12 Great Tips for Outdoor Portrait Photography

Sometimes, what we truly want is a simple, back to basics style when it comes to outdoor portrait photography.  And while taking great shots of people is challenging, there are a few things to keep in mind when you wish to take your work to the next level.

Here are some simple tips for outdoor portraits that everyone can benefit from when shooting their next outdoor portrait session.

1. Select a Location

portrait of a woman in the park

Image Source: Pexels

Locations are very important and should be planned out in advance. Look for locations that are of interest and can enhance your session. Parks, lakes, and other open spaces offer natural scenery. These tend to be the first places people think of. On the other hand, 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 your photos.

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

2. Repeating Lines

Portrait of a woman standing near old columns

Image Source: DepositPhotos

A great way to add depth to your portraits is to find a location with repeating lines. Columns, pillars or other structures add interest to a portrait. They create a portrait that stands apart from others. Even though the main focus of the image will definitely be an expressive face, the background can frame this moment beautifully.

3. Use a Longer Lens

Canon 70-200mm F2.8 telephoto lens

Image Source: eBay

By selecting a longer lens, you can make your subject the focus point. This way, your background will remain soft, and viewers will admire only the key element of your work, which is outdoor portrait photography. This adds to the drama of the portrait and can give you a unique look and style. One of my favorite lenses is a 70-200mm F2.8. Use your longer focal length (150mm – 200mm) to separate your subject from the background.

4. Clothing Selection

beautiful blonde girl posing

Image Source: Pixabay

To ensure optimal results, consult with your client about clothing selections prior to your portrait. Advice them to stay away from busy patterns (i.e. plaids, polka dots or flowery prints) and opt for darker to medium tones instead.

If you have more than one person in the portrait such as a family, teach your clients about matching outfits. I’m not talking about imposing a uniform for all participants. However, your clients should respect some basic rules of composition. For instance, 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 faces, and you will really increase your sales.

5. 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 poses you’re looking for. It saves a lot of time and frustration on both parts and makes the whole experience more enjoyable.

Usually, people have their own favorite postures. However, these might simply not work for outdoor portrait photography. Don’t forget to smile when you are showing them your moves. Otherwise, your help might look condescending which can create an uncomfortable feeling throughout the photo shooting.

6. Groups – Start with the Smallest

people posing for a group photo

Image Source: DepositPhotos

Once you have a setting selected, start with the smallest groups and build up. Usually, members of smaller groups are having an easier time connecting between them than large parties. As a consequence, by starting off with a cheerful gang, the others will try to reciprocate the initial good spirits.

In the end, everyone will have a better chance at relaxing and letting you surprise them in their happy moments. Try and build in triangle formation within your groups (two people on the ground as a base and one behind and between).

7. Use a Tripod

A tripod is an essential part of your outdoor portrait photography equipment. Besides stability, a tripod will also endow you with 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. This tool might look insignificant, but it will ensure you a crisp image, no matter what lens size you are using.

8. Ensure that the Eyes Are in Focus

portrait of a young brunette

Image Source: Pixabay

When the eyes are in focus, you have a guaranteed seller.  Clients almost always want their eyes to pop out of their portraits. For the sake of contrast, imagine a family photo album with everyone having their eyes closed.

There are high chances that such portraits would look lifeless and surreal. The eyes possess a unique way to communicate people’s mood. If your photo shooting is joyful, then your images will surely contaminate viewers with the same mood.

9. Choose the Perfect Time of the Day

portrait of a young couple

Image Source: Pexels

When it comes to a wedding or any other big event, you have no control over timing. These festivities are planned in advance, and they have too many members to control. However, things are different with a portrait. Always work in the sweet light (or golden hour) – 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.

10. Use a Reflector

portrait with or without a reflector

The advantage of using a reflector with natural light (Image Source: Pinterest)

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 an outdoor portrait photography session. You can easily direct light right where you want it – your clients’ face and eyes.

11. Try a Softbox

Reflectors are great whenever you have directional light you can bounce into place. However, sometimes you are working with much softer light, and a reflector won’t do the trick. Try a softbox instead.

A softbox separates harsh sunlight spots from  natural light. You can make your own softbox with PVC pipe for a frame and stretch white material, ripstop 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 tuck in your bags for travel with ease.

12. Capture in RAW

Unlike the larger exposure range that film has, digital cameras have a smaller exposure range. Shooting in a .jpg mode where the camera processes each image into a final processed image limits the ability to adjust during 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 the .jpg format is a loss of information every time the file is saved. This process causes 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.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to outdoor portrait photography, you must first establish a connection of trust with your clients. Regardless of how many techniques you master, the final work will appear awkward if clients are not feeling comfortable. With the above tips and tricks, you can ensure a successful session in a simple yet classic style.

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chris.kelly@creativelive.com' About Topher Kelly

Topher Kelly is a San Francisco based freelance writer and editor at creativeLIVE – an online education platform dedicated to providing free interactive photography, business and design courses taught by some of the world's best instructors.

  • Suzanne

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

    Suzanne Kish
    http://www.suzannekish.com

  • 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

  • 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.
    thanks

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

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

  • 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.

    Aebe

  • 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.

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

  • I had to google the ‘softboxes’ 🙂 Thanks for the tips!

  • Hi

    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,
    Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • 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…

  • 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.