How to Get Great Light For Outdoor Portraits

If you’re new to photography, you might think that lighting outdoor portraits is pretty straightforward. Just use the sun, right? Well, not so fast. There are a number of other options, allowing for a number of different looks. In the video below, professional photographer James Patrick covers his five favorite outdoor portrait lighting setups:

When shooting outdoors in direct sunlight, there are a number of things to take into consideration:

  • Depending on what time of day you’re shooting, the sun itself may be creating harsh shadows on your subject. If you want softer light, you’ll need to bring it (or some way to diffuse the light) with you.
  • If you’re wanting to get great sky tones in, you’ll need to take extra steps to allow yourself to stop down. (Sure, you can deal with it in post-processing, but that’s not really ideal.) This generally consists of adding in extra light. Patrick demonstrates this with a reflector, beauty dish, and Octabox. You can also get the same effect by reducing the amount of exposure that’s given to the sky via a neutral density filter.
  • If you’re doing a lifestyle shot, you’ll need to take into consideration your foreground and background. How much do want them to be in focus? This, in turn will inform how open you want your aperture.

using a reflector for outdoor portraits

gold reflector

All but one of these methods takes extra gear—and often extra hands. And of course, if you’re just starting out and don’t have the budget to buy lighting, spending time mastering natural light is still a great option. Just know that there are a number of options out there, all allowing you to get different looks and effects.

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