In this article, we are going to take a look at outdoor portrait photography tips for beginners. For the sake
of convenience, we have divided this into two sections: Natural lighting, and Outdoor lighting
Shooting with Natural light
We will start with a quick look at the cameras and lenses before moving onto lighting proper. I will be brief
as cameras and lenses not really what I wanted to talk about in this article. However, they are relevant so
a brief mention is valid.
1 – Choose the right camera.
Choosing the correct camera is an essential factor in working outdoors in low light. You need to use a
camera that has a lot of dynamic range, to reduce the need for so much fill lighting. Of course, you want
to shoot Raw images if possible. Some cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV have a far better sensitivity to light.
However, you probably already have a camera, so we will move on.
2 – Pick the best lenses for the job
For landscape photography, a wide angle lens will be best to capture as much of the landscape as possible. Street photography can benefit from a 35mm or 50mm type prime lens, and for portraits, a 85mm lens works great!
3 – Use Reflectors, Diffusers, and Flags.
In case you are not aware, I will clarify. A flag is a device used for blocking light and casting a shadow. It can provide a negative fill. The reflector does the reverse and is used for filling in shadows. A reflector does not soften the light, it simply reduces the contrast between the lightest and darkest areas. There are a great many reflectors on sale, they come in an assortment of shapes and sizes (you can also make your own with a sheet of white card).
The materials and colors of the reflector will produce different lighting effects. A gold reflector will produce a warm light, a silver reflector a harsher light, and a white reflector a more subtle effect. An alternative to the reflector is a flash for subjects that are close up, but if the subject is further away then this will not work.
4 – Make the Sun your backlight.
Not all outdoor lighting is used at nighttime and the positioning of natural light sources has a crucial effect
on the image you shoot. In virtually every situation you will want to ensure the sun is behind the subject.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but the sun behind the photographer will result in shadows on the face,
which are none too flattering. By placing the subject so that the sun hits the back of their head you achieve two things (1) Separate them from the background, (2) create a rim around their head leaving the face evenly lit.
5 – Shoot during Blue Hour and Magic Hour.
The Blue hour is the hour after the sun has disappeared from the sky, but the darkness has not yet fallen.
The magic hour is the hour before the sun sets or after sunrise.
If you want to take a nighttime shot but do not possess the right lighting equipment, shooting during the
blue hour will give the impression of night time but there will still be enough light around to get the shots.
Magic hour provides daytime shots, but with a soft, warm light that is much easier to work with. The light
will appear to glow but still appear daytime.
Shooting with an outdoor lighting and outdoor portrait lighting setup
1 – Flat Light
Flat lighting is where you have your light directly in front of the subject. The subject is well lit and there
should be no distracting shadows on the face. The trouble is that it is boring and gives no character to the
shot. A shadow brings the subject to life. However, if the face has blemishes then flat light is a useful tool
for downplaying those imperfections.
2 – Broad Light
Broad light is created when the light is placed to the side of the subject who has their face at an angle,
(maybe slightly forward) and shadows fill one side of the face (the side furthest away from the camera).
This light can make the face much fuller and can be a useful tool to improve the look of someone with a
thin face. You can reduce the depth of the shadow by using a reflector to reflect back some of the light.
3 – Short Light
Short light is also lighting from the side, but the face is angled differently and the shadows are on the side
of the face nearest the camera. This light will thin a face, as opposed to the filling out effect of broad
4 – Split Light
Split lighting will create very dramatic photos. The camera is placed at 90 degrees to the subject and will
result in the side closest to the light being illuminated while the other side of the face is hidden in shadow.
The dividing line is straight down the middle of the face and nose. The effect it creates is to make the
subject look more masculine. So be careful which subject you use this technique on.
5 – Backlight
The backlight is where the light source, is behind the subject. It is often used in the Magic hour where the
sun is behind the subject, but it works equally well with artificial light. This technique reduces the clarity of
the photo and creates a war hazy feel. This can be overcome by using a reflector to bounce back some of
the light from behind the subject.
An alternative to the reflector is to use an off-camera flash to hit the subject with light to sharpen the face.
6 – Rim light
The rim light is very similar to the backlight, in fact, it should be classified as such, but it creates a very
different effect, this light has less haziness than a backlight and it separates the subject from the
background, making them stand out more.
7 – Butterfly Light
Butterfly light (aka paramount light) is where the light source is slightly in front and above the subject,
casting shadows under the nose, highlighting prominent cheekbones, and making the eyes deeper set.
Knowing which lighting suits your subjects face is the secret.
8 – Loop light
The light source is above the subject (slightly) and at an angle of about 45 degrees from the subject. This
is a flattering type of light setting for most people.
I hope that you have found this brief look at outdoor lighting to be useful. With lighting, the important
factors to consider are the shape of the face, what imperfections there may be, and the attitude of the
subject to those imperfections. Using the correct lighting can change the nature of those imperfections
and result in the subject feeling happier with the shot. Do not feel that you cannot experiment and
produce unique types of effects by playing with the lighting.