Improve Your Outdoor Portraits
Tips From A Pro On Lighting, Posing, And More

Photos © 2004, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

I love shooting outdoor portraits! As a matter of fact, it has become my "signature style." During my busy season, I may take over 400 outdoor exposures in a single day, so I'd better be able to do it well and do it fast. An element of my style is that I don't use flash. Many photographers do, and they do it very well, but that won't be covered in this article. I'm going to give you a few insider tips that will make an immediate and dramatic impact on your outdoor portrait results. And remember, these tips are going to help you achieve great results, but rules are always made to be broken--once you understand them.

1) Watch The Background
When people ask me to look at their work, one of the first things I usually notice is that they concentrate on their subject and completely ignore the background. This is not a good thing. Your background is critical to a complete image. It should compliment, not detract, from your subject. Colors should compliment, not detract, from the subject. Watch for lines and objects sticking out of people's heads. Probably the best way to teach yourself to watch backgrounds is to use a tripod. After you have your subject where you want them, take the time to study the background. If your camera allows it, use the depth of field preview button so you can see just what will be sharp and what will be soft at the taking aperture. Remember, you're always looking at the scene in front of you with the lens "wide-open." That means if you're using an f/2.8 lens you're seeing what the picture will look like at f/2.8; it will look completely different at f/16. Sometimes the difference can be a rude awakening!

In this instance I used a wall for the background. I liked how the white stripes on the building echoed her white shirt and the horizontal lines create a sweeping effect and drama. I also included this one because this is one time I "broke" a rule and used a wide angle lens. Since so much background is included it's even more important to examine it carefully so there are no distracting elements.

2) Avoid Bright Highlights
There's an old saying in photography: Light attracts, dark recedes. To quote Blazing Saddles, and Tweety Bird, "It's twu." Your eye will be attracted to the bright areas. They will be very distracting in the photo, and take attention away from your subject. And while bad enough on the background, they can be downright disturbing on your subject. I have an area I like to use that has some big bushes that form a canopy. It blocks the overhead light and the opening gives me a nice source of light. The only problem is, sun can shine through the canopy, creating splotches of light all over my subject and their clothing. Very distracting. The solution? I carry a big collapsible reflector that I put up in the branches to block the direct light, thereby avoiding "the splotches." You may not be carrying around a reflector, but always look for the splotches and move to avoid them. They'll cause overexposed highlights. Film is more forgiving of them than digital.

Notice how I've got direct sun striking the leaves in the background. If that area was open and the sun was striking the river that the trees are hiding, it would be too bright and distracting. The leaves farthest to the left are turned so they catch the sun and are probably too bright. Even though that's an easy fix in Photoshop, I still try to shoot like Photoshop doesn't exist or if I have film.

3) Use A Long Lens
Using a long focal length lens will really make your work shine! There are three primary reasons for this. The first concerns the narrow angle of view. The longer the lens, the narrower angle of view, or the less in a given photo at any given distance. Why is this a good thing? Because most photographers (see #1) get too much in the background. Using a long lens narrows things down so you get less background. Since most contemporary shooters use zoom lenses, in many cases it's just a case of racking that baby out. As a rule of thumb, a lens at least twice the "normal" focal length should do just fine. So for a 35mm camera, 100mm and up will work great. For most digicams that have a factor of about 1.5 when compared to 35mm, any length over 75mm or so will do. The longer the focal length, the more image magnification at a given distance, so watch for camera shake. Also, your zoom lens may not have a constant aperture, so at longer lengths you need more light.

The second reason long lenses are recommended for portraits is perspective. Try taking a head-and-shoulder portrait with a "normal" lens and you'll find yourself 2 or 3 ft away from the nostrils, with the eyes being significantly farther. This is often incorrectly identified as "lens distortion" when it is in fact a function of distance. Close one eye, then get about 8" in front of someone's face. You'll see they look kind of weird. Then back off to about 6 ft. Don't they look better? It's a more pleasing perspective, but it's caused by distance, not the lens. Put your camera on a tripod, take a zoom lens, and take the same photo at wide, normal, and long lengths. While some have more in them, the perspective is the same. In fact, if you cropped the wide image to match the angle of view of the long lens, they'd look identical and depth of field would be the same as long as they were taken at the same f/stop! (Note that quality would be an issue.)