Portrait Lighting Outdoors

“Taking pictures is like tiptoeing into the kitchen late at night and stealing Oreo cookies.”—Diane Arbus


1/200 sec at f/7.1 and ISO 400

The best-looking portraits will often be ones that allow the subject to contrast with its background, making it stand out and adding drama to the photograph. That’s why it’s a good idea to look for a background that is darker or lighter than your subject. Look for color contrast that makes your subject stand out from the background. This might mean a small adjustment in camera position so take the time to pick the right spot. Ansel Adams once said that “a good photograph is knowing where to stand” and that’s just as true for portraiture as it is for landscape photography.

One of the best portraiture techniques is to work with the depth-of-field and deliberately set a sharp subject against an out-of-focus background or foreground. Try different apertures to change the look of an out-of-focus background and use longer lenses that inherently have less depth-of-field than wide angles. Another one of my favorite techniques for outdoor portraiture is backlighting because it produces bright edges on your subject. Backlighting can produce beautiful highlights on the subject’s hair and blow out the background to create a high-key effect and perhaps minimize the effect of a less than exciting background.

Caption: A classic use of backlighting adds drama to this shot of an aspiring model who was posing for the first time in a friend’s back yard. Camera was a Canon EOS 5D with EF 28-135mm IS lens. Fill was provided by an EX550 flash unit that later had its hot shoe ripped off when I stumbled carrying two cameras, each with a speedlite mounted. Nobody’s perfect.

Author: Joe Farace

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