10 Tips for Taking Outdoor Pictures and Portraits

Posted on April 3, 2009 by Bo

Outdoor Photography TipsIt’s warm and sunny outside and you’re all set to go out and take some pictures! Shooting outdoors in the sunlight can create some unexpected results; exposure issues where your subject might either be too bright or too dark, squinty eyes in the sunlight and harsh lighting.

If you’re looking to make some photos that are more natural and pleasing, check out the following tips. If you’re just now starting out, check out our 10 tips to get started in photography.

1. Get to know the sun
The best natural lighting will occur the hour or so before the sun sets and after the sun rises. To get exact times for both sunrise and sunset, check out the USNO Sun and Moon Data site.

2. Look for shade
If you’ve got to shoot a portrait when the sun is out, look for some shade. The shade will soften the light and make it easier for your subject not to squint. There’s bound to be a tree or building nearby that you can use to escape direct sunlight.

3. Watch where you meter
When you take a meter reading of the scene, typically your camera will adjust the exposure so that the brightest areas (areas in direct sunlight) are well exposed. This will sometimes underexpose the shady areas and can be very challenging when shooting an outdoor portrait.

Try focusing on a shaded area (a shadow on the ground, or have your subject turn their back to the sun and focus in tight on their face) and take a meter reading. Now take the photo; you might blow some highlights in the bright areas, but this will keep your subject well exposed and will create a bright, dynamic surrounding for them.

If you’re wanting to create a silhouette, reverse this technique. Focus in on a very bright area (a big white cloud or the sun itself) and take your meter reading. Take the photo and the bright sun or clouds will be well exposed, but your subject will be thrown in the dark creating a nice, crisp silhouette.

4. White balance
Your best bet here is to use a gray card. However, if you don’t have one (or forgot yours at home), then your best bet would be to put your White Balance setting on Cloudy, even for direct sunlight or shaded areas. The Cloudy WB setting makes things a little warmer and gives you some nice, pleasing tones.

If all else fails, you can correct your White Balance settings afterwards using Camera Raw. I mean, you are shooting in raw, right? Right?!?

5. Use a reflector
A reflector can help bounce and direct light into areas where it might not normally go. You can use a wide range of objects such as a white bed sheet, a white shirt, a white wall, or you can opt for a good collapsible reflector.

If using a translucent material, the reflector can also double as a diffuser. If you’re in an open area without any shade, you can use the material to shade your subject from direct sunlight.

6. Be aware of your surroundings
When photographing outdoors, you have limitless possibilities of interesting elements that can benefit your photos. There are also a large number of elements that can be distracting.

Watch out for parking lots, traffic, street signs, power lines, etc. Depending on the type of photos you’re taking, these things can be distracting.

7. Freeze the action
Being outside in the daylight can allow for faster shutter speeds, which makes it easier to “freeze” motion. If shooting sports or action, use a shutter speed for at least 1/250 second to stop the action.

8. Sunny Day 16 Rule
For quick reference to exposure, remember the Sunny Day 16 rule. On a sunny day, set your aperture at f/16. Now your ISO speed will be relative to your shutter speed. For example, setting your ISO at 200 will mean that setting your shutter speed at 1/200 or 1/250 will result in an accurate exposure.

If shooting in the shade, simply change your aperture to f/8 and the rule still applies!

9. Narrow your depth of field
When shooting portraits, try opening up your aperture to f/2.8 or f/4. This not only helps to separate your subject from the background, but can also make something as drab as a line of trees into an interesting and beautiful backdrop.

10. Don’t forget the water!
One of my first outdoor shoots was during the middle of summer. The session was meant to last 30 minutes but ended up going an hour longer. I was hot and sweaty and extremely thirsty, but we were nowhere near a water fountain or gas station, so I just had to deal with it. Ever since then, I’ve made sure that there was a water bottle packed in my bag.

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2 Responses to “10 Tips for Taking Outdoor Pictures and Portraits”

  1. XShot on April 5th, 2009 7:18 pm

    Nice tips, thanks for sharing.
    I also like my portaits with the subject off-centered, with an interesting background.

  2. ~Yvette~ on August 14th, 2011 4:58 pm

    Great tips!! Thank you so much for helping. They pretty much were helpful.


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