Laura Tillinghast
Laura Tillinghast

San Francisco Bay Area photographer Laura Tillinghast began taking photos in the 90’s and never stopped. Her love of lighting and photography is contagious and she enjoys teaching the next generation of photography addicts. See more of her work at her website: lauratillinghast.com

Five Tips for Better Outdoor Portraits

July 31, 2018

Summertime is a great season to  create beautiful outdoor portraits. With warm weather and abundant sunshine, summer can be one of the best times of year to photograph portraits on-location. These tips will help you capture a season of stunning portrait images.

1. Go Wide, Go Long!

Natural elements such as trees and flowers are perfect for portrait backdrops as they can look very good when they are thrown out-of-focus. The organic nature of leaves and petals makes a beautiful blurred background as the multiple surfaces reflect light differently, creating dimension and texture. Choosing a wider aperture such as f/4 or f/2.8 will let your subject "pop" from the background and help you avoid any issues with the background being too sharp. Focus is key for communicating to the viewer where to look at an image, as the human eye will always be drawn to the area of sharpest focus first. Using a wider f-stop to blur the background behind your subject will ensure that they are the focus of the image.

In the example above, the portrait on the left captured at f/11 features a background that is too sharp and distracts from the subject. In the portrait on the right, captured at f/4, the trees in the background are blurred and no longer appear to be coming out of the subject's head.

2. Get Edgy

In the middle of the day, overhead midday sunlight tends to be harsh and very difficult to work with. Shooting in open shade will give you nice and even light as well as allow your subjects to open their eyes all the way. I like to position my subject(s) right next to the edge of an area of shade to allow light to bounce in from the outside. Keep in mind that the deeper the shaded area, the less light there will be on your subject's face, so look for the sweet spots near the edge.  

3. Avoid the "Black Hole" Effect

When working with outdoor sunlight, wardrobe considerations are a little different than when working in-studio. With natural light, black clothing can appear dark and lack detail, causing it to draw the viewer's eye away from your subject's face. You can avoid this by directing your subjects to wear brighter colors and avoid garments that are solid black. It's also best to avoid busy patterns as they can be distracting when paired with an outdoor background.

4. Strategically Overexpose

When working with female subjects in natural light, one technique I use to add a romantic feel is to overexpose the skin tones slightly. I achieve this high-key (bright in tone) look by setting my shutter speed to be slightly longer than what my built-in light meter reads. For example, in the portraits below, the image on the left was captured per the camera's meter at 1/200th sec. while the image on the right is overexposed slightly at 1/125th sec. I really like this dreamy look, but how much you overexpose comes down to personal preference. However, it's best to avoid going over 1-1.5 stops or too much detail will be lost in the highlights.

5. Shine a Little Light

When shooting portraits outdoors, it can become challenging towards the end of the day as sunlight begins to fade. When this happens, skin tones start to look muddy and detail can be lost in the shadows. I like to add just a "kiss" of flash to ensure that my subject's complexion is bright and detail is maintained. To do this, I set my Speedlite to a low power and use it with a light stand and small softbox to mimic the look of soft, natural light. This can also be achieved by using your Speedlite's built-in automatic ETTL-II feature for a perfectly exposed portrait every time.

Hopefully this article has given you the confidence to get started with outdoor portraits. The best way to improve with portraiture is to try shooting during different times of the day and with different lighting conditions. Unfortunately, the warmer months are not endless, so grab your camera and get started!

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