Before I got to have a proper go at outdoor portrait photography I thought the techniques would be the same as indoor portrait photography. Needless to say I was wrong, and my first outdoor photography was a real wakeup call and showed how naïve I had been. Yep, outdoor portrait photography requires a totally different skill set than indoor portrait photography.
When shooting portraits indoors you have total control over the lighting and you can do whatever you want with it. When taking indoor portraits you can shoot using ambient light only, you can shoot using just strobe lights/flash light or you can mix the two up and play with ambient/artificial ratios. When shooting portraits indoors you decide where you want the shadows, you decide how dark you want the shadows to be and you shape the shadows. The first thing you will discover when taking outdoor portrait photography shots is that you have little control over the light. Sure, you can do things to make it easier to work with, but at the end of the day Mother Nature dictates what you can and can’t do.
Before I first started taking outdoor portrait photography shots I read several articles and blog posts about “over powering the sun”, i.e. effectively having total control over the outdoor ambient light. The theory behind these articles made sense, and it seemed viable that this could be done but in reality it can’t. My experience in trying to overpower the sun has shown that it can’t be done, and anyone who says otherwise is seriously mistaken. At first, I thought I was doing something wrong however when I got some guys from the local camera club involved we put our heads together, we experimented, and we all reached the same conclusion – overpowering the sun isn’t possible. The first large obstacle to deal with when taking outdoor portrait photography shots is the sun, and knowing what to do when there is too much sunlight as well as insufficient sunlight.
When there is too much sunlight you will need to try and block it out and reduce the amount of light hitting the camera’s sensor. Shooting at narrow apertures is the obvious way to restrict the amount of light, however shooting at narrow apertures maximises the depth of field, which is not what we want when taking portraits.
Ideally, we want to shoot portraits wide open with the widest aperture possible so to create a shallow depth of field, resulting in a photo with the model in sharp focus against a nicely blurred out background. In order to shoot at wide apertures the first thing you could do is move the model in to the shade. This seems pretty obvious, but what if the outdoor portrait photography shoot is in the middle of an open grass land or on the beach? In this scenario you could try and shade the model using a reflector, however you will need an assistant to help you out with this.
If getting the model in to the shade isn’t possible the only viable alternative is to use an ND filter to try and restrict the amount of light. I have to say that even if I can move the model in to the shade I prefer to use an ND filter so I can shoot at wide apertures. Shading the model casts shadows over the model, which creates another issue to deal with. Sometimes, the shadows produced moving the model in to the shade is pleasing, however more often than not they are not.
When using an ND filter to restrict the effect of the sun it is important to use an ND filter that is just strong enough. ND filters often create colour casts and the stronger the ND filter the more obvious the colour cast, and the more difficult it is to remove in the digital darkroom. When using an ND filter for outdoor portrait photography shoots you should only ever use single strength ND filters, and under no circumstances use a variable ND filter. Whilst the thought of a single filter being able to change the strength of the ND filter without changing filters is cool, in reality it doesn’t work and the variable ND filters you often see for sale are a total waste of money.
Another thing you have to keep in mind with outdoor portrait photography is where to position your model. Shooting directly in to the sun not only plays havoc with metering and exposure but also creates hotspots and star bursts. When shooting in to the sun the model will be backlit which means you will have to light the front of the model (either with artificial light or by reflecting natural light) to balance the exposure. Shooting in to the sun creates too many issues and problems, so don’t do it. If the model faces the sun the model is going to be nicely lit but is likely to be squinting (unless wearing sunglasses of course) which is not a good look.
The trick is to position the model where it will not only be nicely lit but also where it will not be squinting. This may seem obvious, but trying to achieve this isn’t always possible. There will be some outdoor portrait photography shoots where getting the model in the best position simply isn’t going to happen, which means you are going to have to compromise and have to deal with the issues that arise.
If you want to be successful with outdoor portrait photography one of the key things you have to learn is how to deal with sunlight and there are times when you have to be prepared for insufficient sunlight as well as too much sunlight, and know how to deal with each scenario accordingly.
Keen photographer addicted to cameras, lenses and everything photography related. Feel free to follow me in my photography ramblings, and if you have any thoughts, comments, queries or anything else to add I would love to hear from you.