Improving Your Outdoor Portraiture

When I started shooting portraits I was using a Hasselblad 500cm medium format camera. There was no automation, it was manual focus, and you either had to be really good at guessing light or use a light meter — I opted for the light meter. Now with the advent of Digital SLR cameras, there is a lot of automation and unfortunately a temptation to let the camera do the work for you. However, if you really want to improve your photography you should still be working primarily in manual; with a possible exception for aperture and shutter priority. There are no quick tricks, and not much has changed over the years even with all this technology. There will never be anything that replaces proper exposure, white balance, and tack sharp focus.

Speaking of focus, you should always focus on the eyes. If you look at any good portrait photographers gallery take a look at the eyes. This is your focal point and should be the sharpest element in your photograph. You should also be using a large aperture (small f/number) to keep the focus on the subject. Depending on how much you want to blur the background, you should set to at least f/5.6. If you want a lot of bokeh, set your lens to the widest aperture available generally. Most kit lenses will not go faster than about f/3.5 so you will need to upgrade your lens. Nikon has a pretty good 50mm f/1.8 that is affordable.

While on the subject of focus, never ever select any focus point other than one. I know it is tempting to use all the fancy features available with modern AF systems. However, what it is doing is either trying to pick the closest point and focus on that or averaging the points and selecting that distance. Neither of these give you what you need, and that is complete control of your focus.

The next thing you need to think about is focal length. A general rule is never shoot below 50mm and really, the longer the focal length the better. Also, the longer the focal length the more the background blur which helps keep the focus on your subject. If you have ever seen a fashion photographer you will notice them standing farther back than you would think. This is because they are most likely using either a 120mm or 200mm lens.

After you have that down, you should be focusing on the light. In photography, the light is the most important element. If you can, always shoot in the shade! Direct sunlight is a very harsh light, which also means harsh shadows. When I first started in photography my boss told me a blanket of clouds is natures softbox. However, if you are going for an artistic effect try and control it the best you can; reflectors come in handy here. I also avoid keeping the sun behind the subject unless you are going for a silhouette. Don’t get me started on the new trend of putting the sun directly behind. If you like that, go for it but I have no tip’s for you there. In my mind, I don’t like seeing blown highlights in a photograph.

Lastly, you need to have proper white balance. Luckily if you are shooting in RAW (which you should be) you can adjust this in post processing if you need to. Overcast days can be tricky because your eyes will automatically adjust to the change. However, your camera isn’t as smart as the manufacturers will lead you to believe. You can get a gray card for under $10 that will ensure you get the proper white balance using the custom white balance feature. If you are not familiar with how white balance works and why you would use gray to get white, it’s actually pretty simple. All camera manufactures calibrate using 18% gray; which means they will turn white to gray if you do not have the white balance set properly.

Bonus: On a cloudy day, be aware of your heading! By that I mean, know which direction the sun is coming from. Even on a cloudy day the sun is directional, just a bit (or a lot) diffused.

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