Outdoor Portraiture – Overcoming Challenges

Natural Light Photography – Part 1

With the whole, wide world out there to shoot in, why would anyone bother with a studio?  I’ll answer that question and then move on.  The best reason for having a studio is control.  Indoors, you have absolute control of climate, background and lighting.

However, not everyone has a studio, a camera room or even wants one (in a later post I will discuss ways to convert almost any room in your home into a camera room with comfort and ease). Or maybe you do have one, but want to break out of your cozy little comfort zone and take it to the streets.

Outdoor Portraiture

What are some of the drawbacks and limitations to overcome when shooting in the great outdoors?

  • Weather
  • Light quality
  • Bugs and creepy crawlies
  • Other people
  • Noise
  • Background clutter
  • Restrooms or lack thereof
  • Dragging equipment around
  • Food and water, or lack thereof

Let’s take these in order and discuss ways to deal.

  • Weather–In the heat of summer, shoot early in the day.  Later in the day can be okay as well, but is usually not as cool and crisp as early morning.  In the cold of winter, work it baby!  This is a great time for bright, colorful, layered clothing, funky boots and shoes, scarves, hats, mittens, hoodies and so forth.  Get people moving, jumping, leaping and playing.

Outdoor Portraiture

Outdoor Portraiture

  • Light quality—let’s face it, working out of doors is a mixed bag where lighting is concerned.  The first and most obvious way to use outdoor lighting to your advantage is to shoot early morning or late evening.  That way, you get to take advantage of the ‘golden hour’, that time when the sun’s rays are longer and more golden.  Did you know that bright, overcast days are PERFECT for outdoor portraits?  Skin tones are rendered beautifully in this type of light and colors are richer. Even a light drizzle is good, as long as you protect your camera with an umbrella.

Outdoor Portraiture

Outdoor Portraiture

Low light can be an issue as well, and this is where really good, fast prime lenses come in.  I’ll discuss this further under ‘background clutter’ below.

A special challenge is dappled lighting, such as you get under large trees.  Try to avoid shooting directly under trees and look for ‘open’ shade instead.  If you’re fortunate enough to have some assistance, which can come in the form of a member of the party not being photographed at the moment, they can hold a reflector to bounce some light onto the subject.

  • Bugs and creepy crawlies—Fact of life and you just might have to learn how to deal.  Either that or some sort of spray on bug repellent.  Or how about just incorporating the little critters into the shoot?

Outdoor Portraiture

Outdoor Portraiture

  • Other people—Often picking the early morning hours to shoot can help eliminate having to deal with lots of other people in public venues.  Early on a Sunday morning was a good time to be in this usually crowded subway station plaza, and we had the place completely to ourselves.

Outdoor Portraiture

Other times, you might just have to learn to adapt.  I have just taught myself not to care what others may think.  As long as you’re polite and focused on the task at hand, most people are merely curious.  If the photographer is relaxed and at ease, the subject is more likely to feel the same.

  • Noise—street noise can be a distraction in the city, sometimes making communication between subject and photographer difficult.  Easily enough solved…just step in closer to say what you need to say then carry on shooting.  Harness the energy of the city and just SPEAK UP!

Outdoor Portraiture

  • Background clutter—A pre-shoot scouting trip is helpful.  But the real weapon to deal with this issue is really fast prime lenses.  One of my favorite lens is the good old 50mm f/1.4 shot wide open.  This lens is fantastic for really focusing on eyes or blurring out backgrounds, not to mention letting in an amazing amount of light, even on a really dark day.

Outdoor Portraiture

  • Restrooms or lack thereof—Tricky.  Lots of public parks have them.  In town, there’s always coffee or sandwich shops (buy something, it’s only fair.)  Out in the country, well, that’s what bushes are for.  Hey, nobody’s watching.
  • Dragging equipment around—this is where I liberated myself by making two distinct decisions.
  1. No fill flash, only really fast prime lenses.
  2. No bulky camera bag.  Instead I use the Shootsac. This ultra bitchin’ accessory is something I SO wish I had thought of.  Photographer Jessica Claire and entrepreneur Keats Elliott created it and it is a MUST HAVE.  It is incredibly comfortable and cradles your lenses very securely.  It will save you money in the long run by protecting your lenses from scratches and dings during shoots.
  • Food and water, or lack thereof—Once again, public parks often have water fountains, coffee and sandwich shops certainly have beverages and you can always toss a few bottles of water and some peanut butter crackers in your car.  No biggie.  Oh, and while you’re in the coffee shop, you could go ahead and snag a window seat and use the local ambiance as a background.  Once again, that’s where those fast, prime lenses come in handy.

Outdoor Portraiture

Well, that about wraps up this little discussion on sweeping away the challenges for shooting in the great outdoors.

If you would like to read more, check out these articles:

Depth of Field – Photography Tutorial

Outdoor Photography – Photographing Families in Natural Light

Using Bold Color in Portraiture – Tips and Techniques

Wide Angle Lenses Are For Portraits Too – Tutorial

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