Tips for Better Outdoor Portraits

When working with a portrait subject—indoors or outdoors—I like to measure the light on both sides of a person’s face to determine the lighting ratio. There are all kinds of rules of thumb telling you what the ideal ratio is but Renaissance painters used a technique called chiaroscuro that featured ratios that would make some studio photographer’s hair stand on end but created art that has transcended the centuries. The “right” ratio will vary depending on the shape of the subject’s face and the look you want to produce for the final image.

1/250 sec at f/8 and ISO 200

Watch the background. It’s so easy to become so enthralled by the person that you’re photographing that you forget about the background where you’ve placed them. I believe that if you watch the background, the foreground will take care of itself.  Nowhere is this more true that in making available light portraits. Busy, ugly backgrounds can be thrown out of focus by using longer lenses and wide apertures but it’s not uncommon to have to physically clean up an outdoor site before you can make a portrait. While you can always digitally remove beer cans and fast food wrappers, taking the time to clean up the trash before you make an outdoor portrait leaves it clean for everybody else too.

1/60 sec at f/7.1 and ISO 200

Talk to your subject. I’ll never forget the advice one of my mentors gave me many years ago. When I asked him what was the worst thing I could do when photographing people, I expected him to give me some tip on avoiding technical problems but his answer surprised me. “If you don’t talk to the people, you’re never going make a good portrait.” More than 30 years later, I’ve never forgotten that advice and would like to pass it on to you. Using a hand-held meter provides you with an opportunity to interact with your subject. While talking a meter reading you can make the time to talk to your subject and reassure them that they look great. Photographing people combines elements of psychology as much camera technology and how you personally interact with your subject will have more to do with the success of your session than the camera or lens that you use.

Joe is the author of Posing for Portrait & Glamour Photography which is available at your friendly neighborhood bookstore or Amazon.com.

Author: Joe Farace

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