Outdoor portrait photography made easy

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*Black&White, *Model, *Photography, *Portraits

Capturing great outdoor portraits takes a little more than just a sunny day and a willing model, though.

What you’ll need

You don’t need masses of costly equipment to get great outdoor portraits. Here are some basic items that you’ll need to get started:

  1. Standard zoom lens or Fast prime lens (such as a 50mm f/1.8)
  2. Telephoto zoom lens (optional)
  3. Flash/Wireless flash trigger/Flash diffuser
  4. Reflector

Before you delve into more advanced outdoor portrait photography techniques, you need to master the basics. Here’s how to get started…


One of the great things about outdoor portrait photography is that you can shoot almost anywhere, from your balcony to a wonderful misty forest. But it’s important to know how to get the most out of any location you choose.

Keep things simple, I know I am repeating myself this will help your subject to stand out.

However, the rules are there to break them so for god’s sake break them.

When you’re shooting environmental portraits where you want to show the surroundings almost as much as the subject itself you have to rethink things a bit.

Composition and framing

Try to position either your subject’s face (on a half or full-length portrait) or eyes (on a head-and-shoulders or close-up shot) using the rule of thirds. This gives a much more balanced composition than if they are in the centre of the frame. (but these are not rules you have to follow blindly)

When shooting closer than full length, you’ll need to think carefully about framing. A good rule of thumb is to avoid cropping the portrait so that any joints such as knees or elbows come too close to the edges of the frame.

While restricting depth of field in a portrait can be very effective, if you shoot wide open with an 85mm f/1.4 lens the depth of field may be so shallow that only the eyes are in focus, while the ears are soft.

This means that you need to be extremely careful with your focusing, and if you want a little more than the contact lenses on your subject’s eyes to be sharp, you may want to consider closing the aperture down a little.

Be sure to check your images at or near the size that you want to use them, or enlarge the image on the camera’s screen when you review it to check the focus and depth of field.

It can be hard to assess depth of field in thumbnails and when the image is squeezed onto the back of the camera, out of ofcus areas often look sharper than they actually are.

A hint

Traditionally, women and children were always shot from slightly above  with them looking up to emphasise their eyes and make them look more appealing, but these guidelines are less relevant today.

Master depth of field in outdoor portraits

The amount of an image that appears sharp from the front to the back is key to its look and feel.

Using a shallow depth of field, where only a small part of a portrait is in focus, concentrates most of the viewer’s attention on the sharp areas, while deliberately keeping more of the scene sharp makes the subject’s surroundings more visible.

As there are three things that determine the depth of field in your shots – aperture, focal length and your distance from the subject – it can take practice to get the effect you want. Here’s how these key factors affect your shots…


One of the easiest ways to control the depth of field is to change the aperture that you use. For shallow depth of field, choose a wide aperture (small f-number) such as f/1.4 or f/2.8.

To capture more of the scene in sharp focus, use a smaller aperture (larger f-number), such as f/5.6 or f/8.

Prime lenses offering wide apertures (such as a 50mm f/1.4) produce a really shallow depth of field, which makes them the perfect lens for portraits.

Focal length

If the other settings stay the same, a longer focal length lens will blur the background more than a shorter one. Try selecting a focal length of around 50-70mm in order to throw backgrounds out of focus.

Shooting distance

The final thing governing the depth of field of your shots is how far you are standing from the subject. The further you are from your subject, the more of the shot will be in focus from front to back, while the closer you are the less of it will be sharp.

This means you’ll find it easier to get shallow depth of field by getting as close as you can.

How far you are from the subject will be governed by the focal length of the lens you are using, and how much of the subject you want to include.

It’s much easier to get shallow depth of field effects when shooting head-and-shoulder (or close-up) images than it is if you’re taking full-length portraits.

But remember that it’s also easier to get shallow depth of field with a longer focal length lens, and you’ll also produce unflattering distortion if you get too close to the subject.

Best Focus Modes For Outdoor Portraits

With most portraits it’s essential that at least one of the eyes is sharp, and when using shallow depth of field it’s critical that you focus accurately on this area.

As long as the subject is static, you can use either manual or automatic focus modes to achive it. Since I have only manual lenses I will not enter futher more into this.

Classic Lenses

The classic lens for portraits is a short telephoto. These are lenses with a focal length of around 60mm to 105mm.

These lenses are great for shooting head-and-shoulders portraits from a reasonable distance away. This means there’s little distortion of the subject.

  • The shooting distances mean that you get a ‘flattering’ perspective in your shots.
  • Fixed focal length versions of these lenses offer wide maximum apertures, so are good for getting shallow depth of field.
  • Because it’s a classic choice, it’s hard to make your shots look creative, as you’ll always be the same sort of distance from the subject, and get a similar perspective.
  • Shooting from a long distance from your subject with a long focal length lens can produce some striking results.
  • It 
will make the background (and any objects in the foreground) appear to be much closer to the subject, giving a far more enclosed and almost claustrophobic effect.
  • This is easy to do when shooting head-and-shoulders portraits or close-ups, but to get the whole figure in the frame you’ll need plenty of space. So think about this when choosing the location for your shoot.
The Telephoto zoom lens (optional)
  • It’s very easy to get attractive shallow depth of field effects.
  • Shooting from a long distance makes the background and foreground appear much closer to your subject.
  • You can end up standing a long way from your model, making it difficult to communicate with them.
  • You’ll need plenty of room to shoot anything wider than a head-and-shoulders portrait.
Essential flash techniques for outdoor portrait photography

Many amateur photographers dismiss flash because of the harsh, direct light it can produce, but neither of these need to be the case. Don’t be scared of flash, because with a few simple techniques and a bit of practice, it can totally transform your outdoor portraits.

There are two effective approaches. The first is to use something to soften the light, such as a softbox or umbrella. These make the light source much bigger, reducing the harsh shadows produced by direct flash.

The downside, however, is that they will reduce the amount of light reaching the subject. This can become an issue when shooting outside, because the flash may not be bright enough to light the subject effectively.

The second approach is to embrace the harsh light and use it to your advantage. This works best when 
you take the flash off the top of the camera so that the light isn’t coming from the same position as the camera.

Using this technique you can even position the flash to mimic the effects of early morning or late evening sun, for dramatic results.

Here some simple improvised outdoor shoots.

Escrito por

Founder of Lichtbild & Head of his own strange world / Vintage Enthusiast / Photographer / Graphic Designer /Typography "lover" / Book Collector / Spanish+German Mix / Lives in Coruña / Sometimes heads back home & Sleeps. /*

7 thoughts on “Outdoor portrait photography made easy”

  1. I always enjoy reading your photography tips, Alberto, thanks!! so you don’t recomment 50 mm for a portrait?
    these are wonderful and very genuine shots, as always… :)
    happy holidays!!

    Le gusta a 1 persona

    • What is deemed “right” by photographers is usually dictated by what our human eyes see. If you attach an 85mm lens to an full frame DSLR and then open both eyes and look through the viewfinder, you should see that both of the images from each eye line up, almost like you aren’t looking through a lens at all. Do the same with a 50mm lens and you’ll find that you can no longer merge the two images together. This happens because the 50mm lens is distorting its field of view. To photograph your subject in anything but 85mm then would cause some sort of distortion. This is the theory behind the slightly dated notion that 85mm-105mm are the classic sweet spot focal lengths to eliminate any accidental distortion. But If I could only take one lens to a portrait shoot, without hesitation it would be a 50mm lens. Yes, the 50mm does distort the subject whereas the 85mm lens doesn’t. However, with some skill and a little experience you can easily make this distortion work for you and not against you. Remember that we are the “creatives” XD. It’s up to us to make creative decisions on how our images look “best,” not “right.” happy holidays you too!!!

      Le gusta a 1 persona

      • thank you soooo much for such detailed reply!!! wow… this is absolutely awesome to read, and very useful for me, Alberto… yes, I’ve noticed that the 50 mm on a full-frame camera distorts portraits… I honestly don’t like how they come out, especially headshots I mean… as I do not know how to make it work for me, I lack the practice you have :) but I love it for environmental portraits nevertheless :) once again, your posts are so inspirational… hope the new year is awesome for you creative- and work-wise :)

        Le gusta a 1 persona


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