Better Outdoor Portraits

We are now in full summer mode in Yukon, a great time to get out there and make some fantastic portraits.

There are some things to consider when creating your images to ensure the final result is something both you and your subject will be happy with.

First and foremost is the lighting. Those dark sunken eyes and pale, washed out skin are better off on zombies than showing up in your family portrait.

Arrange portrait subjects so they are not looking directly into the sun, to avoid discomfort and other problems.

In most cases it is worth your while to look for shaded areas. Avoid direct sunlight as it is harsh and causes squinting and unflattering shadows.

Shade ensures that severe shadows are gone and only gentle, flattering, contouring remains.

Look for areas where you can engulf your subject entirely in the shade and use custom white balance to ensure correct colour.

Overcast days are wonderful for portraits. The overhead layer of clouds helps with creating pleasant shadowing and adds depth to your colours.

If shade is not possible, try placing your subject with the sun at their back; then expose for the shaded part of their face. While this may wash out the background somewhat, it can be quite flattering.

Always have a reflector of some kind with you. You can get these commercially quite inexpensively, but even a piece of white foamcore, judicially placed, will fill in unwanted shadows.

If your model is close enough, you can use your flash to fill in those areas.

As always, ensure you have the correct colour balance and exposure, and that your focus is sharp.

Autofocus options often will choose the closest object to the camera or will try to reach a happy medium when averaging the distance between objects within the frame.

In portrait photography, always focus on the eyes – they are the window to the soul of your subject.

To make your subjects the feature of the image, move in close. I usually use manual focus to ensure the attention is directed where I want it to be.

Separate the subject of the portrait from everything else by using a shallow depth of field. That means opening your aperture as wide, or as close to as wide, as possible.

Do not use a lens of less than 50mm for portraiture unless you are after a specific kind of look. They simply are not flattering, as they cause distortion.

Shorter focal lengths can make your subject appear as if they have a swelled head.

I regularly use a 70mm f/2.8 lens for portraiture in order to create a great bokeh (blur effect) that separates your subject from the background.

As well, be judicious in choosing your backgrounds.

A background that is too busy will detract from the object of your attention as will one of garish colours.

The background should also fit the subject. For example, soft colours work well with some subjects’ complexions and features but may not be well suited for others.

Many things work well for backgrounds – flowers, waterfront, the side of an old building, or even the sky.

Remember to avoid placing the subject in the centre of the frame. Use the “rule of thirds” to move them slightly to one side or the other.

When you are photographing children or pets, get to their level so they appear “right-sized” as well as for their comfort while being photographed.

After you have made the portraits according to the rules to ensure satisfactory results, relax and play around a bit.

Move around your subject. Get low and shoot upwards, using the sky for a background. Get elevated above their level and shoot down.

So, out you go. Take your family and friends with you and capture all those wonderful portraits you are capable of.

Back them up so you don’t lose them. Above all else, enjoy them.

Email questions to [email protected] or post them after the column at

Happy shooting and remember to leave the environment as you found it.

Norm Hamilton is a freelance writer and photographer in Whitehorse.

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