Better Outdoor Portraits


The Digital Eye is my column  in What’s Up Yukon.  This article was published July 21, 2011.

We are now in full summer mode in Yukon; a great time to get out there and make some fantastic portraits.

There are some things to consider when creating your images to ensure the final result is something both you and your subject will be happy with.

First and foremost is the lighting. Those dark sunken eyes and pale, washed out skin are better off on zombies than showing up in your family portrait.

Arrange folks so they are not looking directly into the sun to avoid discomfort and other problems.

In most cases it is worth your while to look for shaded areas. Avoid direct sunlight as it is harsh and causes squinting and unflattering shadows.

Shade ensures that severe shadows are gone and only gentle, flattering, contouring remains.

Look for areas where you can engulf your subject entirely in the shade and use custom white balance to ensure correct colour.

Overcast days are wonderful for the creation of portraits. The overhead layer of clouds helps with creating pleasant shadowing as well as giving great depth to your colours.

If shade is not possible try placing your subject with the sun at their back, then expose for the shaded part of their face. While this may wash out the background somewhat, it can be quite flattering.

Always have a reflector of some kind with you. You can get these commercially quite inexpensively, but even a piece of white foamcore, judicially placed, will fill in those unwanted shadows.

If your model is close enough you can use your flash to fill in those areas.

As always, ensure you have the correct colour balance, exposure and that your focus is sharp.

Autofocus options often will choose the closes object to them or will try to reach a happy medium when averaging the distance between objects within the frame.

In portrait photography, always focus on the eyes – they are the window to the soul of your subject.

I usually use manual focus in order to ensure the attention is directed where I want it to be.

In order to make your subjects the feature of the image, move in close.

Separate the subject of the portrait from everything else by using a shallow depth of field. That means opening your aperture as wide, or as close to as wide, as possible.

Do not use a lens of less than 50mm for portraiture unless you are after a specific kind of look. They simply are not flattering as they cause distortion.

Shorter focal lengths can make your subject appear like they have a swelled head.

I regularly use a 70mm f/2.8 lens for portraiture in order to create a great bokeh and this separation.

Be judicious in choosing your backgrounds.

A background that is too busy will detract from the object of your attention as will one of garish colours.

The background should also fit the subject. For example, soft feminine colours work well with a female but may not be suited for a young man.

Many things work well for backgrounds – flowers, waterfront, and the side of an old building or even the sky.

Remember to not place the subject in the centre of the fame. Use the “Rule of Thirds” to move them slightly to one side or the other.

When you are photographing children or pets, get to their level so they appear “right sized” as well as for their comfort while being photographed.

After you have made the portraits according to the rules to ensure satisfactory results, relax and play around a bit.

Move around your subject. Get low and shoot upwards; using the sky for a background. Get elevated above their level and shoot down.

So, out you go. Take your family and friends with you and capture all those wonderful portraits you are capable of.

Back them up so you don’t lose them and above all else, enjoy them.

Email questions to me or post them in the comments section below.

Happy shooting and remember to leave the environment as you found it.


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