The only 3 outdoor portrait photography Lighting Tips
You'll Ever Need

Outdoor portrait photography lighting can be very tricky, but it doesn't have to be. Just keep it simple! Use this simple 3 step method and your outdoor portrait will look like a pro shot them. Here are the 3 simple tips you can use to get great lighting with your outdoor portraits. 

Outdoor family pose
  1. Find an area of open shade for your subject to avoid harsh shadows and squinting eyes.
  2. Look for a shaded background that doesn't compete with the brightness of your subject.
  3. Shoot at an angle to give yourself a pleasing background that doesn't distract the viewer.

I know what you're asking now. Bruce, that's it? That's the secret method to great outdoor portrait lighting? Well, I'll tell you it can be. Let's examine these basic lighting ideas a little closer.

1. Shade Your Subjects

Avoid direct sunlight if possible. There are several good reasons for this. Your subjects won't have distracting shadows running across their faces. Additionally, your subjects won't be squinting from the brightness of the sun. The eyes are the windows to the soul and are the single most important element in a portrait.

Outdoor portrait of 3 in the shadeThe day was bright and sunny
I found a small shaded spot in the yard for better portrait lighting

The exception to this rule is that if the sun is diffused and not too bright, you can pose your subjects with the sun hitting your subject from an angle in the front.

2. Look For Darker Backgrounds

Bright backgrounds are distracting and take the viewers attention away from the subject. Secondly, if the background is shaded or darker, it visually recedes and your subjects come forward in your photograph.

Outdoor portrait with dark backgroundAlthough not a very exciting background, it was all that I could find
and it in the shade and not distracting

In the outdoor portrait above, I had very few shady spots in the back yard to choose from. I chose a specific spot to avoid the harsh sunlight and with a dark background.

3. Add Light To Your Subjects

Depending on the direction of the light, your subjects' faces may still be a little dark in the shade with the natural light that exists.

Just look for a better direction to shoot or add a little fill light with a large reflector or use a small amount of fill flash.

  1. Change your shooting direction.
  2. Use some fill flash.
  3. Use a large reflecting panel.

In the family portrait at the beginning of this article, I placed my subjects in the shade with just a small amount of direct sunlight filtering through the trees. I adjusted the stools they were sitting on so that there wouldn't be any distracting sun streaks hitting any of their faces.

This was a little tricky because the wind was blowing and causing those small patches of sunlight to move around on my subjects. I had to time my photos accordingly. Using a tripod is a must so that you can keep an eye directly on your subject and have your camera in a locked position. 

strong frontal sunlight portraitHarsh Lighting

In this photo to the left, you can see that the bright sun behind my subjects, striking the subjects' faces from the side. creates shadowed faces. The strong side lighting and the bright sky in the background fools the camera's light meter. 

When it's this bright you need a fill flash. It would be better to find a spot in the shade where the light is not so harsh, find a better angle, or shoot at a time when the light is better.

editing outdoor portrait photography

We can use editing software to overcome lighting challenges, but it's better to get it right by using good photography lighting techniques to begin with.

Photo editing takes time and knowledge and often does not come out as well as doing it right when taking your photos. Generally, you'll need to brighten the shadow areas of the faces without overexposing the rest of the photo.

Outdoor senior portrait

In this high school senior portrait I found a shaded spot for my model with a shaded area for the background.

I also look at the colors when choosing my background because bright colors can often be distracting.

This girl's brown shirt was in the same color family as the brown fence behind her.

Her well illuminated face and blond hair really stand out against the background and make a beautiful outdoor portrait.

Notice how I posed her with her body facing to the right and her head turned back slightly to the camera's left.

If you would like some more portrait posing tips, there are several more on this web site.

Outdoor senior portraitShaded Subject and background

This third example of outdoor portrait photography was taken late in the day when the shade was provided because the sun was low in the sky behind the trees.

If you can't tell by now, I am a big fan of using open shade for photography lighting. Direct sunshine hitting the front or side of your subject can cause squinted eyes and harsh shadows.

Find an angle so that the background is not distracting. I used a wide open camera aperture in this photo to make sure the background would be out of focus.

During the consultation with the client before our portrait session, we first talked about the location. We discussed the posing, and what kind of clothing would give us the best outdoor portrait photography.

Here is an interesting video on natural outdoor portrait lighting.

The photographer uses no reflectors and no fill flash. He is finding locations that have open sky and reflections from buildings and other objects. This is outdoor portrait photography with only the camera and the subject. Simplicity at its finest!

The urban setting is quite different than my nature-based samples above and give quite a different feel but the lighting principles are very similar.

Strong overhead lightingStrong overhead lighting

If the light is mostly coming from high above your subject, you will get shadowing in the eyes. If it real strong overhead light, the effect is called "raccoon eyes."

It is a common photo mistake that is easy to make with outdoor photography.

Don't get me wrong. This is a really cute baby photo. It would be an even better portrait if the light was coming from in front of the subject.

The eyes of your subject act like little mirrors of the light and are the single most important element in head and shoulder portraits and head shots.

Please take advantage of the many other digital photography tips I've written about. Enjoy the art of photography as you progress with your abilities to take better pictures.

Keep shooting. Stay inspired!

Article published by Bruce Lovelace


Bruce is the publisher of this website. He is the author of the book "Improve Your Photography Instantly."  Read more on Bruce on his Bio Page. He's been known as The Traveling Photographer ever since 1994. Read more about this website.

View some of Bruce's photos on Instagram.   Visit the Facebook Page. Watch him on YouTube.  Bruce runs photo workshops for kids and adults, and provides one-on-one photography coaching.

Digital Photography Education Location on Google My Business

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