Struggling to capture great on-location portraits? You’re not alone.
Unlike studio portrait photography, photoshoots on location can be unpredictable and stressful. Even if you’re using a flash, you generally need to factor in the (often changing) ambient light; you also must pay attention to the weather, the background, potential distractions, and so much more.
Fortunately, it is possible to smooth out those photoshoots and capture beautiful images – you just need a little bit of know-how. Below, I share a handful of powerful techniques to net you some amazing portraits on location, so let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Talk to your subject before the session
Knowing what people want from a portrait – that is, understanding your subject’s expectations – is essential. Otherwise, you risk making a portrait that you like but that your subject hates.
So before the photoshoot, ask your subject to share the kind of clothes they’ll be wearing (formal or casual), their ideal feel and mood, and the places they plan to use the images. If you’re photographing a couple, ask if they’re touchy-feely. You want to know these things going into the session; otherwise, they’ll be thoroughly disappointed by your photos and/or will reach a point during the session when they start to look uncomfortable because you’ve asked them to do something that isn’t really them.
When conducting a recent on-location portrait photoshoot, I found out that one of my subjects liked certain churches around town, as well as gardens and a nearby volcano. Based on these interests, I scouted out a few locations ahead of time. That way, I knew that the clients would be satisfied!
2. Look for the light
Portrait photography, first and foremost, is about light. If you have weak light or bad light, it’s tough to make good photos.
What counts as good light when doing on-location portraits? I highly recommend shooting during the golden hour, when the sun is low in the sky (either right before sunset or right after sunset). In fact, most portrait photographers shoot at these times instead of picking a fight with midday overhead lighting.
In addition to offering warm, soft light, the golden hours are a great time to shoot stunning silhouettes. Simply position your subject in front of a bright portion of the sky, get down low, expose for the background, and shoot away!
So to make your life easier, if it’s an option, schedule your portrait sessions for golden hour. Find out the sunset time for your area, and start your session an hour or so before that.
3. Find a good background
In a portrait studio, you can simply rifle through your backdrops until you find the one you like – but if you’re doing portraits on location, you won’t have such an easy time. Instead, you’ll need to carefully choose a background based on the available options (and if you get it wrong, the consequences can be dire!).
So how do you choose a good background from a bad one? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Watch for bright spots and areas of high contrast behind your subjects; these elements will draw the viewer’s eye away from your main points of interest.
- Avoid bright colors in the background. You want the viewer’s eye to go straight to the subjects, not toward the background! In particular, watch out for bright flowers if you’re shooting in a garden.
- Make sure the background fits the subject. Ensure it offers the appropriate mood and helps flatter them or tell their story.
- Keep the background simple and blur it if possible. (Here, a wide aperture and a long lens make a big difference!) A busy, sharp background will draw attention. A soft, blurry background will complement the subject without overwhelming the viewer.
Of course, it’s possible to capture great photos that break one (or more) of the guidelines I share above – but generally speaking, if you follow my list of considerations, your backgrounds will turn out great.
4. Guide your subject in flattering poses
Posing portraits is one of the hardest things to learn, but it’s also one of the most important. When you’re working with an inexperienced subject, they’ll undoubtedly be nervous about having their photos taken, and that is often reflected in their body position. So it’s your job to get them to loosen up and help them look their best.
The most effective way to show people a pose is to do it for them, then ask them to repeat it. When I do portrait sessions, I’ll go stand in my subject’s spot, strike the pose I want them to do, then have them copy me. (Another option is to face them and ask them to mirror you.)
As you pose your subjects, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- If it bends, then bend it! Get your subject to shift their weight to the back leg and let the front leg bend naturally. Stiff-legged subjects look nervous.
- Make sure the hands have something to do. Get your subject to put a hand in a pocket, hook a thumb in a belt loop, or (if you’re working with a couple) hold hands.
- Use their natural body positions. If you see that your subject sits a certain way or puts a hand on their hip, ask them to recreate the pose. Often, I give loose posing directions at the beginning and see what my subject ends up with on their own, then I refine the pose if necessary. The more the subject recognizes themselves in the pose, the better!
- Cross legs at ankles, not knees. Most people normally cross their legs at the knees; unfortunately, this makes them look unnecessarily bulky. Instead, have your subject cross their legs at the ankles!
- Watch the height differences. If you’re dealing with a couple that has a large height difference, get the taller partner to sit and drape their arms around the shorter partner from the side. Alternatively, have the taller partner widen their stance, which serves to lower their total height. (It’s a neat little trick that really works!)
- Avoid cropping off people’s hands and feet. If you’re going to crop in, come closer and crop to the knees (or higher) and the elbows.
5. Communicate with your subjects while shooting
It’s a fact: People get nervous when having their portrait taken.
And the best way to help them relax? Talk to them. Just talk! Tell them what you’re doing, ask them how their day has been, and ask about their interests. Find some common ground while you fuss with your gear.
Novice photographers – who are also often nervous – tend to clam up. They go about setting up their camera, tripod, and lighting, and they forget they have real people waiting for directions. This leads to a stiff subject, and the silence is just awkward. Instead, build rapport with your subject and help them relax at the same time.
One tip: Every so often, show your subject some of the photos you’ve taken and tell them how great they’re doing. In my experience, if you tell someone that you think the session is going well, they’ll almost instantly relax and engage more deeply with the posing. They may even start participating and come up with photo ideas! Speaking of which:
6. Try out your subject’s ideas
Sometimes, your subject will throw out portrait ideas while you’re shooting on location. Other times, they’ll mention ideas in your initial discussions.
And while your subject probably isn’t a photographer, you shouldn’t discount these ideas right away. Listen carefully because the suggestions often have important meanings and may indicate your client’s tastes.
And even if you know that the ideas won’t work out, try to incorporate at least one or two into the portrait session. The point is to have some fun and let your client know they’re a crucial part of the process. Whether you ultimately process and share these photos is your decision, though I certainly encourage you to make the best of each idea (even if you’re not crazy about it in the beginning).
On-location portrait tips: final words
Being a portrait photographer involves acting as a lighting technician, a psychologist, and even a juggler. You have to take lots of different elements – posing, lighting, background, etc. – and make them work together. (All while talking with people!)
So remember the tips I’ve shared. Remember to engage with your subjects. And tackle your next on-location portrait photoshoot with confidence!
Where do you plan to do your next portrait session? Do you have any images you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!