outdoor portrait photography

How to Take Awesome Portraits Outdoors

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This is an area that you are either really good at or really bad at. You can certainly learn to be good at this if you put the effort in to it but the problem is that most people think that since it is a sunny day they are going to get great, well lit shots that will be masterpieces. For that reason most of them just shoot happily away and then look at the results and say “I can’t understand why this shot was so good and the next one is really dark or really bright. I think there is something wrong with my camera.”

Ok, here’s the reality check for outdoor photography. Yes natural light can look absolutely awesome and depending on what and when you shoot. There is absolutely nothing better in the world for great pictures. The caveat is, you still have to work on exposures and may even need a flash. You need to evaluate the scene and figure out what the problems in the shot are and fix them before they become an issue for you.

Three Basic Tips for Shooting Outdoors

In order to be happy with what you are getting from your out of door portrait photography, there are a few basic things that you ill want to remember. You can call them rules because they sort of are but I hate rules so let’s just call them suggestions for better results. I know that this next statement is going to seem out of place, but just remember it later in the article it will make sense. Always carry a couple of one gallon zippered plastic baggie style bags in your camera case. Pretend it is your American Express card and “Don’t leave home without it.”

Shoot Mornings and Evenings
Now on to outdoor portrait photography suggestion number one, shoot in the morning and hoot late in the evening. Depending on exactly where you are in relationship with the equator you should set down your camera, take an elongated lunch break, a siesta have a couple of cool beverages or what have you between the hours of 11 and 4. Now you might be lucky and be able to stretch that a little and make it between 12 and 3 but playing it safe is always a good idea.

Why is this suggestion the number one suggestion you ask? Well, as a rule of thumb, the sun is so high up in the sky from those times that the shadows that you will be recording will likely be about as flattering as trying to take photos of a models makeup when they have a garbage bag over their face. Although even that might be a better shot than what the sun does to the face between those hours.

The one thing that will make you jump for joy and forget that suggestion is when the day is overcast. The sun filtering in through the clouds tends to make the overall light very soft and great for photos. It makes the shadows all but disappear and you get a great photo in the end. Your best skin tones, regardless of the clouds or open sky will still come in late afternoon when the sun is warmer and causes the skin to glow a soft and very complimentary golden tone. You will find that the more skin that is showing the softer and warmer the shots and the nicer the skin will look.

Don’t Rely on Automatic Camera Settings
Our second major suggestion for you is that you might not want to rely totally on your auto settings on the camera. How often have you taken a shot on a nice bright sunny day and then when you looked the faces of the people were darker than you wanted. In some cases these shots may have even been too dark to be useable. And yet when you look up at the people, the faces are there plain as day.

There is usually a very quick and easy fix for this scenario. Many of you already know it or have figured it out on your own but here it is in case you have not.

I will bet you dollars to doughnuts (whatever that saying means) that if you look behind the person or persons that you are attempting to photograph, that the background behind them is bright.

You see in the auto exposure mode in most cameras it tries to expose the center of the scene and average it against the rest of the scene. The problem here is that the bright background actually tricks that camera into thinking that the entire scene is bright and it adjusts accordingly. You can usually fix this by moving the subject a little to counter the might and thereby get a very useable shot.

Keep in mind however that when moving your subject in relationship with light sources, you will also possibly change the exposure value and the shadows. So be sure to check all of the assorted details before committing to the shot.

If the scenario is that you can not move the subjects for what ever reason and the portrait has to be shot right there. You have a couple of way ways to fix that and a couple not so easy ways.

Tighter Crop
The quickest way to solve this problem would be to go for a tighter crop of the subject. This will effectively make the background less of problem because; well there will be less of it in the photo to interfere.

Illuminate Shadows
The next quickest method would be to use your flash to illuminate the shadows. I won’t go into huge amounts of details here because there is literally not enough room but once you learn your camera and know how to adjust the flash you can do fairly well using this method. I would suggest that you use my favorite trick for flash and it works for on camera or external units. Take some take and tape either a napkin or a hanky over the lens of your flash. Yes it looks rather ghetto but the net result is that you end up with a tiny diffused light source that gives you decently softened light and the shadows and dark faces all but disappear as a result.

Also, when shooting in trick lighting like this ALWAYS bracket your exposures so that you have at least three chances of getting a good shot. If you don’t understand bracketing dig out your manual and study up on it. It will be worth your time, I promise.

Use A Reflector to Reflect Light Onto Subject
The other option that you can try (in case moving the model won’t work and your on camera flash is fried) take something reflective and place it in a position where it can take the incoming sunlight and reflect it back at the person that you are photographing so that it acts as a fill light.

Personally I use a sun shade like people keep in their cars to block out the sun and keep the interiors cooler. They are usually one thing that contains a pair of shades you take it and cut it into two pieces and you have an easily foldable pair of reflectors that pack nicely in an average sized camera bag and you are set to start reflecting light in emergency portrait situations like these. Make sure that at the bare minimum, whatever you purchase it plain white, gold or silver with no writing or designs and you will be good to go. They are cheap, easy to carry, easy to maneuver and do a great job.

If you happen to be caught in a situation where you need to reflect some light but no one has a sun reflector, you can try a plain white tee shirt. Someone might have one of those on as an undershirt and they will work in a pinch and could actually save the day. The main problem with the tee shirt idea is finding a way to keep it rigid enough in order to be useable.

Sunlight or Shade?

This is one of those questions that I get a lot from new or even intermediate shooters. They constantly want to know if it is better to shoot in direct sunlight or in the shade. The answer to this question is yes. It is certainly good to shoot in direct sunlight and it is good to shoot in shade. As long as you know what you are doing and what to expect, that is.

In the direct sunlight scenario you have to keep an eye out for composition, the brightness of the back ground, the illumination of the subject, the amount of shadows that are being cast and then you have to figure out the best way to counter each of those things to end up with a great photo as the end result.

In the shade you have to worry about all of the above things that were in the direct sunlight shooting scenario and you have to be aware that depending on several things, the shade can cast a greenish tint to your shot. That is because all of the trees filter the direct sunlight and the green color ends up being the predominate color that reaches you lens and ultimately onto the memory card.

What this means to you as a person that wants to master the art of outdoor portrait photography, is that you need to be sure that you know everything that you can learn about both direct sun and shade shooting. A great deal of the information that you need to know can be gotten from books and from the Internet. However you need to know the practical applications so that means getting the camera and lenses and a model and heading out for some shooting.

You might be very surprised at the results that you get. A lot of things will transfer from your already vast knowledge of the art of picture taking and yet when you try something at a location outdoors shoot that works in a controlled shoot like in your studio and you get bad results, it can leave you seriously scratching your head. Once you realize that it is not you that is to blame and that it is simply a matter of shifting your paradigms and looking at the light differently, it should take you little to no time to master this form of the art.

To shoot or not to Shoot, That is the Question

Okay, my apologies to Mr. Shakespeare for that, but it is a common thing that a photographer asks themselves. They want to know if they should take the shot or not. This is a topic that a lot of people argue about. At least in my circles they do anyway. I personally prefer to overshoot at a session. It is much easier for me to delete a bad shot off the computer once I get it home than it is to recreate the shot.

When shooting outside I always bracket the shots so that I am sure to get a good exposure and I almost always over shoot. A lot of my fellow photographers say I am wasting memory and that if I can’t get the shot right on one frame, then I should give it up. Well I have to heartily disagree. As I am out shooting most of them are sitting home watching reruns on TV. That is because while they frame the “perfect” shot that may or may not work, I have shot a bunch of frames and I am a lot more likely to get a money shot that makes the client, the model and myself a lot happier.

The bad part about shooting or in this case over shooting is that when you go to down load it onto the computer you have a LOT more to look over, the shots will be very similar and the job can be somewhat tedious to see the minute differences in the frames. But the hard work has always paid off for me. This is especially true when you look at out door portraits. A slight wind can blow a leaf or the models hair into the perfect setup and as long as I am shooting I will capture that one of a kind moment on film where the others will let the opportunity go by considering it to be a nuisance.

Remember something that I am about to pass on to you. The only excuse for note getting the shot is pure laziness. And for some photographers that is kind of what drives them. Now before I get uproar and all sorts of assorted comments from those traditionalists that say that taking the time to set a perfect shot is an art form, let say that I totally agree. And I have done and continue to do exactly that same type of thing – IN MY STUDIO – where I can completely control every element from the fake lighting to the fake wind from the fan. In the great out doors you need to be flexible and capture the moment as it happens. Mother Nature is in control and all you can do is be ready to commit it to film.

I remember a very recent session where I was shooting a model outside and it was to be the absolute perfect day. Seventy five degrees, no humidity and slightly overcast so that the shadows would be phenomenal. Unfortunately the weather man neglected to impart that information to the earth and about an hour into the shoot the heavens broke loose and started to train cats and dogs. We found shelter and looked at the possibility of the session being scrapped. I was still wanting to shoot and the model was psyched about it so instead of calling it a day I dropped my Canon into a gallon plastic baggie (remember back at the start of the article I mentioned it? Well it is about to become clear to you why….)

We walked out in the train leaving the rest of my gear under the shelter and we continued to shoot. It seems like the ultimate wet tee shirt shot but the point is that we took the lemons and made lemonade. And the results were that we had some pretty fine lemonade if I do say so. Some of the shots were okay, some were good and a few were actually phenomenal. What had started out to be a portrait / fashion shot in a white cotton dress turned into a once in a lifetime session that made the client very happy. In fact it got the model and I a bonus for going above and beyond and a client for life.

Had we done the right thing and walked away we would have lost that opportunity but since we were ready to roll with the flow, the risk was well worth it when we saw the results.

Now, about the Zip Lock style bag, what I do is this. You put the camera inside the bag, you then zip it up and pull the bag tightly around the lens and secure it tightly with a rubber band. This only will work well on a prime lens, like a 50 mm or a 135 mm etc because you don’t want to be zooming and you typically need a faster ISO setting. I typically will take off my UV filter and after the bag is secured with the rubber band I cut a viewing hole with an exacto knife or razor blade and I screw on my UV Haze filter to secure that bag and seal out water. Some folks prefer to have the added safety of letting the bag stay in one piece and shooting through the bag, it’s a matter of choice. I guess I just like to live dangerously. Lastly put on a lens hood to keep raindrops from splashing the lens and you can shoot in a pretty hefty storm and not ruin the camera.

The alternative of course is to purchase a specially made water tight casing for the camera. If you have the cash that is always a great idea, but I have found that for the times I cave actually needed water protection, like twice and since I do not do underwater shooting, the expense was not warranted. Your situation may be entirely different.

Tripod, Mono-pod or Handheld?

This is entirely a matter of taste and the best criteria for answering the question it dependent on what you are shooting. If you are doing a rather stagnant photo where the model is more or less staying on one position and the lighting is good then certainly you should opt for the tripod. Unless you are a long way from the car in which case you might want to rethink it. I personally don’t like using one but they are a needed tool of the trade

If you are shooting portraits with a strong background emphasis on landscape photography, you will probably want to use a tripod to ensure maximum sharpness of  the background landscape.

Monopods are made for outdoor shooting. They help steady the camera and if you use it correctly and have purchased a fairly stout one, they make a great walking stick as well. So it can help us older types get safely where we are headed.

Hands down my favorite method of shooting portraits out side is to hand hold the camera. It allows me to get where I want to go with a minimum of effort and will make it easy to get exactly what I want without repositioning the tripod etc so that I don’t have to worry about getting or missing the great shot.

The determining factor will likely be the shutter speed that you are going to have to shoot at. If is it so low that camera shake or blurred photos will be the end result, then you certainly need to steady the camera by whatever method possible and usually one of the above methods does a wondrous job of solving that little issue. No matter what, and even if you don’t think you will need it. If you are shooting outdoors, bring support of some style. Either the monopod or the tripod so that you are prepared for any inevitable need. It is always better to be safe than it is to be sorry.

Final Rants of Wisdom and Thoughts

So now you are well versed in the many things that can happen during a shooting session outdoors. You know how to protect yourself from rain, how to make on the fly adjustments for lighting or lack of lighting and you are acutely aware that these issues are likely to pop up in any combination at the most inopportune time. So what else is there that you, as the aspiring outdoor portrait photographer need to know?

Remember to keep your models comfort in mind. All too often we get so wrapped up in capturing the essence of the moment that we forget that we are photographing a living and breathing individual with needs and feelings. That means the common courtesies of course apply but keep in mind that there might be needed breaks to visit the bathroom so you should be mindful of how far away from the facilities you are. Yes sometimes you need to get away from the prying eyes of the public to get those special shots. But the model also needs to be comfy. After all, how much of a smile can you muster when you have to urinate badly? Get the point?

Also remember that a good host photographer thinks of everything. When I do an outdoor shoot my assistant brings along a rolling cooler full of water and some refreshing snacks. Yes it may be a job but you would be surprised how many models I have worked with that tell me I was the only one that thought enough of them to do that. And guess what, when I make a call to that model down the line asking for a person to pose, they are the first in line to help me out. It is called paying it forward and it works wonders. If you are not already doing so, try it out.

Also, please do not forget the paperwork. Models have to sign a release if you intend on using or selling that photograph to anyone. I know you always think about that back at the studio but make sure to put some releases in the bag and be sure to get them filled out at the conclusion of the outdoor session so that all the hard work is able to be used without any further hassle.

The final word of the whole thing is to just shoot. It doesn’t matter if you have a reason or an intended use for the shots. Getting out there and getting some real world experience is the best way to get better. You need to make sure that you exercise the muscle so that it stays in shape so just practice.

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