Five Great Tips for Better Portraits Outside

When it comes to photography, it is great to know tips for better portraits – especially outside. When taking photos outdoors, there are many logistics to work out. And sometimes, you need to wait hours for the perfect shot!

I’ve been a professional photographer for over 15 years. In that time I have been lucky enough to work with and for some amazing people.

I’ve photographed celebrities, professional musicians, athletes, and of course, “regular” people, most of whom were still far from regular.

It’s an amazing gift to be welcomed into someone’s life to collaborate on a photo, and I feel that creating a portrait should be considered an honor.

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We often take it for granted with cell phone selfies and Instagram but sitting for a portrait is a time-honored event that was once reserved for the wealthy and powerful.

But now, thanks to technology, we all get the opportunity to “take” a portrait. And we say “take” because it was believed that when you do a photo of someone you are actually “taking” a bit of his or her soul.

Best Tips for Better Portraits Taken Outside

Don’t get me wrong; I certainly think you can take a fun fast image of someone that does not require the consideration of how that image will be used for eternity going forward.

Regardless of what you or the subject intends to use the image for, I think there are some key things you can do to make sure your images look their best.

In this article I talk about five very important tips to keep in mind, specifically when taking daylight shots.

1) Find Open Shade:

I’m writing this on July 20th, at 33 thousand feet somewhere between LA and NYC. If you live in the Americas then it’s summer (sorry Australia) and with summer comes the ability to be outside and enjoy those long days.

When shooting outside during the summer you should really try to avoid two things: 1) shooting at night and using flash, and 2) direct harsh sunlight. Alternatively, the best kind of light you can get is what we call open shade.

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Example of image taken in indirect sunlight.

Open shade means when it’s light out but the sun is not getting direct contact with the subject. It can be from the shade of a building or an overhang from a tree or even a garage.

This is also the type of light you get when it’s overcast. The great thing about this light is that it causes no harsh shadows or strong contrast.

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Image taken on cloudy day out of direct sunlight.

You will get smooth, even skin tones and your subject’s eyes will look nice and clean. The subject will not have to squint or have to wear sunglasses either.

If you don’t believe me try a test: place your subject in the sunlight and take a shot then put them in the shade and do another shot. Blow up the image and compare the light on their faces!

2) Find the focal point.

Okay, now you have the best light to photograph your subject in – What’s next, you ask? Well lucky for you, I have the answer.

The next thing to consider is what the focal point will be. In other words, what is the main thing in this composition that you want the viewer to see?

Consider that you will not be travelling with the image to explain what you thought was so important. Will the viewer know what was important to you?

The viewer will know if you have considered your focal point. Focal point is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the point at which the focus of our attention will go.

If you photograph a person I suspect it should be their eye or eyes. If you photograph a car racing by I suspect it should be the car and not the background, audience or a helicopter in the sky.

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Using the eyes as a focal point.

So take the time to think about what is the most important thing in the composition. If you are not there to defend it will the image do a good job of talking for you and what you wanted to convey?

Think of the most famous paintings and what it is that we all still talk about. Those talking points are the focal point.

3) Consider the Background

Okay, this is a pet peeve of mine.

I see people who seem to be in such a rush to take a shot that they don’t bother slowing down to compose the image. To see what is going on behind whatever it is that made them barely stop to take the shot in the first place.

If you were compelled to take a shot in the first place then take the time to make sure it looks well-composed. This goes double for portraits.

When you compose your image, scan the background and make sure there are no poles that appear to be growing out of the top of the subject’s head or some strange element stabbing them in the side.

When you have people and backgrounds and are not using depth of field (aka DOF or Bokeh – which is when you use a wider aperture to throw the background out of focus) then the background and the subject can appear to be on the same plane.

Example of image with blurred background.

Example of image with subject depicted on different plane than background.

When this happens, whatever is going on in the background can appear to be growing out of the subject.

When the background is out of focus or blurry then our eye tends to go to what is in focus and what we can identify with. Try to use DOF to really draw attention to your subject.

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Great example of bokeh/blurred background, bringing the focus to the subject.

4) Get your subject to make eye contact.

Now, people might tell you that you don’t need to have the subject make eye contact for a good portrait and theoretically, that’s true.

Creating a portrait is really just a photo of a person were they are clearly the main point of the composition or at least the reason why the photo was taken in the first place.

At least that’s how I think about it. However, we as humans identify with other humans by looking them in the eye. Like when we speak with someone, we look someone in the eye.

In fact, if someone does not look you in the eye you tend to think they might be a bit shady or untrustworthy.

When the subject makes eye contact with the camera it makes it more likely that ideas of trust and humanity will be transferred to the viewer of the image.

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Example of subject making eye contact with the camera.

I have always found that my most successful images of people are the ones where the subject is looking dead on into the lens. Try it!

5) Focus, Focus, Focus

I can’t say this enough: if you bother taking the time to create a photo of someone, then take the time to make sure it’s in focus.

If you are going through the exercise of communicating with someone that you want to take their photo or if someone asks you to take their photo then show them the respect they deserve by making sure they are in focus.

My suggestion is to focus on the eyes or the eye closest to the camera.


So there you have it – 5 simple tips to help you get better portraits in daylight. Though truthfully, you can use most of these tips and concepts for any and all types of shots.

Good luck out there, and shoot, shoot, shoot!

 

 

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About David Goldman

David Goldman is a commercial and documentary photographer. Originally from Toronto, David has lived in Los Angeles and New York City for the past 20 years. He is known for such iconic images as the album packaging for Blink 182’s Enema Of the State and bands like Muse, HIM, The Flaming Lips, and Joss Stone. David now works in the documentary and portrait field with such organizations as The United Nations Trust Fund To End Violence Against Women and The Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He has done portraits of all the 60 Minutes correspondents as well as many other projects. He is also a contributor to Fotoclasses.com