Photographing People In The Sun: Outdoor Portrait Photography Part 1

What gear you need to get great outdoor pictures, and how to fight harsh outdoor sunlight...and win!

Whether you're traveling, enjoying a backyard barbecue, or recording your graduate's moment of glory, everyone ends up shooting outdoor portraits. And most are less than satisfied with the results. But a few simple picture-taking tips can soften and flatter those harshly-lit, squinty-eyed faces.

In this exclusive Adorama Learning Center article, we'll look at how to overcome the challenges of outdoor portrait photography in bright sunlight. When doing portrait photography outdoors, sooner or later you'll come across bright, sunlit scenes. These can cause problems, such as:

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

Outdoor Portrait Photography

Avoid the midday sun. But if you can't... This portrait tells a story--this 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 ©

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. For details, keep reading.

Outdoor Portrait Photography

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: use a reflector such as a Flashpoint 32" Collapsible Disc Reflector  to bounce light into the subject's face. You'll need someone to hold the reflector for you. Photo © 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 adjust your more advanced DSLR's color balance setting. A gold reflector can also bounce more flattering, warmer light into your subject's face.

Outdoor Portrait Photography

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 © 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 DSLR'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 4-6 feet. Any farther away and the fill-in flash won't be as effective.

If you use a starter DSLR, 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.

Outdoor Portrait PhotographyUse the sun as a natural hair light: Shooting an informal portrait of my daughter one late afternoon with a bright white 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

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. 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.

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.

Aperture control

A point-and-shoot camera in face detection and/or portrait mode will, among other things, choose the widest aperture. On a DSLR, you can fine-tune this control even more. Mark Wallace explains how apertures control depth of field, and how this can affect the portraits you shoot, on this AdoramaTV video:

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?

Beyond Snapshots (even with a compact camera)

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. Certainly use face recognition if your camera has it. Most modern compact cameras have that feature. Look for both image stabilization (to reduce shake in flattering subdued light) and face detection (which, as we learned from Jason Schneider recently, effectively keeps focus and exposure of faces on target). If you already own a P&S but it doesn't have IS, a small tripod would be an excellent investment to keep your photos shake free. A Flashpoint 32" Collapsible Disc Reflector, available exclusively at Adorama will add some punch to those faces as well.

More control for photo enthusiasts

For those who feel constriained by the limits and lag time of compact cameras, any beginner-level DSLR  or MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens compact) and kit lens will do. Make sure the lens is in the longer range (Zoom your 18-55mm kit lens out to 55mm) for more flattering results. And make sure that either the camera has built-in image stabilization or your lens has it. Use a reflector (as mentioned above) or a flash with a diffuser and if you have the option for off-camera flash operation, by all means move the camera above and to the left or right of your camera for more flattering lighting.

A pro rig

For professional portraits, it's all about the lens and, to a lesser degree, which camera body you use. An 85mm lens is ideal for most portraits, but a 50mm on an APS sensor camera is fine, too (browse the Adorama Lens Dept. to find appropriate lenses for your needs); if you don't use a zoom you can take advantage of a wider aperture, which throws the background into a pleasing blur. Any camera body will do; the most important thing here is to get the best lens you can afford. A good tripod will help, as will reflectors and off-camera, wireless flash with umbrellas to soften the light.

Watch how Mark Wallace shoots outdoor portraits with a pro rig on AdoramaTV:




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