How to Take Great Portraits Outdoors

Have you ever taken a picture outside only to realize afterward that the sky is white instead of blue? Or the subject of your image is too dark? Or that everyone in your picture is squinting because of the sun? These are common photography problems, but fortunately for you, there are easy solutions, following these few tips.

outdoor portrait photo shoot

photo by Jane Kostenko

The first thing to learn is that your camera—no matter how¬†expensive it was!—is not as good as the human eye. We have the ability to look around us and simultaneously see the detail in dark areas as well as bright areas. This is called “dynamic range,” and our eyes have a lot more of it than any camera.

To compensate for this, your camera does something called “metering,” which means the camera picks a part of the image and tries to expose it correctly (not too dark and not too bright), and trusts that the rest of the picture will adjust accordingly. Sometimes this will work and sometimes it will not. But understanding your camera’s limitations and how it operates is the first step toward better pictures.

How does this translate into everyday use? To begin with, many of us ask too much of our cameras without realizing it. If you put your baby on a white blanket out in the sun to take an adorable picture, the camera might see the bright sun and that white blanket and say to itself,”Wow, this picture is WAY too bright—let me darken everything.” And then when you look at the picture later you realize that the blanket is properly exposed but your daughter’s face is too dark.

The solution to this problem is to make sure that everything in the scene is roughly the same degree of brightness. This is easier said than done, especially when out in the sun. So here are a few ways you can balance the playing field.

overcast portrait

photo by Loren Kerns

  • Take pictures in the shade or on a cloudy day. This is hands-down one of the best ways to improve your outdoor photos. When sunlight is diffused by clouds or trees or buildings, there is still plenty of ambient light from the sky to light people’s faces, but without making any particular areas too bright for the camera to handle. (Bonus: using this method will also keep everyone’s eyes from squinting in your pictures!)
  • Try using your flash. So many people only use their flash at night or indoors, but it can be a valuable tool outdoors during the day as well. Just make sure you’re close enough to your subject that the flash can reach him or her. Most pop-up flashes on cameras can only go a few yards at most.

More Tips for Improving Outdoor Portraits

  1. Place your subject facing AWAY from the sun. Yes, this means that the sun will be shining towards YOU. That’s okay. If the sun is behind your subject, their eyes won’t squint and they won’t have harsh shadows across their faces.
  2. When taking pictures of children (or pets), get down on their level instead of shooting from above looking down. This is a good tip whether you’re outdoors or indoors.
portrait at eye level

photo by Philippe Put

  1. Don’t take outdoor pictures in the middle of the day when the sun’s out. I know this seems a bit unhelpful, especially if you’re trying to capture moments from your daughter’s pool party at 1 pm on a Saturday in June. But if you think creatively, you’ll see there are ways to do it. Take advantage of snack time, when they come up to the screen porch (shade!) for a break. Take more pictures toward the end of the pool party, like 4 or 5 pm, when the sun is lower in the sky and you can stand facing the sun and yell, “Look over here!” to take a shot so the sun is behind them. Or wait until the shadow of that huge oak tree is over part of the pool so there is some diffusion from the sun.
golden hour portrait

photo by Mark Fischer

  1. Although these tips will dramatically improve your outdoor portraits, you can get even better pictures if you really get to know your camera. Read the manual. Start using settings other than “Auto” (and no, I’m not talking about the pre-sets like “Sports” and “Portraits”). Try “P” to start with. You will gain much greater control over your camera and start to learn via trial and error about just how well your camera can take pictures.
  2. Most of all, keep trying! Nothing beats experience to teach you how to take great pictures.

About the Author:
Elizabeth Morrison is a self-employed business owner in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. Her photography studio, Elizabeth Morrison Photography, specializes in contemporary family portraiture.

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4 responses to “How to Take Great Portraits Outdoors”

  1. Ofir says:

    Thanks for this great post.
    Lots of useful tips which I intend to try soon

  2. Christine says:

    How do you get that photo in the sun?! I love that – so stunning. I am trying to figure out how to get that with my camera (new to photography!)

  3. Molly Scholes says:

    This was incredibly helpful, thank you! Can’t wait to begin trying some of this stuff out.

  4. Taylor Hicken says:

    I’ve heard that it’s better to take photos around 4 or 5 pm, I’ll have to test that theory soon. I’ll have to see if my husband would like to take photos sometime soon. We could even talk to a professional about taking photos for us, hopefully we could do it soon.

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