Photo tip - How to take outdoor portraits

30th December 2009
Once you’re photographing outside you’re at the mercy of the elements. With a little knowhow you can work with the conditions to take beautiful outdoor portraits.

Lighting

Sunny 16 rule
The sunny ƒ16 rule states that on a sunny day, with your aperture value set to ƒ16, your shutter speed will be the reciprocal of the current ISO speed (or the next highest). For example, if your camera is set to ISO 100, and your aperture value is ƒ16, your shutter speed will be 1/100th or 125th of a second.
You can extend this technique to work with other types of lighting using by setting your shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO and then using this table:

Aperture Lighting Conditions
f/16 Sunny
f/11 Slight Overcast
f/8 Overcast
f/5.6 Heavy Overcast

Midday lighting
Strong sunlight is harsh, particularly in the summer and in the middle of the day. For portraits it produces bleached out colours, excessive contrast and deep unflattering downward shadows on the face.
In winter months, the sun sits low in the sky all through the day, producing a characteristic raking light that is ideal for bringing textures and patterns to life. The nearer you are to sunrise and sunset, the more orange, and more attractive, the light will be, just like with landscapes.
Harsh sunlight can be overcome. You can soften shadows with a blip of fill-in flash or by bouncing light back with a reflector. Alternatively you can ask the subject to move into a shaded area.

Fill in flash
Fill flash is used on a bright day to help bring out the detail in the shadows caused by the harsh sunlight. Don’t use too much flash or it will wash out the subject completely. The general guidelines suggest are to reduce flash output anywhere from 2/3 to 1-1/3 stops, depending on what type of shot you’re after and the amount of contrast in the scene. The more contrast there is the more flash you are likely to need. Remember it’s the flash exposure you need to reduce and not the overall exposure.
If you have a flash gun then don’t point it straight at the subject. Try to bounce it off a light surface to the side, or diagonally above and behind you. The flash will be diffused and give a softer more flattering effect.

Back lighting
For even more dramatic results, try shooting into-the-sun, or contre-jour, as it's generally known. If you leave things to the meter, you'll get a dramatic silhouette. Or if you use your reflector or flashgun you'll leave them surrounded by a golden halo of light, but with a normally exposed face. Absolutely beautiful!
Use spot metering and take the reading from the model you’re photographing.

Front lighting
As a general rule, you don't want the sun behind you when shooting people, because your subject will be staring straight into the sun and squinting unpleasantly when it's too bright. It also washes out all the shadows and therefore makes the photograph look flat.

Side lighting
Side-lighting, with the sun hitting your subject from just one side, gives much more tone and modelling, especially if you use your reflector to bounce light back into the shaded side of the face.

Overcast days
Days when the sun is covered by thicker cloud produces a very diffused light that can result in pictures lacking bite - because there are few shadows. This is not the weather to shoot buildings or landscapes, but used carefully and matched to the right subject it can be wonderful. This is the time to get out and shoot still-lifes and close-ups, especially of subjects such as flowers. If you're to record the maximum amount of detail in a close-up you need soft light such as this.

Heavily overcast days
The worst light of all comes on days when it's heavily overcast. There are no shadows at all, light levels are poor, and the light is often extremely blue in tone. This is not a good time to take pictures - you might just as well toss your film straight into the bin. On such days you'd be better staying at home and editing your pictures or just take time out to enjoy the scenery looking for good locations to shoot when the light's better.

Focusing
- Focus on the eyes and when there’s a group always focus on the nearest person because depth of field is deeper behind than it is in front.
- AI Servo focus is useful for candids because unposed people are likely to move from their original position if you use single shot focus.

Aperture
You generally need an aperture of around F4 – 6.3 for individuals unless you want to keep their surroundings in focus to show them within their environment.
Groups need an aperture of F8-14 if you want everyone in focus.

Composition
- If there’s a lot of distracting elements in the background or foreground then you need to compose more tightly or blur them with a shallow depth of field.
- Look for locations that bring interest and enhance your subject. Anything with uplifting colours or rich texture often work well. Doors, windows, walls, a staircase or pillars will help frame the subject or offer lead in lines.
- To make your subject more comfortable when posing them show them what you want by emulating the pose. A little joke at this point always breaks the ice – if you’re willing to do it then they’re likely to follow.
- Normally you want to take photos at the subject’s eye level, although experimenting with different perspectives can give creative results. If you shoot from below you make the subject appear more dominant and vice versa.
- Put taller people at the back and in the middle.
- Get people to turn one shoulder away from the camera as a more head on shot makes them look wider and is therefore less flattering.
- When you're posing a group for a family portrait, try to arrange the heads of your subjects so that they form triangles. Geometric shapes like triangles create photos that have more visual appeal.
- Get everyone to tilt their head towards the person next to them. This avoids a boring straight up straight down show and adds intimacy.

Additional tips for outdoor portraits
- Try not to use a wider focal length than 50mm otherwise it can start to distort people’s features. Only use a wide angle lens if you are purposely trying to exaggerate an element of the subject, like their height for example. 80-130mm is generally best.
- Don’t count people into the photo as they will stiffen up. Just keep talking and take shots when the expressions look right. Tell everyone to close their eyes and then open them on the count of three works well too, but you’ll still want to take a couple of extra shots in rapid succession to make sure.
- For a warmer feel to your portraits change your white balance to cloudy on sunny days. The shade setting is warmer still, but can be a bit too warm unless the day is more overcast,
- Put the people in the shade with the background in the sun. The people will 'pop' out from the background, and they won't be squinting.
- If you have a lot of dull colours or a distracting strong colour in the image then it is often best to go black and white and remove the problem altogether.

Above all try and make it a fun event rather than a chore. Even when you’re doing the undercover reportage style photography it pays dividends to have half a personality, otherwise you’ll just be “that creepy scowling bloke with the camera!”

Comments

Photo comment By Zina: Thank you for this tutorial! :)

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