5 Tips for Outdoor Portrait Photography

Written by: Glyn Dewis

Published: July 7, 2010

Category: General

Following on from a photo shoot yesterday afternoon I got thinking about some of the techniques I use when shooting portraits outdoors and thought it might be useful to write them here on the blog. So, here’s a list of 5 tips/techniques for shooting Portraits in the Great Outdoors that I generally will consider on every photo shoot:

1. Match the Light: If you find yourself photographing on a day as I did recently when there’s very little cloud cover and the sun is doing it’s best to nuke your subjects, to match the natural lighting that will be contrasty with very defined hard light/shadows you may consider using bare bulb and no light softening modifiers if everything is to look natural:

On the flip side of that, if you’re photographing and using off camera lighting on an overcast day with lots of soft natural/ambient light then you’ll want to match that lighting on your subject/s so you my consider using a modifier such as a Large Softbox or Umbrella:

2. Use Free Softboxes: All around us there are natural softboxes. For example position your subject in the recess of a doorway so that the doorway opening itself becomes the light source ie a large light source with the light falling onto your subject from one direction:

Look for breaks in the tree canopy that will again provide you with beautifully soft, directional light:

On most photo shoots I’ll make a point of always taking both naturally lit shots and shots using off camera lighting, which helps me to produce quite a varied mix of final looks.

3. Make use of Reflectors: When I’m taking photos using natural light I’ll always have with me a reflector or two. My reflector of choice at the moment is the California Sunbounce Mini because of the quality of light it produces, the build quality and being so lightweight, however any reflector is better than none at all:

The main thing to remember when using reflectors is that you’re using them to redirect some of the sun’s light back onto your subject so how and where you position it is very important when it comes to producing a realistic look:

Too low down and you’ll be reflecting light under your subjects chin which will look artificial, so look at positioning it so that the light is reflected slightly down on to your subject. In addition to this, for outdoor shots I’ll nearly always use the gold reflector which gives a lovely warm reflected light onto the subject:

4. Shoot later in the day: Do you really need to be shooting in the middle of the day when the sun’s at it’s strongest? Sure you can manage this no problem with top of the range lighting such as Profoto or Elinchrom but not everyone can afford that kind of equipment. The solution…shoot later in the day when your small battery operated strobes will have no problem overpowering the sun. This time of year if I’m shooting using small strobes like my Nikon SB800’s I’ll make a point of shooting no earlier than about 5pm; that way I can control the ambient light using apertures of no more than say f/11 which the SB800’s can comfortably cope with.

Another advantage of shooting later in the day is that what was once possibly a stark cloudless sky, later in the afternoon/early evening when the temperature drops a few degrees you’ll likely start to see more cloud formation:

5. Move Around: Ok so maybe this one is relevant for any shoot, be it indoors our outdoors but move around your subject or take the same shot using different lenses eg a 24-70mm to take in more of the environment:

…and then maybe a 70-200mm to take a tighter shot:

So what tips would you add to this list? What tips could you share with others that help you with your outdoor photography?

Of course this is not an exhaustive list of tips for shooting portraits outdoors so it would be great to ‘hear’ any that you would add to the list, so please feel free to make use of the comments section below.
Enjoy 🙂

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15 Comments

  1. DaveT

    HI Glyn,

    Great set of images and tips.

    My tips are:
    a) Look at the ambient light first, if you need additional light, then use reflectors, and finally flash. The essence of it is that the photographer takes control of the lighting and adds or subtracts light to taste.

    b) For outdoor shoots on the hoof with minimal equipment, its worth having a friend or partner to hold your off camera flash, or reflector for you. This makes it easy to move the additional light source around. I have heard this technique referred to as using a VAL (voice activated light stand.

    Dave

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @DaveT…Thanks for adding some extra tips into the mix; all helps 🙂

      Cheers,
      Glyn

      Reply
  2. Mike

    Handy tips Glyn, nice one

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @Mike…Thanks mate 🙂

      Reply
  3. Rick Wenner

    When I’m using natural light during my shoots, I absolutely love to shoot directly into the sun to create a nice flare behind my subject. This technique isn’t for everyone’s taste but I personally love it.

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @Rick…Cheers for the ‘tip’ and yeah I’ve seen your ‘shooting into the sun’ shots and they work a treat!!!

      Reply
  4. Dan Davies

    Top tips as always Glyn.

    Mine? Away from the technicalities of great photos, great images come from the interaction between the photographer and his/her subject. Make each shoot a fun experience, give your “models” lots of feedback, and have lots of laughs together. Get the technicalities “down pat” so that you’re not spending all your time with the camera pressed to your face and you’ll capture images with soul, not just record shots.

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @Dan…Spot on with that Dan because no photo will work regardless of technical skill if the relationship between Photographer and subject isn’t there.

      Nice one mate,
      Cheers,
      Glyn 🙂

      Reply
  5. David Kelly

    Hi Glyn,

    Thanks for the advice.

    One tip from me to make use of grey card for getting a custom white balance value. I asked subjects to hold for a reference shot and periodically thereafter when I feel the light has changed. Not a problem I guess when you’ve got a consistent, controllable light source but useful when you’re shooting solely with natural light which progressively changes.

    The great advantage with shooting in RAW is that I can then go into Lightroom and use the eye-dropper tool to take a correct W/B value from the card and then (even better) sync that setting across a multitude of images.

    I can personally recommend the Whibal card (which a friend picked up in the States for me) but other similar products are available here in the UK.

    Regards,
    David

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @David…Yeah great tip there David, thanks. Must admit I used to use the grey cards and did infact have a Whibal Card but since using the D3 I find the White Balance is pretty much spot on. That being said, the Whibal or the Greycard method you mention is extremely good, especially when the WB can be synced across multi images.

      Cheers,
      Glyn

      Reply
  6. Steve Porter

    Hi Glyn,

    Glad to see the shot with the tree made it onto your site, i really love that pool of light.

    This maybe stating the obvious but i like to know as much as i can about the location before shooting there. Information like postion of the sun at certain times and whether i am going to be interupted by over zealous security guards.

    As far as the technical side goes, i think you’ve covered all the areas nicely and i agree with what Dan says, knowing your kit is essential so you can keep a good rapport going without looking at your kit.

    I like to have a few final images in my mind before starting the shoot but to also be flexible because those impromptu shots are always the winning shots.

    Looking forward to the photowalk,

    All the best to you,

    Steve

    Reply
    • Glyn

      @Steve…Couldn’t resist adding the tree shot after your comments 🙂
      Definitely agree with you about researching the location beforehand so that you can cover all eventualities and also plan what shots and where. When it comes to Security Guards, I tend to go by the motto of ‘It’s easier to apologise than to ask permission’ but I don’t promote it…lol 🙂

      Cheers,
      Glyn

      Reply
  7. Karissa

    Thanks for sharing this information….So far, I have ONLY used natural light. I also think it is handy to know how to take a photo without a reflector or bulb.
    I would LOVE for you to do a blog about that! 🙂

    Reply
    • Glyn

      Hi Karissa…Thanks for your comment and suggestion; I’ll look at doing that.

      Regards,
      Glyn

      Reply

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