10 Tips For Improving Your Outdoor Portraits

Photo by Aiony Haust

Outdoor portraits are like a double edge sword; they can create so much opportunity and challenges for photographers. That’s why we wanted to help you out and give you some advice to keep those portrait sessions on the rise. Remember, it doesn’t matter where you live you can always find an excuse to take some photos outside. Being outside allows you to capture so many details of the environment. You can get great candid shots and plenty of scenery. Yet, there are so many elements that will be outside of your control in an ever-changing environment. However, there are always ways to make sure you have as much control as possible when shooting. Portraits outside combine two powerful elements of photography. We want you to be able to leverage both, so we made a list of tips for you to improve your outdoor portraits.

1. Focus on the eyes.

When taking photographs of your models outdoors, it’s important to emphasize the eyes. This is the center point of most portraits. It draws the viewer in. This is great to do outside because eye color is different when you are outdoors. You can emphasize color in the landscape and eyes together for a wonderful result.

2. Never select all of the focus points, pick one.

When you pick autofocus as an option, you are doing your photos a terrible disservice. You may think you are making things easier for yourself, but in reality, you are sacrificing more control.

3. Shoot wide open for a shallow depth of field.

Shooting at ƒ2.8 or ƒ4 is very desirable, so you should make sure you have a lens capable of doing that. You will get that wonderfully smooth background blur that looks fire on natural light portraits.

4. Make the most out of natural light.

Your technique for this is going to vary depending on the kind of day it is.

  • Full Sun: This can be the most challenging. Harsh shadows, washed out images, squinting models. It gives me a headache just thinking about it. Full sun also offers a great opportunity for some bold photos.
  • Shade/Partial Sun: This is great lighting for portraits. The clouds act as a natural diffuser and create soft, even lighting. The challenge with shade is boring and sometimes flat imagery. To combat this try using a reflector to help bounce some light back onto your subject’s face.
  • No Sun: Because these conditions are not as bright as others it will require the use of slower shutter speed, wider aperture setting, and/or higher ISO settings. In this scenario make the most of the light you have and use a silver reflector to add some light back in.

5. Always bring a reflector.

Don’t bring along your entire studio but know that a reflector can make a big difference in good and bad outdoor portraits. It helps to offset some of the light and to add some lighting in when you lack that golden glow.

6. For optimal outdoor portraits, we suggest staying 70mm or higher.

Any focal length below 70mm can distort your subject. It doesn’t become very noticeable until you are below 50mm.

7. Watch the background.

This may seem obvious, but it’s still important to keep in mind. Nothing can ruin an image faster than rogue power lines, or obnoxious street signs. There was a street sign in my senior photo that needed to be cropped out because we didn’t pay attention to the background. Search for good textures and interesting architecture and buildings.

8. Posing

It’s exciting to see how much you can do with outdoor environments. Incorporate it as much as you can with bridges, trees, stairways, alleys. Anything that inspires you should go for it. If you need some tips for posing models, read our article about it here. Always offer encouragement to your models and try to put them at ease as much as possible, this is when you will get the best photos.

9. Composition

The composition is essential for great portraits. You should always be incorporating as much as you can to help set the scene and make an interesting photograph. Have different textures, contrasting colors that pop out, and different perspectives.

10.  Learn the sunny ƒ16 rule.

This rule states that on a sunny day, with your aperture value set to ƒ16, your shutter speed will be the inverse of the current ISO speed. On a cloudy day or when in the shade simply use ƒ8 instead.