Category Archives: Portrait Photography

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Secrets to Creating Great Outdoor Portraits

Outdoor portraits can present some very special challenges. This is true even for the most seasoned photographer. Some of the common challenges are:

  • Direct sunlight can be harsh.
  • Unwanted objects can interfere with your composition.
  • Proper color rendering can be problematic.
  • And many times, good old Mother Nature does not feel like being cooperative.
  • Perhaps, there’s not much that can be done about Mother Nature, but with some practice and patience you can overcome many of the other challenges you face as an outdoor portrait photographer.  During my journey as a portrait photographer I’ve learned some outdoor tricks that may benefit those who choose to follow:

Keep it simple. The subtle pattern and color of an adobe wall, the simple repeating pattern and muted tones of planks on a fishing pier, or the uniform color of a patch of bluebells, snapdragons, or yellow primrose can serve as wonderful backdrops for your outdoor portraits.

When you are composing your portrait, you want your subject to be the focal point that all eyes are drawn to. Busy patterns, large areas of excessively vibrant colors (especially a mixture of different colors), or over imposing forms in your foreground or background that are not treated properly, can really distract from her if you are not careful.

Control the depth of field (the range of distances from your camera that are in focus).

The edge of a forest or distant mountains may make a beautiful backdrop for your subject with proper control over the depth of field.

An SLR camera allows you can adjust your depth of field to bring the background more or less out of focus relative to your subject. This serves as eye control for the observer of your portrait. The eye is naturally drawn to what is brightest and most sharply focused. If your subject is sharply focused relative to the background, she will be accentuated as the focal point of your portrait.

Controlling the depth of field is accomplished by adjusting your aperture setting (the size of your lens opening, expressed in f-stops). The smaller the f-stop the larger the opening of your lens, and the smaller the depth of field will be.

For instance, when you see a photograph in a nature magazine of a beautiful butterfly in a patch of flowers, and the butterfly is in razor sharp focus but the flowers are gently blurred; this was accomplished by the photographer using a narrow depth of field (small f-stop setting).

For bright light situations this may be difficult to achieve. For any given intensity of light, as you open up the aperture (lower the f-stop) you must increase the shutter speed (thereby decreasing exposure time) to avoid over exposure.

Increasing the shutter speed generally reduces resolution in the image. Experiment to find the combination of aperture setting and shutter speed that gives the result you desire.

Control the light:

“Down light” (e.g. harsh midday light) is generally undesirable. Due to the shadow patterns it creates, it can bring out the worst in your subject.

“Lateral light” (e.g. early morning and late afternoon light) is much more desirable. Lateral light can be controlled and directed to create beautiful shadow patterns across the face of your subject.

 There is a saying with many photographers who shoot outdoors, “the first tree in the forest is best” for a background. The reason is, the canopy of the first tree controls the harsh down light, but being on the edge of the forest, you still have lateral light to work with. The same idea holds true for porches or the edge of any other type of overhang.

Professional photographers sometimes use shade cloth and reflectors to block down light while directing available lateral light to enhance their subject and achieve their desired effect.

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