Take better outdoor portraits

By Geoff Harris

This time of year is not always the most conducive to photography, apart from moody winter landscapes, but you can take nice portraits of friends and family all year round.

But how do you go beyond a mere snap or record shot?

Check out some essential outdoor portrait tips below.

Think about how you pose your model

One big lesson I learned from wedding photography is how to get your subjects to relax and stand in a more natural way.

Often people don’t know what they do with their hands when being photographed.

Either they stand stiffly with their arms by their sides, like a police ID line up, or tightly fold them, making them look tense and defensive.

A good tip is to get your subject to lean on a wall or fence, for instance, so they can hold their hands together naturally, or to give them something to hold (maybe not a cheap plastic shopping bag or set of car keys, however!)

If your subject is more relaxed, you’ll get a more relaxed looking shot.

Think about the background

One of the key principles of successful outdoor portrait photography is to ensure the background is as uncluttered as possible – often photographers can be so caught up getting the model to pose ‘correctly’ or getting the exposure and focussing settings right that they forget there is a van, bin or some annoying passer-by in a fluorescent jacket intruding into the shot.

These can be edited out, but it’s an extra hassle – way better to take your time and carefully scan the background, plus the four corners of the frame in the viewfinder, before pressing the shutter button.

Using a wide aperture (a higher f stop, such as f/2.8 or higher) or a telephoto lens can nicely blur the background, too; as well as focussing attention on your subject, this can help to ‘blur out’ any background distractions you can’t avoid.

Black and white or colour?

There is a great saying in photography, along the lines of ‘take a photo in colour and you see the colour of somebody’s clothes, take it in black and white and you see the colour of their soul.”

Although this is over-stating it somewhat, there is no doubt that black and white can add a class and sophistication to outdoor portraits – particularly on these rather bleak winter days, where there is not much nice greenery around anyway.

Lots of colour in the background can be just as distracting as a road sign or a tree sprouting out of your subject’s head. So don’t be afraid to experiment with black and white.

You may be able to select a monochrome mode and see how the portrait will look before you take the shot; if you shoot in raw, the raw file also retains the colour information, which you can revert to if you decide that black and white doesn’t work so well after all (the exception to this is a dedicated black and white camera, such as the Leica Monochrom).

Focus carefully on the eyes

Whether you shoot in colour or black and white, carefully focus on the eyes – you can get away with a few other things in the image being slightly ‘soft,’ but not those all-important peepers, or other facial features.

Either set the autofocus (AF) point over the eyes before you take the shot, or if you are focussing manually, use focus peaking or zoom right in to ensure everything is sharp where it needs to be.

Where is the light falling?

Whatever the subject, great photography usually involves capturing great light. It’s harder to control the light outdoors than in a studio, but just moving your model (or yourself) so the available light sculpts their face can pay dividends – try to avoid it hitting their face flat on, like a custard pie.

Often it can just be a case of moving your model a few inches so the light illuminates their facial features in a more attractive way.

They don’t need to smile

Sometimes, getting your model to say ‘cheese’ is not the best idea. While you don’t want them to look miserable or tense – unless that is your intention – a more serious and candidly shot expression can capture more of their personality.

You don’t want something that looks like a passport photo, but a lot of cheesy grins can make the end result look rather unsophisticated.

Try older lenses

There is often a unique quality to older lenses from the days of film cameras that can really enhance an outdoor portrait. They often have nice contrast and tone, or create an attractive background blur.

The images here were taken with a Leica R lens from the 80s, mounted to a modern Leica CL mirrorless camera with an adaptor (£25 off eBay). You’ll need to focus manually, but this is lot easier thanks to focus peaking or zooming in via Live View.

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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