Outdoor Portrait Photography Settings (Tips For Better Results)

To be a successful portrait photographer, you need a good understanding of the different settings and terms that are used for your gear. This blog post will go through a few basic terms to get you acquainted with the language, as well as provide some optimized photography setting tips for portrait photography.

Outdoor Portrait Photography Camera Setting Tips

portrait of woman on her wedding day

Aperture

There are a few basic constants when setting up your camera for outdoor portraits. The first is the ‘aperture’. Aperture, lets you adjust the amount of light allowed to hit your sensor, which in turn will influence the overall density of light on your subject. The higher the f-stop number, the greater the amount of light is allowed through your lens. There are 4 standard aperture settings: 2.8, 4, 5.6 and 8 (as well as 1 and 10). These aperture numbers refer to the length of the lens in millimeters.

What aperture to use for outdoor portrait photography is largely determined by the subject of the shot. Many times you may want a natural look, where the aperture should give you a nice depth of field (the distance at which all parts of your image will be in focus). The greater the size of your aperture, the less depth of field, and the more sharpness you’ll achieve. For portrait photography of subjects in the distance such as landscape shots, you’ll want a high aperture number for more depth of field.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed can be defined as the amount of time that your sensor is exposed to light before it is closed. Shutter speeds are also measured in fractions of seconds (for example, there are 30 different shutter speeds on my camera ranging from 8-1/4000). The higher the shutter speed, the greater amount of light is allowed to come in.

For outdoor portraits, you’ll typically want to keep the shutter speed low so that the light is allowed to be more natural. The lower the shutter speed, the more movement will occur within your scene (the smaller your aperture). Therefore, it is important to experiment with different shutter speeds until you get a shot that fits your vision.

ISO

The ISO is a setting that controls how sensitive your camera’s sensor will be to light. The higher the ISO, the larger your shutter speed will have to be in order to stop your sensor from ‘hunting’ for light. For outdoor portraits, If you’re shooting in a well-lit area, the best option is to keep your ISO setting low. If you set your ISO at 100, or as low as possible, you’ll end up with higher quality photos with less noise. In darker areas, you’ll want to boost your ISO up in order to get a shutter speed that is in line with your aperture and light needs.

White Balance

The white balance controls the temperature of your scene, meaning that it changes the way that colors are portrayed in the image. You can adjust this setting by selecting one of three options: Auto, Daylight and Cloudy (you may have different options on your camera).

When shooting outdoor subjects, you want to make sure that the white balance is set to ‘Auto’ and then manually adjust your white balance later in post processing (after you’ve taken your shot).

Focal Length and Zoom

If you’re using a zoom lens, you are probably interested in finding the best focal length and zoom position for outdoor portrait photography. Two things to keep in mind when choosing a focal length or zoom position: 1. The greater the amount of magnification, the more movement your subject will exhibit. 2. The greater the zoom position, the more of an effect it will have on your scene (at a minimum, you will need to consider a wider aperture and higher ISO).

When shooting a portrait session outside in bright light (when your lens comes in close to your subject), you’ll want to start with a wide focal length lens (or crop the frame and zoom in). The longer the focal length, the more depth of field you will have. Many times I will use a 20mm focal length for outdoor portraits.

When shooting at medium distances, or when there is some foreground compositions happening (such as a waterfall), you may want to increase your zoom. This way, you can get much closer to your subject without changing the background. You’ll also want to consider shooting with a lower aperture (higher f-stop number) so that your subject is in focus.

When shooting outdoor portraits, you may want to zoom all the way in if you have a nice background going on (such as a canyon). This will allow you to show more of the scene around your subject. If you get really close, the background will start to blur and come together, making for an overall better composition.

Common Questions About Outdoor Portrait Photography

portrait of woman at the beach

How do I get my subject to like my photo?

The key to making your subject like your outdoor portrait photos is to make them feel comfortable and relaxed. You can do this by simply telling them that ‘this is for me, not for you’. Tell them that you are shooting pictures of the background scenery, and if they move a bit they’ll have a really nice shot. This will help them relax when you shoot, and more importantly it will help avoid unwanted or awkward facial expressions.

How do I take the perfect outdoor portrait?

Well, it depends. Unless you are shooting a large crowd that is in motion (such as a wedding), you’ll have the ability to get closer to your subject without being too close. In these cases, you may want to consider using a wide aperture (lower f-stop number) and setting your ISO higher so that your shutter speed is in line with your aperture. This technique is done by using a lens that’s also called a soft-focus lens. It blurs the background and keeps your face close to the camera.

How do I take a picture of a person in front of a nice scenic background?

If you are looking to take an outdoor portrait using a nice scene as your background, one of the first things to consider is whether or not you are going to incorporate the foreground into the shot. If so, then plan on using a wide aperture to ensure that your subject is in focus and use a longer focal length (or crop the image in post processing). Otherwise, you’ll be left with a nice landscape picture.

How do I take a nice outdoor portrait with a nice sky?

If your subject is standing on the side of a hill, then you’ll have to find a way to incorporate them into the shot. This can be done by finding another angle of their body that faces directly into the sky (such as their head). This will help make them feel comfortable and like they are part of the setting.

Conclusion

As with most things in photography, outdoor portrait photography is all about capturing the right moment. So, if you are unsure about your subject’s facial expressions or the lighting situation, then take a test shot to see how everything plays out before you make it official. The best outdoor portrait photography is when you are able to get all elements to work together!