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5 Tips for Outdoor Portraits

Are you a ‘people person’ who likes to photograph people? Your answer might be Yes or No because your thing might be landscape photography or architecture photography or something else. But because you are a Photographer you just might be asked or hired, to photograph people’s portraits outdoors.

You might not consider yourself a portrait photographer because your interest (and business) is all about another niche and you have little interest in being a portrait photographer. But you are up for a new challenge or not about to turn down paying work either.

If you have not shot outdoor portraits, what are you gonna do? Well, don’t fret cuz here are a few tips on ways to light outdoor portraits.

Using Natural Light

We have natural light everywhere and it is free and available to use as needed. But that does not mean it is perfect. You have to predetermine what you want your photograph to look like and where you are going to shoot and then decide what time is the best light for your setup.

Like landscape photography, midday light is often the worst and it can be with outdoor portraits as well. It’s best to not photograph directly in that light or you might end up with a portrait like this one.

While this is not a formal portrait setup, it clearly demonstrates the problems with midday light and the resulting contrast.

Overcast skies and early or late light, often create a preferable light quality due to the softer, lower contrast, light quality.

In this portrait of the rancher, the light is fabulous as the sun sits literally on the horizon about to set. It is very warm light, and the contrast is low making it perfect for this portrait. He is backlit as the sun rims his face and front side. There is no flash or light reflector used because the light is so soft that no additional ‘help’ is needed because there is plenty of detail in the shadow side of him.

Natural Light with Reflector

One tool that is quite useful and not expensive is the disc reflector. They fold up and can easily be packed away and work well when you want to bounce in just a little light for a bump up in brightness or to fill in a shadow. But you need them to be pretty close to the subject so they can bounce in the right amount of light.

In this photo, the subject is backlit by the sun coming from behind her. The reflector then bounces light into her frontside to brighten her up.

Using shade is a great strategy for photographing your subject in low-contrast light. In this image the couple is sitting in the shade with the sun backlighting them so when you bounce light using a reflector, it brightened them perfectly.

Light Panels

A light panel is used like a disc reflector but because it is much larger it is useful for larger subjects including full-length portraits.  These commercially made panels usually have PVC plastic tube frames with elastic bungee cords that pop open when you unfold them. Then you attach the material you wish to use like white, silver, gold, or black type material.

In this image shot on assignment for a travel apparel catalog, we placed the model in the shade and the panel in the sun to bounce light into her to create some directional textured lighting showing highlights and shadows.

Flash Fill

For times when outdoor light is bright and contrasty, flash or strobe lights may be in order. For outdoor portraits, I often use one of my Canon 600 EXRT flash units to add light to the subject to brighten shadows and lower contrast.

In this before and after portrait, you can see the benefits of adding flash fill to brighten the shadow side of the subject. This is a great option if it is your only option since photographing in shade or repositioning your subject is not possible.

Flash Key

The Flash Key is used when the subject needs MORE lighting contrast and brightness. In this situation, the subject may be in shade, after sunset, or on a dark, overcast day that creates what we call ‘muddy light.’ By adding flash you can brighten the subject and make them stand out from a dark background.

In these examples, you can see the difference between natural light and adding Flash Key which makes her stand out because the flashes light is brighter than the natural light.

Lighting for outdoor portraits is not that difficult in most situations, but when the light nature provides is not that great then other strategies may be required. If you plan to use all-natural light, then use the best natural light that nature provides like early or late or in the shade. But if you need more light then consider reflectors and flash to create your own ‘best lighting’ for your subject.

Want to learn more about outdoor portraits with supplemental light, then check out our course The Art of Professional Photography which has extensive videos on outdoor portraits. If you are an adventure outdoor photographer, our course Wireless Flash for Outdoor Adventure Photography covers the same subject.

And we have the eBook: