For the portrait photographer the great outdoors provides an endless variety of locations, backgrounds and props and the best, most natural lighting you'll find anywhere - if you know how to use it. Our summer portraits guide shows you how...
The summer months are a great time to shoot summer portraits for so many reasons.
Firstly it’s warm, so your models don’t have to be trussed up like eskimos. Models look more sensual in their sexy summer dresses, couples feel more romantic with the sun on their backs, kids… well, they’re on holiday! People seem generally more happy and chilled when the weather is nice, making it easier to capture relaxed summer portraits of them.
Secondly the longer days mean you have more time to shoot. It’s light well into the evening so you can even arrange a session after you get home from work. The low, warm sun of late afternoon and early evening is a great time to shoot portraits anyway. Which brings us to lighting. There’s usually lots of it, so you won’t be forced up to the higher ISO settings just to get a handholdable shutter speed.
But there is a downside. Summer comes loaded with booby traps for the inexperienced photographer. Direct summer sun can produce the most unflattering portrait lighting you’ll find anywhere, causing hard shadows under the subject’s nose and chin and in the eye sockets, making them look like a panda.
Luckily we’re here to point out these pitfalls, and to help us along we’ve asked some of the UK’s top people photographers to share a few summer portrait techniques and tips that will have you shooting like the pros in no time.
How to Shoot Summer Portraits – Six Top Tips
- Bright, sunny days can make outdoor summer portraits difficult. Following the common wisdom and positioning yourself with the sun behind you, your subject will be staring straight into it, casting horrid facial shadows and causing them to squint horribly.
- Instead, turn 180° so that the sun is behind your subject, but make sure the sun itself is not visible in shot. Finding a shaded spot may help, but could result in too high a contrast range between subject and background.
- Backlighting in this way can be used to create a flattering bright halo around the edges of the subject’s hair and other elements in the shot.
- Metering for a backlit subject can be problematic, as your camera may be fooled by the brightness behind the subject, underexposing the face. Take a spot or partial meter reading off the subject and expose for that. Check your LCD and adjust if necessary.
- You may wish to underexpose the subject slightly to keep more detail in the background, but don’t go too far. If the contrast range is too great, try using a white or silver reflector to bounce light back onto the subject’s face.
- An alternative is to use just a hint of fill-in flash (set to minus one or two stops of flash exposure compensation, if you have that option) to add a bit of light to the face and add an attractive catchlight to the eyes.
How to Shoot Summer Portraits – Camera Settings
Aperture Priority is the most popular exposure mode for portraits because it gives direct control of the depth of field. Set your chosen aperture and the camera takes care of the shutter speed. Alternatively, if the light is consistent, switch to manual and take control of both aperture and shutter speed.
For posed portraits switch your camera to single-shot AF mode and select a single focus point – either the one in the centre of an off-centre one closest to the subject’s eyes. With candid portraits of, say, moving children, using continuous AF and multiple focus points will increase the chances of getting a sharp shot.
Don’t be afraid to question the exposure settings suggested by your meter. Even when a scene is technically ‘correct’, portraits often look better when the shot is slightly overexposed, as this lightens skin tones and burns out distracting background detail. Try a test shot at +1EV or +2EV of exposure compensation to see what they look like on your LCD screen.
Auto White Balance has its place but can get things wrong. In shots with a lot of greenery for example, it can over-compensate and turn the face a bit magenta. Experiment with your pre-sets, such as shade if shooting under a tree, or take a custom white balance reading and set that. If you shoot in Raw mode you do at least have the option to change the setting later if you get it wrong.
Multi-segment metering is generally fine for portraits but in some situations can go wrong, such as strong backlighting where it may underexpose the subject’s face.
You could always switch to spot metering and take a reading from your subject’s cheek, then set this in manual exposure mode. (Don’t use spot in Aperture Priority mode because when you recompose to shoot the meter will adjust for whatever the spot is pointing at, which may not be the subject.
How to Shoot Summer Portraits – Locations, Backgrounds and Lighting
Architectural settings such as arches, doorways, pillars, steps, and the like can make excellent locations, especially if you’re shooting an environmental-type portrait with the subject shown in a wider setting.
Trees with low branches can also provide a suitable spot. In urban areas dilapidated backgrounds such as peeling paint, corrugated tin, or boarded-up buildings can provide a great visual counterpoint to an attractive model.
But you don’t need to overcomplicate the shot. A simple wall can also suffice, as can an open spot in the park or on a beach, with just a blurred, distant backdrop. The main things to remember are that the background should not distract from the subject, and the light should dictate where you shoot. Don’t sacrifice good light for the sake of a dramatic background. Remember, the subject is your model.
Position them in a shady spot where the light will be even on their face and they won’t be squinting. Nice, wide open eyes make for a more flattering portrait.
Dappled light on, say, a wall can look good as a background, or try shooting into the light but exposing for the face so that the background bleaches out – a great way to hide any distracting elements. For head and shoulder portraits this method, or simply selecting a wide aperture on a telephoto lens, will also blow out any background detail.
Expert tips on locations, backgrounds and lighting for summer portraits
Peter Searle’s tips
‘When choosing a background don’t be seduced by a dramatic background. A simple, non-distracting background is ideal. I also like strong graphical backgrounds, though only if they suit and enhance the subject.
‘When selecting a setting for a portrait I generally look for shade. Direct sunlight is hard to cope with. Eight times out of ten I take additional portable flash lighting. The benefit for me is that it makes the pictures more punchy, which is important for editorial use, and gives me more control. It gives me many more options for where I can position the subject in relation to the background.
‘I like to use balanced artificial light (or reflectors) combined with indirect ambient light. So I usually position the subject in the shade and use flash to balance their brightness with the light falling on the background. The flash, however, is diffused by large brollies or softboxes, never direct.’
Trevor Yerbury’s tips
‘Look for old doors, stone walls, interesting shapes to use. For children if you want your portrait to look bright and funky then keep an eye open for any brightly coloured doors, garage doors, walls etc. and then complement your choice of background by choosing an outfit to contrast. Try to avoid outfits that have logos on them as they draw attention away from the subject. Also, unless this is the result you are aiming for, avoid stripes and patterns.
‘As for lighting, a bright sunny day is not the photographer’s best friend, despite what everybody thinks, unless you are looking for flared images with the bright sun behind or to one side of your subject. Instead look for shade – soft light is best for portraiture. Be careful under trees and the like, as they can cast a dappled light on your subject which is not very flattering.
‘If you wish to ‘pop’ some light back into your subject, buy a quality reflector (or a cheaper option such as a sheet of foam board or piece of white card) which can help pop some light into your image and give some modelling. Be careful to use it with restraint – it’s simply to provide a fill light.’
Damien Lovegrove’s tips
‘In sunny weather I always look to shoot in open shade. For a start you get better expressions in shade because subjects don’t have to squint and can open their eyes fully. Shade provides soft, even light on the face, which is important.
‘I love to shoot into the light, and expose for the face for a high-key effect. It makes skin tones look bright and alive. I invariably use exposure compensation, often going up to plus two stops over the metered exposure to lighten the skin tones and make them more radiant.
‘When selecting locations it’s about finding the light. I let the light dictate where I shoot and how I compose the shot rather than the layout of the environment. Under the canopy of a big tree is often a good location.
‘Sometimes I’ll find a gap in the hanging branches and shoot outwards, with the sun behind the model. I like to shoot in doorways too, but from the inside looking out, with the light behind the subject. If I have to shoot in the sun I encourage them to wear sunglasses and just accept that as part of the picture. You can also create a degree of shade by putting a hat on a subject.
‘I don’t like to use reflectors because they can often look unnatural, especially when held low down as they often tend to be, rather than up high reflecting light back down onto the subject.
‘It’s vitally important when shooting into the light to use a lens hood to avoid flare. Also, I never use filters. Lenses are designed with curved front elements for a reason, and putting a filter on the front just degrades the image contrast. If you use a lens hood that will protect your front element, and if your element does get damaged it isn’t that expensive to get it replaced. I had one replaced recently and it cost less than £70 – some filters cost that.’
Shooting summer portraits
One common mistake made by amateurs is to be overly focused on the equipment, the camera settings, the depth of field – everything except what the subject is thinking and feeling. Taking good portraits is all about connecting with your subject, which is why if you’re a ‘people person’ chances are you’ll make a better portrait photographer. The ability to relax your subject through banter and a calm but confident manner is more important than which make of camera you use.
Expert tips on shooting summer portraits
‘It’s vitally important to generate a sense of intimacy and rapport with whoever you’re photographing and the camera can often form a barrier between you which gets in the way. One of the reasons I use a monopod is that, once I’ve set up the shot I can swing the camera out of the way so that I can make eye contact with the subject, then swing it back in again very briefly to take the shot. It takes just a couple of seconds.’
‘If you’re attempting to photograph your own children don’t pressure them into posing as they always look artificial. Do not ask them to smile or say cheese – that is a portrait photographer’s nightmare. Simply ask them to look as natural as possible, be quick and be simple.
‘Children hate posing for too long especially for their parents! Make it fun, make it enjoyable and ask them to think up their own poses. This will involve them in the creative process and while not all of their suggestions may work they will be involved and on your side and that is a very important element of creating a good portrait.’
‘Many people I’m asked to photograph hate having their picture taken. One method I use to relax them and get a good expression is to start with their face in repose, completely relaxed with no expression. Then I’ll talk to them and try to introduce amusing thoughts so that a half smile creeps into their expression which can look good, and then they start to relax. Of course some people want a serious expression and that’s fine.’
How to Shoot Summer Portraits – Post Production
‘I use Adobe Lightroom 3 for 90% of my post-production now. I don’t like plug-in effects filters – to me they’re the “Chicken Tonight” jars of the photography world. I prefer to do my enhancements myself, treating each shot individually.’
‘My advice is to always shoot in Raw, because it allows better quality final images and more control over essential parameters such the white balance. I use Capture One software.’
‘Try to avoid doing extreme skin work. There are too many images where people look as if they have plastic skin, free of all marks and blemishes and with eyes that have been whitened far beyond an acceptable level.
‘Use curves or levels to add a bit of punch to your images and if you’re looking for a very vibrant portrait then use the saturation tool in Photoshop.
‘Remember to try some of your images as black and white, you can even add a bit of tone or grain in Photoshop. There are so many downloadable actions now available to make this process easier so it’s a question of trying some out to see if they are what you are looking for in an image. Sometimes less is more!’