How to take outdoor portraits like a pro with this easy tips - image of girls hugging

Portrait photography may seem daunting, but it really is just a few simple steps to get the best portraits.  Outdoor portraits are actually the easiest because of all the natural light!  First I am going to give you the tips on taking great portraits, and then I will list the equipment needed.

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Basics of Portrait Photography

Location, Location!!!  Choose a place that has a background to your liking.  Are you outdoorsy, choose a park. Are you trendy, choose a famous wall in the city?  Are you someone who likes sleek lines, choose a railroad track (make sure it is not operational, this can get dangerous) or a long straight road.  Whatever location you choose, make sure that you like it, it’s not too crowded (who wants other people in their portraits), and there isn’t too much going on in the background to take the focus away from the subject.  If you need ideas for locations in Northern Virginia, check out my post about 6 great spots for portraits.  

Weather:  So most people think choosing a bright sunny day is the best day for portraits.  This is absolutely false unless your subject is going to be wearing sunglasses in the picture or the squinting look is what you are after.  The optimal weather is an overcast day. I promise your pictures will come out just as bright (with the right camera settings) as a sunny day.  If you do have a full sun day try to seek out the open shade so that there are no harsh shadows on your subjects. 

Camera settings:  So here is where it gets good.  I am going to give you the basic settings for an outdoor session.  These are not full manual mode settings but gets you halfway there. You will use one of two modes depending on the style portrait you would like.  

Blurry background subject popping photos:  

If you want that blurred background, subject popping portraits you will want to set your camera to the Aperture setting (AV on Canon, A on Nikon).  Then use these settings:

  1. F-stop – lowest value your camera will allow (more on this in the equipment section)
  2. ISO – Bright day – 200, Overcast day 400 – After choosing the ISO meter on your subject to make sure the shutter speed stays above 1/300 for tack sharp photos. If it doesn’t, raise the ISO until the shutter speed stays above 1/300.
  3. White balance – Daylight or Cloudy depending on your conditions

The camera will automatically choose the shutter speed for you to get the best exposure.  Read below about a lens that can get you the best blurry backgrounds.  The picture below illustrates portraits taken in aperture mode.

Action-Portraits such as jumping photos:  

If you want action photos where your subjects are really in motion you will want to set your camera to the Shutter Speed setting (TV on Canon, S on Nikon).  Then use these settings:

  1. Shutter Speed:  chose a fast speed meaning faster than 1/250
  2. ISO – Bright day – 200, Overcast day 400
  3. White balance – Daylight or Cloudy depending on your conditions

The camera will automatically choose the aperture to get the best exposure.  The picture below shows a portrait in time value mode.

Outdoor time value photography

I have created a cheat sheet below for the settings above, just click on the image to download a pdf of the cheat sheet to print and put in your camera bag.  I want to make it easy for you to get the best photos! Read on to see my list of recommended equipment to help you get the best photos. 

If you would really like to dive deep and learn how to use your camera like a pro, I have created a free 5 day email course to help you do just that.  The Free 5 Day Email Beginner DSLR Course will get you on your way to creating the photos that you want.  Best part is, it’s free!!!

Equipment Needed:

  1. DSLR Camera:  This is really essential to a great portrait.  Phone cameras have come along way but to get those great portraits with the popping subject you really do need to invest in a quality DSLR camera.  I chose to go with Canon, only because when I was asking my friends, that was what they use. Nikon is easily as good. Below are links to a great starter Canon and Nikon.
  2. Tripod:  Using a tripod will take any shaking out of your pictures, this can be crucial when you are dealing with moving subjects.  It doesn’t have to be an expensive one either (unless of course, you plan to move into micro photography). I have included links below to both an inexpensive tripod and one for more advanced photography.
  3. Fixed or Low Aperture Lens:  So this one is a big deal. My portraits were well good but not great while using the standard lens that comes with the camera.  The f-stop on the stock lens only goes down to 3.5 (in perfect conditions). So I invested in a 50mm fixed lens for my Canon. This lowered my available aperture to 1.8, which made a huge difference in my portrait photography.  The caveat with a fixed lens is that there is no zoom capability on the camera, moving your body is the way you change your field of view. There are links to the Canon lens and Nikon lens below. I have also included some quick portraits of my puppy to show you the difference it makes in your photography.  The photo on the left is with the standard kit lens and the photo on the right is with a fixed, low aperture lens.  You can tell the difference between the backgrounds of the two photos.
camera lens comparison

That’s all there is to it!  Use these tips and tools and you too can take great portraits of your family!

Free DSLR and Mirrorless Settings Cheat Sheets and more!


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