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How to Take Great Outdoor Portraits

written by: Ashley Hansen•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 4/13/2010

These outdoor portrait ideas will help you create memorable photos that have a more natural, relaxed feel than a formal studio photo. Use these tips for location, lighting and poses to create a great outdoor portrait.

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    Portrait Overview

    Whether you're shooting high school senior portraits, engagement photos, wedding photos of family portraits, an outdoor setting adds a level of interest that a studio portrait just doesn't offer. Outdoor portrait ideas help to connect your subject with the world rather than isolating them from it. The different backgrounds and scenery can add color and depth to the portrait while still creating a timeless photograph that can be cherished for years.

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    Location

    Bridge Photo Remember when taking portraits that these items are often displayed for years to come, so in most situations it's best to use a location that doesn't depict information as to what year the photo was taken. Just like when subjects choose to wear trendy clothing styles rather than timeless pieces, the portrait can quickly look outdated when using locations that offer information about what year it is. Instead, choose locations that are vague, like a grove of trees, a brick wall or a garden.

    In choosing a location, it's also important to remember that many outdoor portrait ideas should consider color. Fall foliage adds a lovely touch to most pictures, and a blue sky juxtaposed with green grass and colorful flowers adds a nice touch. Don't feel limited to nature, however; you can also take a portrait against a brick wall, on a bridge or sitting on the steps in front of a building. Each location can give off its own mood or vibe, which adds to the level of interest in the photo.

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    Lighting

    Believe it or not, most outdoor portrait ideas look best in shade or on an overcast day. Why? Because the lighting is more even and provides softer shadows on and around the subject. If possible, shoot your subject on a cloudy day or in a shaded area. Dusk can also be a nice time to shoot if you get the right light; the light is generally warmer and can produce splendid backgrounds. However, you'll want to do some test shots at the desired location beforehand - it may be too dark or too bright during that time depending on where your subject will be situated.

    If you are shooting on a sunny day, have your subject pose with their back to the sun. You'll need a fill flash to take the shadows away from their face, however. It can be tricky and require a few test shots. If you and your subject are patient enough to find the right flash position, you can also get a great shot in bright sunlight.

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    Poses

    Pose Your Subjects Correctly 

    Posing can be one of the most difficult parts about portraiture. For outdoor portraits, you'll want to make sure your subject is sitting in a comfortable spot. The steps of a building allow them to lean forward with their elbows on their knees or lean back on their hands. Both can be relaxed position if the subject is posed correctly. For standing, try having them lean against a tree, post or wall; the lean should be very gentle, but it adds a relaxed touch. If there's nothing to lean against, you can even try shooting them walking toward you.

    For close up shots, have the subject sit at a 45-degree angle to the camera. This makes their body appear slimmer and it also looks less tense and abrupt. Have them look toward the camera and offer a countdown to when you snap the photo. This way they can hold off on smiling until the right time, which tends to produce a more natural smile. Remind them to breathe out just before you take the photo - this also helps the subject look more relaxed.

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    Move Around

    Don't be afraid to try out many different outdoor portrait ideas. Have senior portrait subjects sit in the bleachers of the school's football field. Get a shot of the newly married couple on the step of the church. Take a photo of a family on the swings at the park. Outdoor portrait ideas offer a chance to challenge the idea of a traditional studio portrait and make it less formal and more personal. Get to know your subjects and try to have their outdoor portraits reflect their personality for a great shot.

    You might also be interested in reading Portrait Sitting Ideas for additional tips and tricks.