The relatively controlled and static nature of a studio is often the most ideal place to shoot a portrait. After a while, you get a feel for the studio; it’s space, the light and how your equipment interacts with it. However, there is an undeniable sense of dynamism when you take your portrait photography outdoors.
Outdoor portrait photography can be spontaneous, producing results that can even exceed your expectations as a photographer. When you’re outside, you have a blank canvas and each natural element brings with it an entirely new color to your palette.
While you may not be in full control of the colors at your disposal, a good photographer learns to be quick on their feet, working with what they get. While studio portrait sessions are all about control, outdoor portrait photography is about catching lightning in a bottle.
What is the best camera setting for outdoor portraits?
Photographers may disagree on the “best” of anything related to their craft. Like any tool, there’s a time and a place for almost anything. And like any craft, there’s also the freedom to break with tradition and forge your own path.
However, a fundamental principle of outdoor portrait photography is often this — shoot with a lens longer than 50mm, shoot with your aperture wide open (for great use of natural light and background blur) and never use your automatic setting.
10 simple tips for how to take outdoor portrait photography
Beyond your camera’s settings, there are a few other outdoor portrait photography tips for beginners to learn that will lend themselves well to successful outdoor portrait photography.
1. Use a fast lens with a wide aperture
You want a fast lens that’ll focus and shoot with precision but you also want a wide aperture (the f setting on your camera lens.) The faster you shoot and the wider the aperture, the more blurred your background will be. In the industry, we call this blurred effect “bokeh” and it’s a popular component of outdoor portrait photography — it gives your subject perfect clarity while removing much of the background detail.
2. Shoot at the widest aperture
Along those same lines, you’ll always want to adjust your camera settings so that you can shoot at the widest aperture possible. Your ISO settings and shutter speed settings can be adjusted on-the-go to achieve this. Simply setting your aperture to the widest setting will end up with lackluster results, so ensure you compensate for it.
3. Shoot on an overcast day (if possible)
Outdoor portrait photography lightning can be counterintuitive. Amateur photographers might assume that a sunny day means more light and that more light is a good thing. However, the exact opposite is true. The more light you have to work with, the more unwanted glare, shadow and squinting you’ll have to deal with on your model.
A cloudy day brings with it a more natural, diffused lighting that will photograph cleaner.
4. If shooting on a sunny day, shoot in the shade
Some days you schedule a shoot and have no choice but to bear with the overwhelming light thrown off by the sun, especially in the summertime. You can’t always reschedule a shoot, so you’ll often be forced to forge ahead even under less than ideal conditions.
However, outdoor photography isn’t mean to provide you with perfect conditions — it’s supposed to challenge you to improvise, and who knows, at least your photo will have beautiful warm tones. Shooting in the shade or using a light reflector will help you overcome the sun’s glare.
5. Shoot in RAW format
RAW format is an uncompressed file format that most DSLR cameras should allow you to shoot in. Believe it or not, even when you shoot manually and in high resolution on your DSLR, your camera is still making key decisions about the color contrast and exposure. Your camera will ultimately compress that high-resolution photo, thereby lowering its maximum quality.
Shooting in RAW tells your camera to not touch anything when you snap a photo — your camera will leave it exactly as it is, allowing you more control in post-processing to fine-tune what you want without anything else getting in the way.
6. Wait for the “Golden Hour”
You might have heard the term “golden hour” thrown around even without completely understanding it. To put it simply, the golden hour is an hour (or less) where the sun begins to drop on the horizon before it officially sets. It is right before night time. As the sun lowers, its light diffuses through the atmosphere in such a way that it casts a magical, delicate orange light over the world.
You might have seen it with your own eyes — you might have even stopped in your tracks and thought “everything looks particularly beautiful right now” without realizing that what you were expiring is a coveted 1-hour window for photographers all over the world.
7. Invest in wardrobe & makeup
Whether you do makeup and wardrobe, your model does it themselves, or you hire a professional to tag along on your shoot, you’ll want to make sure that both wardrobe and makeup are intentional components to your shoot.
While it’s great to get a “natural” look with some of your photography, you’ll need to prove that you can control a session and do the kinds of things the professionals do, like intentionally dress and make up your subject in a way that complements your surroundings, tells a story, or exudes a certain something that shooting naturally often misses.
8. Shoot outside the box
You made the jump from shooting inside a studio to shooting outdoors, so ensure you’re taking advantage of the biggest perk of outdoor photography — the sheer amount of spontaneity. Don’t keep your focus so narrowed on your subject that you forget to look around you.
When you’re outside there are plenty of opportunities to improvise and go against your initial plans. And sometimes those photos are the ones that elevate your subject matter into something else entirely.
9. Take many, many photographs
Gone are the days where you need to pack rolls and rolls of film on a shoot. We have portable storage that can exceed a terabyte of space, which gives you plenty of opportunities to shoot to your heart’s content.
The best photographers on the planet take thousands of photographs, for which they may only have a total of ten that they keep. Keep that in mind when you’re photographing a subject — you have plenty of space to take photos, so don’t skimp.
10. Learn to post-process
Most photographers agree that there is an 80/20 ratio to photography. 80% of your photograph is created at the moment when you’re out there photographing your model. The other 20% is created afterward in front of your computer.
If you haven’t already, learn software like Adobe Photoshop. Understand the fundamentals of retouching and post-processing. Once you understand it, get good at it. Most photography today is adjusted on a computer — that’s why you shoot RAW.