It is a nice and fine day, bright sunshine, deep blue sky, fresh foliage, beautiful surroundings and you wonder how gorgeous your portraits would become outdoor. So you rush to the camera bag, grab it and reach the first potential model in the vicinity to arrange the shooting session. Good luck then!
If you have ever tried this, you are well aware that at that day the portraits were not even close to what you had expected. Burnt out highlights, dim faces, dark and squinted eyes, washed out colors, haze and so on. In fact those photos are among the worst of your portfolio!
To briefly address the root cause behind, I should point out just one characteristic of your beloved digital camera and that is the dynamic range its sensor can sense. This can be roughly defined as the range of tonalities the sensor can record from the darkest to the brightest and believe me it is far more limited than that of your highly developed eyes. So you see some very inspiring compositions outdoor but the sensor can just see a limited range of it and consequently the sky in the final photo will be washed out or the model’s face will be rendered absolutely lifeless and dark.
Experienced photographers have some solutions in their bag of tricks in order to tackle challenging situations like these, which I am going to briefly explain here.
- First and most important of all it is way better to shoot when it is slightly overcast out there instead of shooting under bright and direct overhead afternoon sunlight. The thin layer of clouds in front of the sun acts as the frontal scrim of a softbox and effectively turns the harsh sunlight into a smooth and wrapping soft light.
- It is strongly suggested to grab some reflectors and scrims when you are up to shooting some serious portraits outdoor. Reflectors as the name implies are surfaces which are highly to moderately light reflective and supplied by most photography stores in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. Even a simple piece of white cardboard or a white wall could be used effectively as a photographic reflector. Scrims are translucent sheets usually framed in fixed or foldable frames and are used to mimic the effect of the clouds in front of the sun. They actually soften the light hitting the model. It is important to note that usually (if not always) it is required to use an assistant to hold the reflectors or scrims in place. So be prepared!
- It is a good idea to place you model in a way that the sun light hits her back or side and use a reflector to bounce back some sunlight back into her frontal plane and adjust your camera settings for proper exposure of this frontal plane. This way you get very nice back or rim light and properly rendered facial and bodily features.
- It is also recommended to carry an accessory strobe when shooting outdoor portraits. This accessory unit should have output adjustment dial and better to be connected to the camera via wireless transmitter or at least synch cord. Having such unit at hand makes you able to provide fill light for the model even under a heavy overcast sky or extremely limited environmental light.
- Professional photographers refer to the few minutes after and before sunrise and sunset as golden hours. This is because of the extreme angle of the sun rays to the earth surface which makes the sky act as a huge softbox and provides warm and dramatic glow of golden light. So if you have the opportunity and of course the required dedication, arrange some outdoor portrait sessions during these golden hours and believe me you won’t regret it!
- If your model can’t help squinting under moderate sunlight, instruct her to close her eyes up until the exact moment of shutter release. This could be easily done by practicing a countdown routine.
It should be noted that the above tips are among the fundamental and basic ones in order to produce flattering and beautiful outdoor portraits. But as any form of artwork implies, the rules are meant to be broken. There are dozens of masterly crafted outdoor portraits which have been captured under direct sunlight or with extreme halos and washed out colors based on the primary inspirations and visions of the artist. So while practicing the above tricks it is really fun to sometimes break the rules and experiment new visions.