Shoot Better Outdoor Portraits

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This article courtesy of the Adorama Imaging Resource Center, part of the Adorama Camera retailer

Whether you're traveling, enjoying a backyard barbecue, or recording a graduate's moment of glory, summer means outdoor portraits. A few simple picture-taking tips can soften and flatter those harshly lit, squinty-eyed faces (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Avoid the midday sun. But if you can't... This portrait tells a story -- his graduate is at the end of his educational road and about to climb into the workday world. Thanks to the harsh lighting, the photographer wisely backed up and made this a clever environmental portrait. What made the lighting lousy? The high mid-day sun threw the eyes into deep shadows -- an unflattering phenomenon known as "raccoon eyes". It's better to find an open shaded spot and shoot there -- especially when shooting close-up if you plan on doing a close portrait. Photo © iStockphoto.com/ericsphotography

Some of the most typical outdoor portrait-shooting problems include:

  • "Raccoon eyes"
  • Squinty subjects
  • Uneven, dappled light on faces (usually when shooting where there's a tree overhead that doesn't totally block sunlight)
  • Harsh sunlight
  • Distracting backgrounds
  • Dark face, light background

Most of these problems can be solved if you know where the sun is at all times, and learn how to use it to your advantage (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Cheat the sun: If you can't avoid harsh overhead sunlight, cheat it a bit by turning the subject's face so it's in complete shadow. Tilting the head down slightly might do it. Then, use your camera's pop-up flash as a fill light to lighten the shadow. More advanced shooters can use a reflector, such as an Adorama 42" 5-in-1 Collapsible Disc Reflector, to bounce light into the subject's face. You'll need someone to hold the reflector for you. Photo © iStockphoto.com/Jennifer Trenchard

Less than Ideal Light
While light overcast skies are ideal, they cannot be made to order. But even if you're shooting on a cloudless day, you don't need to battle the sun. Here's how to work with it.

Open shade: Open shade works much like light overcast in that there is no direct sunlight. However, color will be slightly blue because the blue sky is a primary light source. You can overcome this by using your compact camera's "snow" setting or by adjusting your more-advanced digital SLR's color balance setting. A gold reflector can also bounce more flattering, warmer light into your subject's face (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Direct light, but a bit softer: This shot's all about softening the image. Warm late or early day light is less harsh and more flattering. Note the soft modeling on this subject's skin. A reflector on the left side bounces light into the shadow, softening the light further, while a soft-focus filter smoothes out any remaining unflattering lines. Photo © iStockphoto.com/Tom Young

Direct Overhead Sunlight
The worst time of day to take a portrait outdoors is high noon, especially in the summer. But sometimes that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes in the middle of the day, under ole' Sol. What to do?

Don't panic... and use your flash! That's right, pop up your digital SLR's on-camera flash or enable your compact camera's flash unit by setting it to its always-on setting. Use it as a fill-in lighting source and the extra light it produces will get rid of hard shadows created by the overhead sunlight that causes "raccoon eyes." If you're using a compact camera, your flash may not be too powerful, so get as close to your subject as you can -- around 4 to 6 feet. Any farther away and the fill-in flash won't be as effective.

If you use a starter digital SLR, simply pop up the flash and keep the camera in "P" mode, and it will make the adjustments automatically. Take a few test shots and check exposure (use the Histogram!). You can control flash output by adjusting the Flash Exposure Compensation. The "+" will increase the amount of flash, while the "-" decreases it. If the light is really strong, you may need to increase flash output.

More advanced users can further control the balance between flash and overhead or ambient light.

The Golden Hours
The hours right after sunrise and before sunset, the Golden Hours, are ideal for portrait photography. No, don't shoot with the subject facing the sun (despite the common wisdom to always shoot with the sun behind you). Shoot with the sun behind the subject, and use it as nature's backlight (Figure 4). A low sun blocked by your subject's head will create a flattering rim of light around her. But be careful with exposure: if you have a spot meter, base the reading on your subject's face. If needed, add fill flash or use a reflector to bounce the light (which at this time of day is a flattering warm hue) into her face.

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Figure 4. Use the sun as a natural hair light: Shooting an informal portrait of my daughter one late afternoon with a bright wall behind me kicking loads of wonderfully diffused light into her face, I used the sunlight hitting the back of her head as a hair light to separate her from the background. Photo © Mason Resnick

If the sun is a bit higher in the sky but behind the subject, make sure you have a lens shade attached to your lens to block the sunlight from hitting the glass -- which would cause flare that could ruin the image.

What You'll Need
While specialized equipment will certainly help, you can still get beautiful portraits with even humble compact cameras if you know what you're doing. Which of these suggested kits is right for you?

  1. Snapshooter kit
    You may already have the camera! All you need is a camera with a 3x or longer zoom lens, a built-in flash, and a preview button. If the camera has portrait mode, that helps, too. We recommend these models because, in addition to the above, they have both image stabilization (to reduce shake in flattering subdued light) and face detection (which effectively keeps focus and exposure of faces on target) If you already own a point and shoot but it doesn't have image stabilization, a small tripod would be an excellent investment to keep your photos shake free. An Adorama 32" 5-in-1 Collapsible Disc Reflector will add some punch to those faces as well.

    Some excellent portrait-friendly compacts include:

  2. Enthusiast kit
    We chose a kit for those who feel constrained by the limits and lag time of compact cameras and based it on the Pentax K100D because it has built-in Image Stabilization and is, at this writing, a great deal. But any beginner-level digital SLR and kit lens will do. (If you buy a Canon or Nikon and the lens doesn't have image stabilization, you may need to invest in a tripod.)
  3. Pro kit
    An 85mm lens is ideal for most portraits; if you don't use a zoom, you can take advantage of a wider aperture, which throws the background into a pleasing blur. We're suggesting a Canon body here since its pro camera sensors are full-frame, but a Nikon-based kit will work very nicely as well.

Mason Resnick is the Editor-in-Chief of the AIRC - Adorama Imaging Resource Center. © 2007 Adorama

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