’ll guide you through the process of finding the perfect location, choosing the right model and style, capturing the best light during the golden hour, selecting the best camera and lens, and mastering image composition and creativity.
So, grab your camera and get ready to take stunning portraits that will leave your audience in awe.
It doesn’t have to be the most beautiful background with the best view all the time. You shouldn’t show too many objects in the picture. Most of the time, these cause distractions, but they also cause your image composition to be unstable.
If you like to take pictures of people in nature, you should spend a lot of time there without a camera.
As this section comes to a close, it’s important to say that you can’t find the best places by looking at Google Maps or driving by. You can only get there with your feet and must find them first.
The next step in any shoot is to find the right person to be the subject. It’s best to work with models you already know, but don’t be afraid to work with new ones.
But it’s often easier and more fun to work with people you’ve already worked with on other shoots. If the model introvert, read our guide about photographing camera shy persons here.
You can get natural shots with almost any kind of model. What is more important is how they wear their hair, make-up, and clothes. Find out how to make perfect makeup for photos.
This should go with the place or the environment. So do not overdo it make-up-wise. Also, the hairstyle should be something natural and should fit their overall style. Read also the best hairstyles to look good in photos.
For the outfit, the model should just bring different pieces of clothing, to try variations on the spot. Stay away from prints or even large brand logos. Most of the time, that quickly breaks the mood.
Also, the patterns often draw all the attention to themselves and take it away from what the model is supposed to be about.
You can also use props. This can also include things like a hat, poncho, blanket, glasses, or other clothing or accessories. Use your imagination and add things like this to your picture. You can tell a whole new story this way.
Modeling in front of a camera is an art form in and of itself. The goal may seem easy, but it’s actually more complicated than you might think. In model photography, you have to make your body, which is three-dimensional, fit into the flat space of an image.
When it comes to this translation, many portraits fail. Most people, even models, don’t naturally know how to pose for the camera. You have to learn how to pose for photos, and you get better at it as you practice. Read our tips to photograph men.
Use Pinterest and Google to find photos of models in poses you’d like to copy.
You don’t have to tell the model how each body part is held all the time.
Instead, try to give the model a frame where she can move around freely. As the photographer, you can then take a step back and take the photo.
When shooting outdoor portrait photographs, you should wait until the late afternoon or evening to do your shooting. As the golden hour goes on, the light gets softer and warmer, first you avoid hash shadows and the model’s skin looks good.
If there aren’t many clouds in the sky, it might be better to wait until the evening. You can also type “sunset” into Google to find out the right time. Remember that this is the time when the sun goes away for good. The soft, warm light from the sun comes 30–60 minutes before.
You should remember that the best time to take pictures is at the start of the golden hour. So not only do you have to be on location by then, but you also need to have warmed up with your model.
Find out more about lighting at how to take good portraits with common light sources.
Not every place is lit up until the time when the Golden Hour is supposed to start. Forests, mountains, and other things can block the sun’s light earlier. So, in this case, you need to start earlier.
After sunset, you can still take photos. From now on, the “blue hour” starts. During this time, the light from the sky gets gradually dimmer and cooler, but it is still very soft.
If you want to be sure, check the time of sunset the night before the actual shoot.
Once you are at the photo location, you should first think about what kind of background you want in the picture. Step two is to look at the light. And this changes, if not every hour, then at least every few hours. Read also about the best time of the day for a portraiture here.
The shooting doesn’t have to happen in the evening. You can also shoot in the afternoon, of course. But direct, bright sunlight not only makes the model’s skin look bad, but it also casts harsh shadows on her face, which creates unflattering features. Also, watch out for very bright areas, as these areas often get overexposed by accident.
If possible, always position your model in the shadow. Most of the time, the light here is softer. Still, you need to figure out which way the light is coming from. Then you can choose whether you want to shoot with the light or against it.
While we’re talking about bokeh, this is the blur effect that covers the background of an image. And with a full-frame sensor, you can make even more of it. Here, the background is usually a little bit softer than it is with an APS-C sensor camera.
So, what is the best camera for portraits? First and foremost, a full-frame camera would be the first option, but nowadays the difference between full-frame and APS-C is sometimes very small.
For more info on cameras, read our article about DSLR vs mirrorless system camera.
On the other hand, a good lens can be a game-changer for your portrait photography. Anyhow, you should select a camera according to your budget. Usually, an APS-C sensor camera is a more affordable way to go.
When taking pictures outside, we recommend using the manual mode because it lets you control every part of the picture. But when there’s a lot going on, manual mode can be harder to use.
If you’re not used to shooting in manual mode, here’s a quick list of when to use the other camera modes:
After we’ve figured out what’s going on with the equipment, We’d like to talk about how it was set up in the first place. We recommend setting the following in the manual mode of the camera, no matter how much light there is:
Manual mode settings:
Avoid using auto white balance while taking outdoor photos. Instead, manually adjust your white balance using the most suitable preset, such as sunny, cloudy, or shadow, or dial in the desired Kelvin value at your camera.
With these settings, the white balance of your images will be constant. During a shoot, the auto white balance will fluctuate depending on the background, the subject’s attire, and the lighting.
You’ll have to adjust the white balance for each individual photo, which will take longer if you try to do it afterward on the computer.
For warm portrait colors already at the shoot, I recommend setting the white balance to shadow or cloudy.
In portrait photography, the most essential part of the picture is the person you’re taking a picture of, who must be properly exposed. So it’s always best to use spot metering and to know your camera’s metering modes.
When the sun moves past your subject, spot metering is even more important. Use spot metering to measure the exposure based on their face so that your model, not the background, is well exposed.
We recommend to use matrix metering to measure the whole scene when the sun is behind you. Be aware, though, that the background will affect how the camera exposes the photo, especially if the background it is much brighter or darker than your model.
Do you want to take one picture at a time, or do you need to take several pictures per second? When taking outdoor portrait or outdoor headshots, there is a significant amount of movement, so you should be ready for it.
This is when the drive modes come in handy. When you press the shutter button, you can choose to take a single shot, a series of shots, or a picture after a delay.
This mode is great for taking outdoor portraits, and other moving events where it might be hard to get a clear picture because of how fast your object is moving.
In the old days with analog photography you need to bring dozens of film rolls to a shoot. Nowadays, we have large storage cards that you can take as many pictures as you want.
Even the best photographers in the world take hundreds of photos with their camera, but they may only keep ten or less. Consider also of you want to take the photo in portrait or landscape format.
Once you proudly post your portrait on social media, us one of the portrait photography quotes for Instagram.
RAW is a file format that saves all of the image data that the sensor records when you take a picture. Your camera will leave the picture exactly as it is, giving you more control in post-processing to make any changes you want.
When you use a format like JPEG to take a picture, the image data is compressed and lost. Since no information is compressed in the RAW format, you can get better quality photos and fix problems that would be impossible to fix in the JPEG format.
When it comes to gear, people have different ideas. And the model and brand of the camera are just the beginning. Further, it goes, whether or not you need a reflector or flash. In the case of nature portraits, it’s best to keep things simple.
In the beginning, it can be hard to use the flash to match the mood, especially in nature, and not just flash away. So, just pay attention to the model, the light, and your camera.
Use a reflector if you want to better manage your lighting. This is very helpful for lighting up the model’s face in case the light comes from behind or above.
Foldable reflectors are inexpensive, portable, and simple-to-use instruments that can significantly enhance your outdoor photography.
You only need one camera and one lens; the only question is which focal length to use. Unlike when you take portraits inside, you have a lot of room outside. This means there are no boundaries. You can choose a 24mm lens with a wide angle or a 200mm lens with a long focal length.
The 35mm to 85mm focal length range is recommended for portraits taken outside in natural light. Why?
At a focal length of 24mm, it’s easy to see how the proportions of the person in the picture are messed up. Also, you have to be careful not to get too close or put the model on the edge of the frame. At 35mm, it gets better, and you can still see a lot of the surrounding scenery.
Be careful with a focal length above 135mm. You have to move far back to get the model in the frame, and most of the time the bokeh shows a very blurry background. The “outdoor”, in this case, the natural surroundings, will be completely gone.
The best advice is to use a 50mm or an 80mm lens. With these lenses, you capture the person and the environment with the correct proportions and achieve a nice bokeh.
The shallow depth of field effect will also soften the skin when using a wide aperture and focusing on the eyes.
Any good portrait photographer should have the subject’s eyes as its main focus because they are the window to the soul. Additionally, the eyes should be depicted that way since they are the most intricate feature of the face.
You should be using your camera’s Eye AF feature or just one AF point, as was covered in the section above.
Place the AF point above the eye and lock focus if you only have one, then recompose as necessary. Make sure your camera’s Eye AF is detecting your subject’s eye before you start shooting if you’re using it.
Learn also about how to take sharp photos for beginners.
Photo composition is a wide-ranging topic that isn’t always easy to understand. There are no simple instructions or formulas on how to compose and put an image together. Read about the golden ratio for harmonious photos.
Shapes and hard lines, in particular, shouldn’t cut or cross your model in weird places. Above all, don’t put the model’s head in front of a vertical object.
If you see lines in the background, think about how you can use these lines to make the photo more interesting. Also, think about the right framing. What part of the location is shown in the picture? In which way will the body of the model be cut off?
Here are a couple more tips:
It’s easier than you might think to pose naturally. We also like to slow down our models, who may have been photographed before by someone else. Too much grabbing and jumping around with the hair isn’t always a good thing, and it looks like a quick pose.
Less is more, especially in nature, just as it is in fashion and styling. This helps the model look more like it belongs where it is. Always think about how the picture will look to someone who sees it later as a “silent observer.”
And if no one is around, not even a photographer, the model wouldn’t do anything like that. We have also an article about the do’s and don’t about portrait photography.
Be imaginative when taking photographs outside. The standard forward-facing portrait is just one of many poses for an outside session. Play around with the camera settings and frame your model with the background and foreground. Use light and shadows to unexpectedly highlight their features.
Compared to a photo studio, were you have control over the lighting, in an outdoor setting, the lighting controls you.
Show your subject in the light that nature provides you by utilizing your artistic talents. Use the environment to show their personalities and sense of style. When you shoot outside, the possibilities are endless.
Nothing can actually be done to improve a truly awful photo, that’s why we should constantly try to capture the greatest image we can in the camera, with exposure, composition, and lighting being some key factors.
While capturing amazing shots right out of the camera every time can be challenging, post-processing can truly elevate your photos to the next level.
We recommend using a non-destructive picture editing application for these portrait post-processing. One such tool that many portrait photographers is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Of course, there are also other excellent applications that use non-destructive editing.
Colors don’t have to be reproduced 1:1 naturally – much more they should underline the desired mood. For example, looks with a lot of contrast and strong desaturation can look dark or scary. On the other hand, if you keep the colors warm, they tend to be loose and happy.
No matter how crazy you get with the other colors, skin tones are important here. Still, they should look “healthy.” If not, people will see right away that something is wrong.
Most of the time, the look of the colors in Lightroom is made up of three parts: the gradation curves, the HSL settings, and the partial toning. For the gradation curves, you should look at each curve on its own.
Then you can set the brightness, saturation, and color of each color or image area. So, you can define things like skin tones and greens even better.
Use this quick outdoor photography tips if you are starting out with outdoor portrait photography, to get great images right from the start.
The Golden Hour is a period of the day when the light is soft and golden, typically at sunrise or sunset.
Any subject you are photographing looks good in the golden hour lighting.
Shadows cast by direct sunlight are eliminated by this light. The light at this time of day casts a golden glow that frames the figure of your subject.
Taking pictures during the golden hour will result in visually stunning and compelling images, they are perfect for outdoor glamour photography.
Changing light makes outdoor portraits difficult. When you shoot will determine how you use lighting to brighten your subject.
Reflectors help control light. Inexpensive, lightweight, and easy-to-use reflectors can improve outdoor photography.
Most reflectors come in different colors that affect light differently. Using the gold part of your reflector would give your subject a golden glow. White is a classic choice that acts as a lighting.
Reflectors control lighting and reduce subject shadows. Reflectors are most effective when used close to the subject. You could ask an assistant to help you or buy reflector stands.
You may have already heard, that certain lenses make better portrait photos. Our portrait photography tips would be not complete without mentioning that fixed-focal-length lenses are best for portraiture.
50mm is the most popular portrait lens. Fixed focal lengths are the key to powerful picture framing, composition, and also depth of field.
Using a fixed-focal-length lens with the a low f-stop creates soft, delicate bokeh in portraits. Shoot wide open to create a blurred effect and shallow depth of field. This requires f/1.2 – f/2.8.
Avoid wide-angle and zoom lenses for portraits. Adjustable focus causes subject distortion. Portrait-focused lenses capture subjects proportionally and flatteringly.
Avoid direct sunlight when shooting outdoor portraits. Harsh sunlight can be hard on your subject’s eyes and create unflattering images.
Direct sunlight limits your lighting control. This can cause you to lose the subject’s perspective and detail.
Instead of shooting your model in plain sunlight, choose a shaded area for better photos.
Most portraits focus on the eyes. Using a wide aperture and focusing on the eyes helps ensure clear, in-focus eyes. This will help soften your model’s other attributes and bring attention to the eyes. If your model is wearing glasses, learn how to deal with this and read our article about how to take photos of people wearing glasses.
Yes, the golden hours is great to take portraits outside. Simply put, the golden hour is the hour just before the sun begins to set. The sun is about to set. Due to air diffraction as it descends, the sun’s light casts a beautiful, delicate orange light across the globe as it sets.
Photos taken in direct sunlight may have an excessive amount of contrast and other unfavorable elements.
When photographing in direct sunshine, you have also little to no influence over your lighting. If you can, move your subject into a more covered and shaded place rather than snapping a picture with the sun directly overhead.
Place your model in the shadows and use the light to draw attention to certain features. Beginners can dive deeper in portraiture and read how to start with portrait photography.
The ISO setting controls how light-sensitive the sensors in your camera are. Understanding how bright it is outdoors is essential to taking a stunning outdoor portrait.
Use an ISO setting between 100 and 400 when it’s fully daylight; later in the day or at night, you’ll need to use a much higher level. Changing the ISO settings can give amazing results, but be careful not to overdo it.
Any lighting condition can benefit from a flash. With natural lighting, you only need a modest flash to add a hint of contrast in dim light or to lighten shadows in bright light. If you are using a lens with a wide aperture, you might wish to avoid utilizing a flash.
The look of your images will vary depending on the lens you pick. Stick to a fixed focal length lens when taking pictures outside. The greatest options are 50mm and 85mm because you can frame your model and achieve the desired depth of field with them.
You can capture photographs with Bokeh with a fixed focal length lens, too. If you can obtain a great focus on them with the delicate blur in the background, your clients will adore how these appear.
Zoom and wide-angle lenses should not be used. These limit your capacity to express your artistic side. They change the subject and background in an unnatural way. Keep your model appearing natural and composed when taking outside portraits.
Outdoor portrait photography can be a wonderful way to capture people in their natural surroundings, but it takes some effort to get the perfect shot. From finding the right location to choosing the right camera and lens, there are many factors to consider.
With a little bit of planning and creativity, however, you can achieve stunning results that capture the essence of your subject and the beauty of the environment. Whether you’re a seasoned photographer or just starting out, the key is to keep practicing and experimenting until you find the right approach for you.
More about outdoor and portraits:
5 Things to Remember when Taking an Outdoor Portrait
Practicing Outdoor Portrait Photography
Top Portrait Photography Trends
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Outdoor photography magazine UK
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The adventure gap
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The Sierra de Grazalema natural park
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