Top Outdoor Portrait Photography Tips

Get Started with Outdoor Portrait Photography

Outdoor portrait photography can be rewarding yet challenging for many photographers. Throughout the mid-20th century, Milton Greene pioneered on-location photography, which meant that he had to master the art of outdoor portrait photography. With his trusted analog camera in hand, he captured some of the most intimate and never-before-seen photos of cultural icons from this era. 

Outdoor photography is different from shooting in a studio because photographers cannot control the constantly changing lighting. Those shooting outdoor portraits can quickly learn to adapt. Here are the top 10 tips for the modern outdoor portrait photographer who wants to master the craft.

Shooting Cloudy vs Sunny Days

When it comes to outdoor portrait photography tips, the general rule of thumb is to shoot on cloudy days as much as possible. Many photographers think that sunny days are better for outdoor photography, but harsh light can cause unwanted glare and reflections. Cloudy days allow you to shoot in the daylight without the glare and shadow from the sun, essentially diffusing the light and allowing for smoother, crisper photos. 

On sunny days, one of Milton’s techniques was to find locations that were created by architecture, alleyways or exteriors that created open shade, or at times showing shafts of sunlight in the background. This increases the dramatic effect and the open shade environment under sunlight has greater illuminance and vibrancy that is in the final capture.

Tammy Grimes in Paris.  Milton selected this area of the interior of open shade on a sunny day.

Tammy Grimes in Paris. This image is one of a series of fashion images done with multiple models in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. The Grand Palais in Paris is essentially an over-sized greenhouse built of metal and glass. Milton selected this area of the interior of open shade on a sunny day.

Outdoor portrait of Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen in Baja. You can see that it is a partially cloudy day with blue sky in the background yet the subject is softly lit by overcast light.

Sophia Loren in Italy. This was taken on a partially cloudy day.

Sophia Loren in Italy. This was taken on a partially cloudy day. Note that the highlights are diffused by thin clouds, yet highlighting Sophia and the left side of the fountain. More so than the open shade.

Use Your Environment to Create Unique Background Textures

Whether you are shooting in nature or the city, you can use the surrounding environment to add contrast between your subject and background and create unique textures. You can also use trees or objects in the foreground (usually out-of-focus) to allow your focal point to be more dramatic. 

Focus on the Eyes as Much as Possible

Whenever shooting portraits outdoors, your subject’s eyes must always remain the focal point of your photograph. There’s a reason the eyes are called “windows to the soul” - they connect the subject in the portrait to the viewer for a more emotional connection. A picture with eyes as the focal point will create stronger, more dramatic images that resonate with your audience. 

Experiment with Different Times of Day

Since the sun’s position in the sky also affects lighting conditions, many modern outdoor portrait photographers experiment with shooting at different times of the day to make their subjects look more visually appealing. In some regions, the time of day may also affect other weather conditions. For instance, mornings may be foggier or more cloudy. 

The Golden Hour, which occurs right before sunset and right after sunrise, is a popular shooting time due to the soft, illuminating sunlight. There is a brief moment, 15 to 30 minutes, before sunrise and after sunset, where the illuminance and colors all around you appear to be lit from within. Hence the phrase Golden Hour. It usually only lasts for an hour or less, so if you want to experiment with this lighting, you’ll have to act fast! 

Use a Lens with a Wide Aperture

Outdoor portrait photographs sometimes feature a blurred background, which is known as “bokeh.” Using a lens with a wide aperture is key to achieving this effect, which brings the subject to the forefront of your photo without competing against the background. It is best to experiment with your aperture’s width settings until you have a width that works for you. 

Shoot in RAW format

RAW is the digital equivalent to a photo negative - it is an uncompressed and unmodified version of whatever your camera sensor captures. While the files are a bit larger than JPEG, the clarity and depth of the photo are far superior. Shooting in RAW will always give you greater options when post-processing your images. 

Use the Right Focal Length

To get the most out of your camera for outdoor shooting, it is essential to know how to use key lenses to establish the desired focal length. Portraits shot at shorter focal lengths (under 50 mm) can produce an up close and personal reportage capture. Made popular by using a phone to get close to the action. . When shooting outdoor portraits, use a focal length above 85mm for a smoother bokeh effect. Milton preferred 85 mm, 105mm, and 135mm telephoto lenses at wide apertures to keep the subject sharp and the background soft. 

Shoot the Same Shot Multiple Times

The more shots you take, the more you can choose from when looking for the perfect one. This is especially important when shooting outdoors since unexpected weather phenomena can disrupt a photograph. For example, if the sun unexpectedly cuts through the clouds and creates new shadows, you will have another version of the same photo in overcast weather.

Always Post-Process Outdoor Shots

Post-processing can take a good photograph to great. This step is essential because of the many variables that can impact an outdoor portrait. By learning how to clean up and sharpen subjects, further dull the backgrounds, balance colors, reduce shadow, and other vital elements, you can become a master of making great portraits.

Like any style of photography, shooting outdoor portraits requires practice. Milton pioneered outdoor portrait photography long before the conveniences of digital cameras and modern editing equipment, and by sticking to these principles, you can also create beautiful outdoor portraits. To see how Milton accomplished this, feel free to view our collections. If you find one that you like, authentic prints are available directly through our website.