What’s Wrong with Your Outdoor Portraits?

Two of the most common problems that I see in the outdoor photographs on Facebook have to do with color balance (white balancing the camera) and burnt up backgrounds.  Controlling the color balance of your images is a fairly straight forward process under most circumstances.  You simply use the custom white balance once all your lighting is set.  Auto white balance in modern cameras will give you a decent coloration in most circumstances, but not outdoors.

The problem with the typical outdoor scene is all the colors of light illuminating your subject.  Most of the time, using natural light, the main light source will be the open sky.  Won’t that light have a blue cast?  You have sunlight hitting the grass in front of the subject and the trees and shrubs to the side of the subject, won’t that light have a green cast?  How can you camera compensate for blue in one area and green in another?  It obviously can’t which is why so many outdoor portraits taken by younger photographers have such a morbid skin tone.  And the solution isn’t to use direct sunlight as a main-light source for a traditional portrait, as I see many younger photographers attempting to do!

This is the one of the reason I use a reflector as a main light source outdoors, it overpowers the natural light with reflected and feathered sunlight which has a consistent color temperature. The feathering of the sunlight beam not only provides a main light source without  heavy color casts, but raises the illumination level around the subject which takes some of the color casts out of my fill light source.  For more on my outdoor lighting order ALL of My Books on Outdoor Portraiture and watch my YouTube Video Clip on Outdoor Lighting.

Second problem, burnt up backgrounds.  When we all learned outdoor photography, we were taught to go out at 6am or 7pm and deal with outdoor light when it was perfect.  Most clients don’t really want to be photographed at these times, so we find ourselves outdoors in the middle of the day.  The light isn’t perfect, but it no reason to have ugly background that are burnt up either.  First thing, keep the sun at the subject’s back, this way the sun brings out the color of the leaves instead of burning the color out of them.  Secondly, you need to raise the illumination on the subject and select a camera angle and height that gives you a background that isn’t in direct sunlight.  Showing the ground behind the subject is always a problem at this time of day, since the sunlight is hitting it directly and typically it has areas of shade and burnt up areas as well making distracting shapes and textures.  This photograph was taken at 1:oopm, with reflector main light, the sun at her back and shot at 1/500th at f/2.8.  The camera position was lower to avoid showing the burnt up grass directly behind her.  The camera was rotated to put the bright part of the background directly behind her head for separation.

Not all backgrounds at this time of day are usable for every time of portrait.  Don’t take full length images if the background behind the subject won’t allow it.  Probably the single biggest mistake I see is photographers taking full length images when they shouldn’t, showing all kinds of shadows and burnt areas in the background, make you notice the background not the subject.  One technique to avoid the ground being burnt up lay the subject on the ground, then balance the light on the face with that hitting the background.  Make sure the area behind the subject is evenly illuminated without distracting shadows and hot spots.


~ by jeffsmithbooks on June 15, 2010.

One Response to “What’s Wrong with Your Outdoor Portraits?”

  1. Great tips as always. There are some locations that I will only shoot at certain times of day because clients want the full length shots as well. Mostly HS seniors.

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