Nine Ways To Improve Your Outdoor Portraits


Here’s nine simple ways to improve outdoor portraits.

You’ve found the perfect location, everything seems great, but the resulting portraits leave something to be desired. They’re not what you imagined. The shadows are too dark, the contrast too great, the lighting too harsh. The focus seems off and your subject simply blends into the background. You’re wanting make better outdoor portraits. Here’s nine simple ways to do that.

1. Lighting
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. With that in mind, try to arrange folks so they are not looking directly into the sun to avoid discomfort and other problems.

Nine Steps To Better Portraits2. Reflectors
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.

3. Shade
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.

If shade isn’t 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. Watch for lens flare and make sure you’re using a lens hood.

Overcast days are wonderful for portraits. The overhead layer of clouds creates pleasant shadowing as well as giving great depth to your colours. As always, make sure you have the correct colour balance, exposure and that your focus is sharp.

4. Focus On The Eyes
Always focus on the eyes – they are what connects the viewer to the subject. I usually use manual focus in order to ensure the attention is directed where I want it to be. 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.

Nine Steps To Better Portraits5. Separate Subject From Background
Make your subjects the feature of the image, move in close. Or, 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.

6. Choose The Right Lens

Don’t 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. Long lenses tend to make the subject appear “squashed.” It’s best to stick between 50mm and 100 mm, particularly for closer head shots.

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

7. Choose An Appropriate Background
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.

8. Shoot At Your Subject’s Level
When you are photographing children or pets, get down to their level so they appear “right sized” as well as for their comfort while being photographed.

9. After Following All The Rules – Break Them and Play
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. Have them move while you shoot. Try different things.

So, there you have it. Out you go. Take your family and friends with you and capture all those wonderful portraits. Remember to back them up so you don’t lose them and above all else, enjoy them.

Email questions to or post them after the column at
Happy shooting and remember to leave the environment as you found it.
Norm Hamilton is a freelance writer and photographer in Whitehorse.
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