How to take outdoor portraits

Taking photos outdoors is challenging.  Besides dealing with people stealing your gear, insects attacking you, and property owners wanting money to let you shoot on their land, you have to worry about constantly changing sunlight.  Learning how to react quickly and effectively to lighting changes is the key to producing good photos.  We'll cover a few different lighting strategies, but please leave comments if you have your own techniques and experiences that you want to share.  You are on your own with the insects.

Lighting varies during the day

Imagine that you rented a studio with nice lighting equipment, placed all the lights exactly where you wanted them, and then started taking pictures of a model.  Now imagine that despite your protests, the jerky studio owner walked in every five minutes and moved your main light a little bit higher - just enough to add ugly shadows. Then, once in a while he'd also randomly put a pillow case over the lights to further screw with you.  You'd slowly go insane resetting your other lights to compensate.  After an hour of that, you'd probably demand your money back or punch the guy.

Well, that's basically what happens when you photograph outside.  The world is your studio and the sun is a jerk that keeps moving your main light.  The clouds jump in front of the sun, diffusing the light.  But then as soon as you get ready to take a shot, the clouds move again.  To make good photos in these conditions, you need to develop your instincts so that you will instantly recognize any lighting condition and react appropriately.

Remember, anyone can take one good photo given enough tries in front of a nice sunset.  Your goal should be to develop the skills to take good photos consistently in a wide range of lighting conditions.  It's the difference between getting a lucky shot once and being a star player every game.

The sun is a light that you can't control

The sun is just another light source.  Just because it is an exploding ball of flame 92 million miles away doesn't mean it's that much different than your flash.  In fact, the biggest difference between the sun and a flash is that you can't control the sun.  Instead, you have to time your shooting based on the position of the sun.

The sun produces different lighting depending on where it is in the sky.  Sunrise and sunset produce fantastic lighting.  The lighting at noon as absolutely horrible because the sun directly overhead casts strong, direct shadows that are not flattering on anyway.

The exception to this chart is cloudy weather.  Clouds positioned directly in front of the sun act like a giant soft box - even at noon.  Next time you are outside, pay attention to how much clouds in front of the sun change the shadows you see on the ground.  If the clouds are thick, there won't be any shadows at all.

So if it is cloudy, take it as a sign to go outside and shoot portraits.  It might not be a great time to shoot landscapes, but it could be the perfect time to shoot portraits.

How to shoot at sunrise and sunset

Shooting at sunrise and sunset is great!  The rising or setting sun produces the best light you will ever get.  The only thing you have to consider is whether you want to shoot with the sun behind you or if you want to shoot into the sun.

A general rule of thumb in photography is to "keep the sun over your shoulder."  The idea is that if the sun is behind you, it will be lighting whatever is in front of you.  That rule works well at this time of day.  Just make sure the sun is behind you, have your model do something interesting, and take some pictures.

However, you can also get some really cool effects by shooting into the sun.  This lets you get the sunset in the picture behind the model.  Since the sun is behind the model, the front side of your model will be dark.  So you have to use a flash to light the front side of your model.

But watch out!  If you use a flash directly on your model, the pure white light of your flash that is lighting your model will not match the nice orange light from the sunset behind your model.  Your model will come out looking really pale and this is not that easy to fix in Photoshop.  The best way to handle this is to put a CTO gel over your flash.

You can get a gel kit for your flash to shoot in different lighting conditions. They are pretty cheap and are a necessity when shooting sunsets.

A CTO gel is just an orange piece of plastic you tape over your flash.  This makes the light coming out of your flash match the sunset's more orange light.  It will improve this type of shot a lot.

How to shoot during the rest of the day

If you can't time your shooting so that you are only taking pictures during sunrise or sunset, you have to get move creative.  There are a few techniques you can use to easily create good light out of bad light.  The disadvantage is that they either require extra equipment or require that you only shoot in certain places.

Strategy One: Using shade

The simplest way to beat bright sunlight is to shoot in the shade.

This might sound really simple, but there are a few things that might mess you up.  First, make sure the model's head is completely in shade for the best effect.  You don't want partial shade on his or her face.  Second, make sure the background of your photo doesn't have bright sun hot spots in it.  That can also spoil a good shot.

Put your model in the shade and make sure the background of the shot isn't too bright.

Strategy Two: Using a reflector

A second idea is to have your model stand directly in the sun but use a reflector to shine light back into the model's face from another angle.  The reflected light can help fill in and eliminate ugly shadows.  All you need is a reflector and someone to hold it for you.  You won't be able to hold the reflector yourself in the right position while you are taking photos.

If you don't already have a reflector/diffuser combo, you can pick one up online for a reasonable price.

A combo reflector/diffuser is great because one item can handle both jobs. Without the cover, it's a diffuser. With the reflecitive cover on, it's a reflector.

Strategy Three: Using a diffuser and a flash

Another strategy for shooting in mid-day is to use a diffuser to create your own shade and then fill in the shade with a flash.  A diffuser is just a piece of translucent cloth on a frame that spreads and softens the light.

The advantage of this technique is that you can shoot just about anywhere without having to find shade.  The downside is that you have to lug around equipment.  Also, you will probably need an assistant or a lot of stands to pull this off since you'll be busy holding the camera.

Use a diffuser to block the light and then fill it back in with a wireless flash.