How to take great portraits outdoors – Part 1

You don’t need a photography studio to take great portrait photos. Outdoors there are many different backdrops to choose from, many different locations and opportunities to take pictures of people. In this article, I share some of my tips for creating portrait photos that you’ll love.

The first thing to remember about portrait photography is that it doesn’t always need to be carefully posed and formal. You can often get photos that look more natural and reveal more of the person’s character when you take what are known as “candid” pictures. At its simplest, the idea is to take pictures while someone is doing something, simply getting on with life! It is not staged in any way and hopefully they are not really aware of the camera or waiting for the photo to be taken. This type of photo can capture true smiles rather than forced ones. It means waiting and watching with your camera in your hands. Look out for moments of emotion and expression.

But suppose you want something a bit more posed or formal, what then? Here are a few key steps that you can follow to help improve your portraits outdoors:

  1. Look at the person’s face – can you see large amounts of contrast? If the sun is shining you will see bright spots and dark shadows, which generally doesn’t lead to getting a great photo. If possible, find an angle where the person’s face is in light shadow. This might mean looking for a little bit of shade on a very sunny day. You don’t want it to be too dark, but an even, light shade gives more even lighting for portraits.
  2. What is behind them? Generally speaking, you don’t want a cluttered background for a portrait photo as this can be distracting. Check that the things behind them don’t look like they are growing out of their head. Also, make sure that the background isn’t really bright as your camera will struggle to cope with the contrast. This ends up with either the face being too dark or the background too bright. So, try to find a balance so there isn’t too much contrast.


Portraits Outdoors - Sam by the wall

The next step for outdoor portraits is to think about how much of the scene you want to be clearly in focus. Do you just want their face in focus with a soft background? This is probably the most common thing to aim for when taking portraits outdoors. The soft, out of focus background helps to draw our attention to the person’s face. But, how do you get a soft background? Here are a few tips to help:

  1. Use a wide aperture – some lenses have wider apertures than others so make it easier to blur the background. Ideally, you’ll probably want something around f/2.8 or wider (e.g. f/1.8 or even f/1.4, but those lenses are very expensive!). Not all cameras can have different lenses and not all lenses go as wide as others. But, if you do have the option, choose a wide aperture using Aperture Priority Mode instead of Auto (A on Nikon, Av on Canon cameras). The smaller the number, the wider the aperture. Don’t worry, though, if you can’t get a really wide aperture as the other steps will help too.
  2. Keep your subject as far from the background as you can. You will notice that your camera changes quite a bit in the lens setting (or you do if you are doing it manually) to move from focussing on something nearby to something far away. If your subject and the background are very close, there won’t be much difference for the focussing. If you keep a bigger gap between the two then there is a bigger gap between one being in focus and the other being out of focus. Thankfully, when taking portraits outdoors you can often create quite a lot of distance between your subject and the background! This will help to blur the background, but you will also need to take the next steps into account as well.
  3. Move closer to your subject. This has a similar effect to step 2 above. You are increasing the difference needed to focus on your subject and the backdrop. This is also particularly useful if you don’t have a long zoom lens. Very wide angle lenses may risk distorting your subject’s facial features if you get too close, so watch out for that. If you combine this and the previous step you can often create quite a lot more blur than you would otherwise manage. Try, for example, having someone stand against a wall with you about 10m away. Then, move them about 4m from the wall and go a few metres closer to them. Yes, you will probably need to change your zoom settings, but you will also notice that even using the same aperture setting, you will create much more blur in the background. The more you can exaggerate these distances, the more blur you can achieve. Remember, though, that we still want their face to be nice and clear and sharp!
  4. Use a longer lens. Now, I’m not just talking about the physical size of your lens. A long lens is one that you normally use to make things look closer than they are. So, this could be anything from around 85mm onwards. Longer (telephoto) lenses naturally create more blur in the background. This can be done using compact cameras or bridge cameras by zooming in close. Combine this step with the steps above and your portraits should have a nice softness to the background, helping to highlight your subject.

Portraits Outdoors - Sian

These simple steps can be used almost anywhere with most types of cameras and they can bring instant results to your outdoor portraits. On another occasion we shall look at other tools or techniques for improving your portraits outdoors. Practise as much as you can and experiment to see how your image is affected by changing things.

I process my portraits using Portrait Professional. This is relatively easy to use and very effective. You can often get a good offer on it, especially as a member of the SWPP.

I hope you’ve found this helpful. Do let me know if so! Also, do share any of your own tips for others to use as well.

© Joe Lenton, September 2014

2 thoughts on “How to take great portraits outdoors – Part 1”

  1. Pingback: Beach Photography - portraits on the beach

  2. Pingback: Create a Double Bokeh Effect for Portrait Photos

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