Why I Shoot My Portraits Outdoors

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Imagine a dreamy outdoor portrait, with the sun streaming in and warm tones making the face glow. Doesn’t that sound just lovely? Now, I’m not saying to leave the studio and never come back. I just think we need to take a moment to appreciate my favorite thing ever: Natural Light.

Natural light has a lot of advantages against studio light. It’s warm, gorgeous, and you can try to replicate it, but it will never quite look the same. I personally think that you can achieve more depth and will have a more vibrant image rather than just a solid white or black background. Don’t get me wrong, a formal studio portrait is necessary skill for every photographer to know, but I much prefer to get moving and head outside for environmental portraits (and that doesn’t mean you can’t add some fill light or strobes!). You have so many options to experiment with outdoors, like sunrise, shadows, shade, sunset, and even nighttime! Think of the world as a huge studio for you to work with. The options are practically endless!

The next thing that separates indoor from outdoor: Depth of Field. And my favorite thing ever, Bokeh. The greater distance that the model stands from the background will create a more shallow depth of field, creating pleasing images that really focus in and make the model pop from the background. I also like the background variety that can be achieved with outdoor shoots. Yesterday, we went on a little walking adventure and found an abandoned building to shoot in. It turned out to be so cool. I find that a quick 180 degree turn can lend itself to totally new backgrounds, colors, and textures to add the scene. The best advice I ever got was to always move around and don’t be afraid to try new angles, framing, and scenes. 

I love shooting my portraits outdoors because it gives a whole new feel to the images. However, shooting outdoors does come with it’s own set of problems. Like (just this week), snow and rain. And as tough as it might be, you, the models, and the crew just have to work around that. I find that it’s definitely worth the extra effort to mix things up and have an outdoor adventure with your camera. So head out, find some cool locations, and start shooting. The warm, bright natural light and new space to shoot will be a breath of fresh air for you, literally.

So, What’s Bokeh, Anyway?

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Bokeh is a camera term and a Japanese word that translates to “blur.” It’s the quality of being out of focus rendered by the camera’s lens in an image. Bokeh is visually appealing to the eye because it forces us to focus on the subject and blurs out everything else in the image, creating a shallow depth of field.

Why am I bringing this up? Because bokeh is what changes everything. Bokeh takes the casual amateur photographer shooting pictures of their family and makes them a high-quality portrait photographer. I know, because that’s how I got started.

People always ask me how they can take better pictures. This will always be my first answer: Get a lens that can create bokeh. The problem with kit lenses that come as a standard with the DSLR camera body is that they create virtually no shallow depth of field.

To have a shallow depth of field, the aperture on the lens must go to somewhere in the gorgeous range of 2.8-1.4, but kit lenses only go to 5.6, on average. So, all the pretty little blurry circles that make the subject pop out in a sharp image just blend in with the subject, and therefore there is no bokeh. What a shame.

There are other benefits of shooting shallow, too! The aperture is open much wider and therefore more light gets let in the camera, so you need a faster shutter speed. This can be really helpful when wanting to capture motion, or if you are in a low lighting situation.

For those looking to try it out, I recommend a 50mm f/1.4 lens of any brand. It’s prime, which means that you can’t zoom in with the lens, but it’s a great way to get an inexpensive lens that you can practice with.

If you don’t feel comfortable shooting on manual, try aperture priority! It will let you set the aperture that you want (anywhere in that nice bokeh range—f/1.4-2.8!) and then the camera will do the rest! And remember, when in doubt, just shoot shallow and see what happens!