10 Photography Tips for Better Outdoor Portraits

I’ve been a professional photographer for over 20 years. Even though I have a ton of ideas and styles, sometimes I find going back to the basics creates portraits that clients truly love. Here are some simple solutions that everyone can benefit from when capturing your next outdoor portrait session.

Select a location
Locations are very important and should be thought out in advance. Look for locations that bring interest and enhance your session. Parks, lakes and other open spaces offer natural scenery and tend to be the first places people think of. But don’t forget about architecture. Buildings and other structures bring warm elements into a portrait. Doors, windows, walls, a staircase or pillars will bring wonderful life to a portrait.

Choose a location that is not busy and bustling with activity. A quiet area will allow a client to be more focused, and allow them to be able to listen to your posing instructions without distractions or loud noises that would otherwise interfere.

Repeating lines
A great way to add depth is to find a location with repeating lines. Columns, pillars or other structures add interest to a portrait and create a portrait that stands apart from others.

Use a longer lens
By selecting a longer lens, you can put the focus on your subject, leaving your background soft and out of focus. This adds to the drama of the portrait, and can give you a unique look and style. One of my favorite lens to use is a 70-200mm F2.8. Use your longer focal length (150mm – 200mm) to separate your subject from the background.

Clothing selection
To ensure optimal results, consult with your client about clothing selections prior to your portrait. Stay away from busy patterns (ie plaids, polka dots or flowery prints) and use darker to medium tones.

If you have more than one person in the portrait, teach your clients about matching. If one is in jeans, they all should be. Black turtlenecks always work well. Long sleeves work better than short sleeves or tank tops. Put the emphasis on the face, and you will really increase your sales.

Pose by example
Show your subject how you want them to pose, what to lean on or how to sit. I always find that it’s easier to pose by example, so each person can see the pose you’re looking for. It saves a lot of time and frustration on both parts, and makes the whole experience more enjoyable. It’s easier to make minor moves when they are 90 percent there.

Groups -start with the smallest and grow
Once you have a setting selected, start with the smallest groups and build up. When one person is posed and comfortable, its much easier bringing in the second to them. Try and build in triangle formation within your groups (two people on the ground as a base and one behind and between)

Use a tripod
A tripod gives you stability and the ability to move quickly. Your camera will remain focused on a particular area while you move the subjects in and out in different group formations. A tripod will also ensure a crisp image, no matter what size lens you are using.

Ensure that the eyes are in focus
When the eyes are in focus, you have a guaranteed seller.  The client will not be happy if the eyes are not sharp.

Perfect time of day
With a wedding or event, you have no control over the timing. Not so with a portrait. Always work around the sweet light – early morning or late evening. By having the sun in the lower hemisphere of the sky, you can work in a variety of situations without dramatic shadows, squinting eyes, and harsh lines.

Use a reflectorBetter Portraits With Reflectors
I have never been a fan of adding flash outside during a portrait session. With beautiful, natural light, why bring in “fake” light? A reflector can be an invaluable tool for a portrait session. You can easily direct light right where you want it – the face and eyes.

While reflectors are great if you have directional light you can bounce into place, sometimes you are working with much softer light, and a reflector won’t work. Try a softbox. A softbox separates harsh sunlight spots from beautiful natural, light. Softboxes can easily be made with pvc pipe for a frame and stretch white material, rip-stop nylon or a cotton bed sheet, to fill the frame. I use elastic corners to keep mine snug on the frame. You can make a variety of sizes to easily tuck in your bags for travel.

Capture in RAW
Unlike the larger exposure range that film has, digital cameras have a smaller exposure range. Shooting in jpg mode where the camera processes each image into a final processed image limits the ability to adjust in post processing.  If your exposure is incorrect, the image will be underexposed (loss of detail in the shadows) or overexposed (loss of detail in the highlights) and could be a complete loss. Another issue associated with jpg format is loss of information every time the file is saved causing a degradation of image quality. RAW is an unprocessed format, which allows adjustments to color, contrast and exposure. Once adjusted, the RAW format can be processed into a final jpg image without image quality loss.

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clientexperience@todaysgrowthconsultant.com' About Virtual Photography

We're the co-founders of VirtualPhotographyStudio.com and have been writing on this blog since 2004. We started Virtual as a way to help photographers stretch beyond a part time income, and develop strategies to become a Five Figure Photographer or a Six Figure Photographer. Ultimately its all about lifestyle, and if your goal is to live as a photographer 24/7, we think you should have the knowledge and the tools to do so. Welcome!

  • Suzanne

    One of your better articles. You broke the subject down and provided an example, which helps me a lot. Thank you!

    Suzanne Kish

  • Virtual Photography

    Thanks Suzanne, glad you enjoyed it!

  • Jay Caruso

    I don’t agree entirely with the notion of not using the flash. Some of the portraits I have done have been really late in the day as the sun is going down. Using an umbrella and CLS with my Nikon has brought me some great results with the diffused flash providing nice balance to the light generated from the setting sun.

  • Virtual Photography

    Hi Jay – Thanks for the comment.

    Flash is a personal choice. But in many cases, we have found flash overpowers the natural light, and flattens out the portrait.

    I agree that some photographers use diffused flash to bring out a nice balance. But there still is something to “sweet light” and using it to create incredible portraits.

    Thanks – Lori

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/debu_4/ Dev

    Pretty cool … nice list to check before going for an outdoor shoot…

  • gokhan

    if uyou use flash right, it will not look fake.
    people who hate flash or call it fake are either lazy or not very good with flash use outdoors.

  • http://www.katielynnphotography.blogspot.com Katie

    Thanks … this was very informative!!! I just found your site and it is a NEW FAVORITE….. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/RichardJohnCEO Richard John CEO

    Great post virtual photography studio! I’m joining you on facebook!

  • http://www.aebephotography.com Aebe

    And then tip number 11.If you are having young kids to take pictures off, ask the parents to let them sleep before taking them to a photo-session :-)

    That helps a lot.


  • Durall Teague

    I was lucky to have been taught outdoor portrait photography (subtractive lighting) by the gentleman that came up with the concept of bouncing and subtracting light to achieve correct lighting outdoors. Leon Kennamer from Guntersville, AL was able to get results that no flash or storbe could ever be able to duplicate. Yes it does take some thinking and effort to achieve your desired results, but done correctly no flash or storbe will come close.

  • http://ttlweddings.com George @ TTL Wedding Photography

    Great post. But when you talk about a softbox I think you mean scrim…

  • http://www.zairul.com Zairul

    I had to google the ‘softboxes’ :) Thanks for the tips!

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck


    I would add use an Off Camera Flash. I have had great success using a Nikon SB600 and portable shoot through umbrella triggered wirelessly. It can either be put on a small stand or have an assistance move it around for you by hand. I agree that on camera flash usually produces rather unflattering and flat images, but getting the flash off the hot shoe can make a world of difference!

    Best Regards,
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • http://www.diannawhitleyphotography.com Dianna Whitley

    Good list — concise, to the point, and helpful. Thanks. And a belated Happy Birthday!

  • Durall Teague

    Leon Kennamer, Gary Berstein, Al Gilbert and Monte Zucker pusblished a book, ” FOUR PHTOGRAPHERS”, where each went in detail about their own special segement of the photo market.
    Leon goes into great detail with photos as examples to show his thought process and how he uses his “Subtractive Lighting” process to develop his outdoor portraits. If anyone is interested in having a copy of this book please contact me at “durall@charter.net”.

  • Jeff Clemons

    If you’re getting a “flat” portrait with OCF outdoors, you’re doing something terribly wrong…

  • http://www.savuphotography.com Fotograf Nunta Savu

    Nice tips. Thanks for sharing.

  • Guillermina Pauley

    Toller Post! Ich bin ganz gespannt auf weitere Posts dieser Art.

  • Shootist

    “With beautiful, natural light, why bring in “fake” light?”

    Really? This would depend on what kind of “natural” light you’re talking about. Say it’s 2 or 3 in the afternoon with stark sunlight falling down – not a cloud in sight. Stinks for most portraits. I put the sun behind my subject for a nice rim light. Then I fill with a diffused light source to wash the subject with stepped down flash, countering the harsh sunlight. With that off camera flash, I can also step down to brighten the background if needed.

    I love any kind of light, even “fake” light, if it gets me the result I’m looking for.