Portraits still make up the lion’s share of all photography done on this planet. Taking a picture of a person is as time-honored as the meat and bread sandwich.
Making portraits outside can offer some unique challenges and opportunities. Here are five tips aimed at beginners that will improve your outdoor portraiture.
1. Try to make outdoor portraits on a cloudy day. While I know it’s counterintuitive to some of you, a high, thin, light overcast creates some of the very best portrait lighting you’ll ever see. Harsh, direct sun is rarely flattering. Overcast skies act like a giant softbox and diffuse the light. They also make it possible to photograph any time of day without fear of dark circles under the eyes, etc.
2. Select the right lens. For decades, the advice from the pros has been, select a lens in the 85 to 100mm category for portraits. In truth, there’s no perfect portrait lens, but lenses with longer focal lengths tend to be more flattering. I like to work with either 135mm or 200mm lenses for most of my portraits. If I’m photographing a heavy person, I might even go with 300 or 400mm. The longer focal lengths compress the picture and make it easier to blur the background, putting the viewer’s attention on the subject. A longer lens also has a narrower angle of view making it easier to focus on the subject. Longer lenses also have the advantage of separating the subject from the background.
3. It’s okay to pose your subject. The difference between an amateur portrait and a professional portrait is often the pose. If you don’t think posing can make a difference, just spend 15 minutes looking at the work of my friend Bambi Cantrell. She is a master at posing people to make them look their best. One tip I learned from Bambi is to pose by example. Saying “Turn your body to the right,” is often confusing to the subject. Which right? Your right or my right? Pose by example and it’s easier for the subject to give you what you want.
4. When shooting group portraits outdoors, find a location that will let you shoot down on your subject. I often bring a 10-foot tall ladder with me when I’m shooting outdoor group shots. This is a fun way of getting a very different look than the traditional “dead solider” line up of people who look uncomfortable and awkward. Put everyone in a circle instead of a straight line. Then get up on the ladder and shoot down on them. All the double chins will go away and as long as you’re using enough depth-of-field, everyone will be in focus where it counts. It’s more flattering and more fun.
5. Focus on the eyes. In fact, in most traditional portraiture, the ONLY thing that needs to be in focus is the eyes. Shooting with a really fast lens; f/2.8 or faster, will help put attention on the eyes and not the wrinkles and cracks in the subject’s skin. Put your camera’s focusing point directly on the eye and fire away for best results.
This is just a starting point. You could add dozens of tips to any post about portraiture, but I wanted to concentrate here on five things that I know would have really helped me when I was starting out. I hope they help you too.
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