If you're brand new to portrait photography, you quickly discover that light is a significant component to getting a great picture. Most beginners feel more comfortable starting with natural light. Because the sun is so powerful, it helps you get the required exposure without introducing lighting equipment.
But what if the sun is too bright? Or it's an overcast day? Or the sun is setting, and it looks as though you'll be a night-time photography expert much sooner than anticipated?
Best Camera Setting for Outdoor Portraits:
- Open up your aperture to anything below an f/4 to blur out the background
- Use a variable ND (neutral density) filter on your lens so the photo is not washed out
- Use the lowest ISO setting possible, preferably ISO 100
- Choose a shutter speed between 200-500
- Shoot in RAW settings
- Select Auto White Balance (you can adjust it later in post)
While the sun gives you a leg-up lighting-wise, it also introduces the volatility of nature. It can end up being a challenging education in its own right — one that might make you start hunting for a studio space and investing in a couple of speedlights.
The first thing to understand is that not all outdoor photography is the same. Your subject is still going to dictate certain principles, and you'll have to adjust. Are you attempting an outdoor portrait during the magic hour? Or are you shooting early in the morning? Each one of these will need its unique camera settings to capture the moment perfectly.
Let's start with some settings that will serve you well, generally speaking.
- Aperture — The size of the iris within the lens and how much light you're allowing to pass through.
If you need to combat a low-light situation, you can open up your aperture (also known as f-stop) to anything below an f/4. However, this will only be effective for a subject, like an individual or inanimate object, due to the shallower depth-of-field a lower f-stop creates. If you need to focus more or take a group shot of friends or family, an f-stop closer to f/11 is better. Closing down your aperture is one way to adjust the exposure during an overly bright day, as well.
- Shutter Speed — The amount of time your shutter remains open, exposing the camera sensor to light.
Depending on the brightness or dimness of your environment, you can speed up or slow down your shutter. The faster the shutter is set to, the darker your image will be. This is because you've allowed less time for light to reach the sensor. If the shutter speed is slow, your exposure will become brighter. It would be best to balance this with the action of your shot, as a slower shutter will blur the movement.
- ISO — How much electronic light you're allowing your camera to add to a shot.
As a general rule, the lower ISO, the better. ISO will keep the integrity of your camera's quality. But if you're at the mercy of natural light, you'll have to bump up your ISO on occasion. Each camera is different and will perform better or worse at higher ISOs according to the factory rating. If you're in a dark situation, it's best to try and get your exposure balanced via Shutter Speed and Aperture. Only as a last resort should you go for the ISO dial.
Once you're at ease with these fundamentals (also known as the 'Exposure Triangle'), you can feel free to incorporate lighting equipment into your outdoor portrait photography. When the sun is fully down, the camera is often incapable — on its own — of capturing the proper exposure. In this situation, add light.
It becomes a bit more fun when you allow the sun and lighting equipment to work together. An example of this would be a portrait where the sun is in the subject's background. This technique will create a beautiful and fiery outline behind the person, but to get detail, you'll have to adjust the camera to the sun's brightness, thus dimming the person's face. At this point, throw a bit of artificial light on the subject to balance the exposure, get back the detail on the face and create a visually striking portrait.
Use a Tripod
Other essential outdoor photography equipment includes a sturdy tripod. A tripod will help you avoid shaking/blurring, especially if you plan to do longer exposures with slower shutter speeds—a shutter release remote, which allows you not physically to touch the camera during said long exposures. Most cameras now interface with an application on your smartphone which comes with a remote function.
Edit Your Photos
And now that you've got some great photos in the field import them to editing software, such as Adobe Lightroom, and edit them to lessen or embolden details that were either washed out by the sun or flattened from the power of its natural light.
In this software, you'll be able to adjust overall exposure, highlights & shadows and dive deep into color adjustment.
No matter how experienced you become, you will always find reasons to head outdoors and bring your camera with you.