If you’re looking to break into fashion photography, outdoor photoshoots are a great starting point. After all, they don’t require studio space or fancy (and expensive) lighting, plus you can spice up your compositions with all sorts of interesting architectural and natural elements.
But while outdoor fashion photography can look amazing, it can be pretty difficult to get right, especially if you have no prior portraiture experience. Even if you have a great model and an expensive setup, you’ll probably struggle to get pro-level results – unless you know the right techniques.
I’m a veteran fashion photographer, and in this article, I share a few key tips and tricks that’ll make a huge difference in your fashion photoshoots. That way, the next time you head out with a camera and a model, you’ll be ready to capture some outstanding images.
Let’s dive right in.
1. Know the location well
When planning an outdoor fashion photoshoot, the location is one of the first things you should pick. Then visit the location at least once before the day of the shoot to ensure that you do not waste time on the final day. Identify:
- Potential shooting locations and backgrounds to try
- Areas with good light (and areas with poor light)
- High-traffic areas that might be best avoided
- Potential hazards or unpredictable elements (e.g., tide changes on the beach)
If you have the time, try taking some photos of the best areas to position your model. Then if you’re in the midst of the photoshoot and you run out of ideas, simply browse through your folder of photos. You might also consider sketching out a shooting plan in advance, one that takes careful advantage of different locations and their position relative to the light.
Of course, you don’t need to follow your plan obsessively – feel free to improvise and have fun in the moment – but it’s a good idea to let the plan guide you, especially if you’re struggling to get good shots or you’re feeling a bit nervous in advance.
2. Choose the right time of the day
As I discussed in the previous tip, you should choose your outdoor fashion shoot location well in advance. But you won’t want to shoot at random times; instead, it’s important to choose the right time of day to capture your desired results.
Is there a “best” time of day for outdoor fashion photography? No. It all depends on the weather conditions and how you want to use the ambient light.
That said, try to avoid times when the sun is at its peak (a high sun will create hard, unflattering shadows on your model’s face). The safest time to shoot outdoors is either just after sunrise or a couple of hours before sunset, though you can also get great results at noon on cloudy days (the light will be soft and you’ll generally end up with less contrasty backdrops).
It’s really about picking the kind of light that’ll work for you and the images you want to capture. Golden-hour fashion photos can look warm and artistic, though cloudy days offer diffused light that helps emphasize details and colors. If you’re not sure what you’d prefer, schedule a few different shoots with different models at different times of the day, then compare the images and see what you think!
3. Choose the right background
It’s easy to ignore the background when you’re engaging in a highly subject-focused genre of photography, yet it’s important that actively consider each and every backdrop you include in your shots.
If you direct your model to a beautiful location and simply start taking photos, you’re likely to end up with all sorts of distractions in your shots: unpleasant tree branches, eye-catching colors, people walking through the scene, and more.
Instead, before taking a single photo, spend time thinking, visualizing, and framing. Make sure the background includes absolutely zero distractions, and consider whether the colors in the background and the colors of the model’s clothes might merge together. Additionally, the colors in the background shouldn’t overpower the model, who is, after all, the main subject of your photoshoot!
The safest backgrounds tend to be relatively solid in color and unremarkable in texture. Leafy trees work great, as do brick walls, blank sky, uniform grasses, and more.
Pro tip: If you like a location but can’t figure out a background that works, try using an ultra-wide aperture to blur out the distracting elements and focus the viewer’s attention on the model.
4. Try mixing ambient light and flash
You can capture great outdoor fashion photos without ever picking up a flash or even a reflector, but by mixing ambient light and flash, you can add lots of drama and dimensionality to your images.
For instance, you can use the sun as the key light falling on your subject from the front or the side, then place the flash at the back of the model to create a rim-light effect on the face or hair.
Or you can position the model so they’re facing away from the sun; let the sun create a beautiful rim and use the flash as your main light to control the shadows on the face.
If you’re not comfortable working with flash, it can help to simply bring out a speedlight every now and again on a photoshoot and build up your confidence. That way, you don’t ruin entire batches of images with improperly used flash but can instead gradually improve your skills!
(Note: You’ll want to bring along a light stand, too; that way, you can position the flash off your camera without difficulty.)
5. Talk frequently and compliment the model
Expressions and body language are key ingredients in any form of fashion photography. Unfortunately, models can sometimes feel more uncomfortable when shooting outdoors because there may be other people watching (or walking by) as they work.
If you’re dealing with a new model, you might choose a location with limited foot traffic, but that isn’t always possible – in which case you’ll need to spend extra time making the model feel comfortable.
How do you do this? Simple: Interact with your model constantly – whether you’re actively photographing, adjusting your lighting stands, or changing your camera settings. You should also include a constant stream of praise – “Love that!” and “Great!” are two handy phrases – even if the initial shots aren’t looking so good.
Of course, don’t shy away from directing your model, but do it in the friendliest way possible, and consider spending the first handful of minutes just letting them choose the poses. Over time, they’ll become more comfortable with you, you’ll become more comfortable with them, and you’ll start to capture genuinely great shots.
6. Get the right exposure in the field
When you’re out on your fashion photoshoot, do your best to nail the exposure. Be sure to take test shots, and frequently check the histogram for spots of overexposure or underexposure. Never shoot with the idea that you can easily adjust the exposure during post-processing.
Sure, you can adjust the exposure during post-processing, but depending on your camera’s dynamic range and the extent of the exposure error, you might end up losing details in your files. In my experience, if you take a photo that is several stops over- or underexposed, you just won’t recover the same kind of detail you’d get with a correct exposure.
Also, if you boost the exposure of an underexposed file, you’ll generally introduce noise into the shot, which rarely looks good!
So do what you can to get it right in-camera. If you still need to make changes in editing, that’s absolutely okay; just don’t rely on post-processing to fix every bad exposure. Make sense?
One more tip: If you’re dealing with a high-contrast situation or a scene with extra light or dark tones, it often makes sense to capture several bracketed images (just to be safe). In other words, take a few shots with various levels of over- and underexposure. That way, if you do get the exposure slightly wrong, you still have a backup file you can rely on.
7. Shoot in RAW
This one’s more of a general photography tip, but it’ll make a huge difference to your outdoor fashion photography, so I’ve elected to include it in this article.
You see, while RAW files do take up more space on memory cards and hard drives – plus they tend to look a lot less punchy than JPEGs – they let you capture far more data, which you can then use when adjusting your images in a program like Lightroom.
For instance, a RAW photo will let you recover far more shadow and highlight detail (see the previous tip). It’ll also let you dramatically tweak the colors without introducing unpleasant artifacts, and you can even change the white balance without issue.
You will need to spend some time processing your RAW files, but in my view, the extra effort is absolutely worth it.
Outdoor fashion photography tips: final words
As a fashion photographer, it’s important that you plan and stage each photoshoot so you get the best possible results from your model. Make sure you choose the right location, work when the light is good, add ambient flash as needed, help the model feel comfortable, and much more.
You might be using the best possible camera and lens, but if you can’t create good setups and effectively direct your model, your photos won’t stand out. So the next time you plan an outdoor fashion photoshoot, keep these tips in mind!
Which of my tips do you plan to use first? Do you have any tips of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!