I get asked a lot what the secrets are to shooting nice portraits outdoors. I’m not going to lie, great outdoor lighting is a little harder to master than great indoor lighting. The sun is a tricky light source and a powerful one at that, so it can be a little overwhelming trying to figure it out. There are a lot of ways to tackle outdoor lighting including reflectors, diffusers and fill flash, but for now let’s just stick with the basics. You, your subject, your camera, and a patch of shade.
If all you’ve got are the items listed above, there are going to be three basic options for shooting. You can either face your subject into the sun, face your subject away from the sun, or put them in the shade. Most people’s gut reaction is to face their subject into the sun. Light is good right? Well not so fast. Remember how I said that the sun was a tricky light source? That’s because it’s extremely bright and it’s coming from overhead, meaning that it casts harsh shadows and on people those shadows tend to fall below the nose and eyes, giving a lovely raccoon look. I tend to find that one of the major culprits of outdoor photos looking amateur and “snapshotty” are the strong shadows below the eyes and nose. Check out this example. Shot at ISO 100, f2.8 and shutter speed 1/2500.
Definitely not my favorite. Now turn the subject around in the EXACT same spot so that the sun is behind and I find this to be a much more appealing shot. Taken at ISO 100, f2.8 shutter speed 1/1000
You’ll notice there are a few of what we call “hotspots” in this photo, areas that are somewhat overexposed when compared to the rest of the image. There are parts of her leg and blanket that are very very bright. But I’ll take those little hotspots over the first image any day. Remember if we had more equipment (diffuser, reflector, etc) we could take care of these problems but we’re just sticking to basics here. You should also know that if the sky had been visible in this shot it would have been “blown out” to white. It gives a sort of high key look that some people hate… I just happen to love it 🙂
The third option when the sun just isn’t doing it for you is the shade. This is by far the safest option and a good fallback. This one was shot in the shade at the same location, ISO 100, f2.8 and shutter speed 1/320
One part of shade shooting that most new photographers overlook is the quality of the shade. You want your subject to be out of the sun, but you also want for there to be natural light still hitting their faces. The best way to do this is to put the subject right at the edge of the shade, as close as possible to the sunlight without actually being in it. The difference in these next two is kind of subtle but to me it makes a big difference. The first is right at the edge of the shade, facing the direction of the sun. Notice they still have a bit of the sunkissed look even while being in the shade. ISO 100, f2.8, shutter speed 1/320
Even moving back a just a few feet will cause you to lose that “glow”. Same spot, just moved further into the shade. This time the shutter speed is 1/200
So there you go. Three different options for shooting in the sun, which you choose is up to you! One final warning note about shade shooting. While a park may seem like a great location for shooting portraits (lots of trees equals lots of shade right?) it’s actually hardly ever ideal. In my experience the shade from trees is almost always splotchy. Those little dots of light peeking through lead to what we call *dappled light* – great if you’re going to be painting a monet. Not so great if you’re shooting portraits. You’ll end up with those aforementioned “hotspots” right on your subject’s faces and nobody wants that.
2 thoughts on “Sunshine 101 – the basics of shooting outdoors”
This was very, very helpful for me! Thank you!! I was beginning to think I shouldn’t shoot outdoors outside of the “golden hour,” because most of my outdoor pictures are overexposed. I think your advice will help a lot!
Just reread this today, what a great, simple to understand post! Thank you x1000!!