Learning how to get stunning portrait shots outdoors was one of my hardest challenges in the past few years. Images with a human element are the most powerful images one can create – but it takes time and experience to get them. In contrast to most of the other categories of photography the category with a human element requires one important skill: The skill to communicate and lead people.

Through my experiences as adventure and portrait photographer I’ve learned one important thing: Taking photos with a human element is 10% about the technical knowledge and 90% about the psychological skills. Sounds crazy, right?

But here’s the thing, even if you know how to set up your camera and how to shoot perfect focused images, your model is the one you should focus on. If your model is uncomfortable/freezing/shy/sad/unsatisfied/andsoon your photo will miss something. There again, if you are able to communicate and lead your model you you will see fast results.

Location: Tübingen, Germany; Model: Isabelle Heyer; The Rainbows Project

Throughout this small guide I am going to give you some technical advice that is important to get a perfect image. But first I am going to teach you something far more important: communication and leading skills for photographers. Lets go!

1. Work with the model

Your model is priority number 1! Again, your model is priority number 1! Your model is the difference between an okay photo and a stunning photo. Her emotions and her mood are the difference, they are responsible for any image you’re going to take (I’m referring to female models now as most of the shoots I’m doing are with female models, but it’s the same for male models).

So your priority number 1 is that one: Give your model a warm and good atmosphere. Your model should feel comfortable and save, happy and sunshiny. Talk with her during the photoshoot, ask questions about her life, her family, her hobbies.

Do never take life too serious. Credits: Viktor Serbin

Sometimes I need some time to set up the camera and check the light. Guess what I’m doing? Asking some questions before so that the model can think and talk about something while I’m setting up the camera.

Consider one thing: Your model (almost every model) will also have a lot of pressure at the beginning. You probably can’t see it, but most of the models set themselves under lot’s of pressure to do the posing right and look good. Now, imagine you’re checking the settings and the image is ways to dark. What are you probably doing? Making an angry or dissatisfied face. There is no problem with that besides that your model might think you’re doing the angry and dissatisfied face because of her posing. Got the point?

What can I do to calm down the pressure at the beginning? First of all a photoshoot are about having fun. Get yourself in the happy mood, your model will do the same. Get some sound speaker with you and play your models favourite music. Give compliments to your model, it will make her comfortable and it will raise her self esteem during the shoot.

How does a usual photoshoot looks like in the beginning? It is important that your model can choose her clothes at the beginning. Tell her that she should bring some additional clothes where she is feeling comfortable in, like really comfortable. It is the best way to calm down the pressure at the beginning when she can focus on her posing without thinking about her clothing.

Last point about the model and how to work with your model. There is one unwritten rule in terms of model photography: Never touch your model. Work with your model as priority number one, but never touch her.

The unwritten rule in terms of model photography: Never touch your model.

2. Posing

There we are, the point everyone is afraid of. Posing is probably the biggest challenge for any portrait photographer. What to do with your arms, where to look, what about the hair, which clothing? You know what – grab some friends and try things out.

One step that will help you a lot: Change roles! Yes, EVERY photographer should at least be once in his life in front of the camera. Put yourself in the same positions as your models are and learn how complicated it is 😉

Posing is one of the things you’re going to learn on the road as a photographer. For sure there are some model posing guides out there but you should learn it on the road. Try lot’s of things out at the beginning. The more you try the more you’re going to learn.

It is also smart to start with some models at the beginning who do have some experiences. They know how to do the posing so that you can focus on other stuff. Don’t be shy to ask models or friends for photoshoots. Here again, the more you ask the more you’re going to improve 🙂

Location: Black Forest, Germany; Model: Mandy Schiemann

3. Choose your location wisely

Basically you can shoot outdoor portraits everywhere. It can be a beach, a forest, waterfall, lake, field – it can be everywhere. Just consider what kind of images your looking for and the go for it.

Another thing to consider when it comes to a location for an outdoor photoshoot is the crowd-factor. Some models are having problems to calm down when there are lot’s of people around, so check your location if it is crowded. Pro-Tip: Early morning photoshoots are the best as there are no people around 😉

On of the most famous locations on earth: The Heremitage, St. Petersburg, Russia. This place is usually really crowded and full of tourists, but we did our photoshoots in the early morning hours. Model: Julia Tochilina

4. Break rules

In the following points I’m going to introduce you some important outdoor portrait rules. But aren’t all rules made to be broken? Yes, they are made to be broken, so don’t follow them 😉

You probably heard about the rule of thirds before. It’s a crucial rule in photography – but I’ve never used it on purpose. Follow your feelings instead of these rules, your feelings will tell you more about the foreground, the focal point, the lines and the composition than any rules. Don’t get your creativity distracted by rules, get your rules distracted by creativity.

Rule of Third? Never heard of it. Location: Black Forest, Germany; Model: Birgit Eberl

5. Always focus on the eyes

Focusing the eyes is what make a good portrait. The eyes are the windows to the soul – your viewer can directly connect emotionally with your image if he can see the eyes. That’s why the ideal focal point for most of the portraits are the eyes.

This is some rule I’m indeed following (mostly). Sometimes it is fun to play around with the focus, but most of the times I’m focusing the eyes. Choosing a wide aperture (f1.4, f1.8, f2.8 up to f3.5) for your portraits will help you to soften your models skin but it will also blurry out the background – an excellent way to create some amazing images!

Focussing the eyes will give you a more emotional image. Location: Jyväskylä, Finland. Model: Emma Liimatainen

6. Choose only one focus point (and choose it wisely)

This point changed it all for me – the focal point. Per default the camera was set up with the normal autofocus settings, and it totally destroyed most of the images. This feature of the camera usually picks what ever looks interesting to your camera (or what’s closest to your camera). With this settings the photographer is giving away his control, it’s the cameras decision what’s focused. You can imagine the result.

Luckily there is the option to only choose one focal point. Not three or nine, choose the option with one focal point. It gives you the control to set the focus straight to your models eyes.

In case you’re considering a new camera check out this blog about the Nikon D750. This camera got a new feature for portrait photographers – the camera is having an eye detector to automatically set the focus straight to the eyes (still I’m only shooting with one focal point).

Choosing your cameras focus point will push your photography level immediately. Location: Lake ‘Grüner See’, Austria; Model: Petra Kohlmannhuber

7. Reflectors

Luckily there is no need to take flashlights and studio equipment with you when you’re shooting outdoors. Having a small reflector is all enough to transform light. A reflector will help you to bounce the light back onto your model’s face. It will give here a beautiful glow and it will help you to enlighten her from the background.

Using a reflector can really make a difference in your images. In the image below I’ve used a golden reflector to enlighten her face. Without the reflector her face was really dark without any contrast 🙂

In case you’re considering a reflector: They are available in a range of different colours; white is a great color for harsh lighting conditions, golden is ideal if you want to get a warm and golden atmosphere. There are some reflectors where you can change sides and colours, they are great for outdoor photographers as you only need to carry one reflector around.

Using a reflector can help you in lot’s of situations. Location: Black Forest, Germany; Model: Johanna Pfau

8. Shoot with a wide open aperture for a narrow depth of field

Do you know these crazy portrait shots where the model is perfectly focused bit the background is totally blurred out? Do you want to know how to take them? Important at this point is some knowledge about your aperture and the depth of field.

The more your lens is opened – the wider your aperture – the smaller the f-numbers – the narrower your depth of field. Shortly said, if you’re shooting with f1.4, f1,8, f2.8 or f3.5 you will get these blurred out shots as you’re depth of field will be pretty narrow.

If your lens can do f1.8, do it. If your lens ca do f2.8, do it. The wider the aperture the more stunning the image as you will get a wonderful smooth background 🙂

Location: Black Forest, Germany; Model: Xenia Gauss

9. Work with natural light and avoid direct sunlight

When talking with experienced photographers about their key experience they refer to one specific moment – the moment when they started to understand the light. At the beginning of my photography journey I avoided to topic light for a long time. Please don’t do the same mistake, start experiencing light from the beginning.

The word “photography” says it all. The origin language is greek: Photos means light, graphe means drawing. Photography is basically just playing and drawing with light – light is everything for us as photographers. It is important to know your cameras settings, but that knowledge is useless without knowing how to hunt and get the light.

 Light can basically make or break your photos. Light is the difference between a boring shot and a stunning image. The good thing about natural light: it is changing all the time (it is a good thing because it’s challenging you each time).

There are three main situations with natural light: The sun is out, the sun is partly out and the sun is hidden:

Full Sun: Direct sunlight is pretty harsh and creates hard directional shadows around your model. It is a though challenge to shoot in full sun. One can create stunning image with sun light (especially with backlight when shooting against the sun) but you really need to know what you are doing. For myself I am avoiding direct sun light whenever possible by shooting in the early morning hours, in the evening hours or during cloudy days.

Shade/Partial Sun: Shade is perfect! Don’t believe me? Shade is always a great lighting condition for outdoor portraits since the clouds act as a diffuser. The create a really soft lighting. On the other side shades can make a image flat and boring. A reflector will help you at this point to create your own light.

No sun: What is the best softbox that you can have? Giant clouds! Don’t worry about no sun conditions, they are the best! You are in full control of the light, you can do whatever you want to do with the light. Try placing your model towards the expected sun direction and her face will shine. Try moving your model around and you will see lot’s of small light changes. Take them to your advantage! 🙂

Playing with light is what makes photography interesting. Model: Juli Wa

10. Choose your lens wisely

The smaller your focal length the more distortion, it’s easy like that. Shooting portrait with a 14mm lens will not work that good as your models head will look swelled and rounded. But what’s perfect for portraits?

An amazing lens for portraits is the 50mm f1.8. Both Nikon and Canon are offering that one for less than 200$. The longer the focal length the better for portrait is the general rule, but having a 50mm or a 75mm lens for portrait works well already.

Location: Allerheiligen, Germany; Model: Stefanie Horn

11. Shoot RAW

Are you shooting in JPG or are you shooting RAW. If you’re shooting RAW already – congrats. If not, think about it. The RAW format will save an unmodified compilation of your sensors data, which is perfect for post processing. With the JPG format you’re limited when it comes to the post processing as your image will lack some important file informations.

RAW allows you to do much more post editing. You can change your white balance easily, there’s no need to think about the white balance while your photoshoot. You can also change lot’s of light settings and many more things. Your retouching skills will thank you for shooting RAW, your photos will get a boost of quality immediately! 🙂

Location: Black Forest, Germany; Model: Johanna Pfau.

Final Words

Shooting an outdoor portrait session is about having a good time. There is no need to put too much pressure at the beginning, just try some things out. The most important thing about outdoor portrait photography is practicing. Practice as much as possible, ask your friends and colleagues for modelling and you will get fast results.

Let me know your progress and your thoughts about outdoor portraits in the comments! 🙂

Happy Practicing!


One thought on “11 Pro-Tips for Improving Your Outdoor Portraits”

  1. This was very well written, easy to understand for a beginner like myself, helpful and made me feel a little more at ease regarding upcoming shoot. Thank you

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.