Achieving Better Portrait Photography Isn’t Hard
Before getting to the tips, you should probably understand why this article only deals with taking portraits outdoors. That is because, unless you know advanced lighting or flash techniques, it is a lot harder to get great-looking portraits indoors. And if you knew those techniques, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
So why outdoors? It is primarily due to the readily available light source, the sun, that you can always use to supply nice lighting if you follow the tips below.
Most people, when they are going to do anything outdoors, are disappointed if it’s cloudy. For a portrait photographer, this is absolutely the best time. You may be familiar with lighting equipment such as shoot-through umbrellas and softboxes. You may not know that the sole purpose of these devices is to supply a soft, diffuse light. Clouds and lightly overcast days provide the same diffusion for your light source, which is the sun. There are tips below for choosing locations when it’s bright and sunny, but you can shoot anywhere if you have an overcast sky.
So what do you do if you don’t have clouds? You look for something called an open shade. Open shade refers to shade created by most anything, but there is good light just outside that shade that you can take advantage of. An example would be a large shade tree or an open pavilion.
Taking Advantage of Different Lighting Conditions
To take advantage of this light, you want the subject inside the shade but still facing the light. Make sure the entire subject is in the shade. You don’t want any sun-dappled look or the head in the shade and the body in the sun. Using open shade, you still get plenty of light on the subject, but you don’t have to deal with the harsh light and squinty eyes many people associate with outdoor portraits.
Many people only look at the subject they are trying to shoot and don’t pay any attention to what is behind it. This is a big mistake as the background can make or break a photograph. As you are placing the subject, look through the viewfinder on your camera or at the LCD screen on the back and make sure there are no distracting elements in the background.
If there are, either move them or your subject to eliminate or minimize them. Another mistake people make is placing the subject directly in front of a tree, so it looks like the tree is growing out of their head. If the trunk is large enough to supply a good background, that is fine. Just make sure no small trees or poles are sticking out of the subject’s head. Also, make sure there are no really harsh light or bright colors that may take focus away from the subject.
Using the Camera to Create Separation
Another trick is to use your camera to create separation between the subject and the background and blur the background a bit. To create separation, use your camera or lens zoom function if you have one. To get the same size subject, you can move in close and zoom out or back up and zoom in.
If done correctly, this makes no difference to the subject, but the latter will create a sense of distance between the subject and background. Try it both ways and see which you like better. Backing up and using your zoom will always give more pleasing results. Another problem with shooting close with a wide angle is it can distort the subject or make them look fat.
To blur the background, you will use your camera’s aperture settings. If you are familiar with changing and using different apertures on your camera, change yours to a large aperture, equating to a low number. f/4 or f/5.6 are good starting points to try. If you aren’t comfortable changing your aperture, use your camera’s custom functions and put it in portrait mode. On your settings dial, this is the one that looks like a face. Either way will provide the same functionality and give a nice blur to the background making the subject stand out.
With just a few simple tips and some practice, you can now take your portrait photography outdoors to a whole new level.