Outdoor portraits can be some of the most pleasing to view because the natural light and the surrounding environment make for a gorgeous image that’s pleasing to view. The trick is to understand what camera settings are most likely to get you the quality portrait you seek in any given lighting situation.
Read on to learn what settings those might be!
Adjust Some Settings Ahead of Time
Even without knowing exactly what the lighting conditions will be like when the day of the shoot rolls around, there are a few key settings you can dial in before you pack up your gear and head to the shoot location.
Since a shallow depth of field is typical of most portraits, you can preset your aperture to a wide value, like f/2.8 or f/4. Shooting this wide will give you the nice, blurry background that is so pleasing for portraits while keeping your subject nice and sharp. Use aperture priority mode to have total control over the aperture while letting the camera make the decisions regarding shutter speed. That’s just one less thing to worry about!
Another setting you can pre-plan is ISO. Naturally, you’ll want to minimize the ISO to control noise, so ISO 200 is a good choice. In addition to minimizing noise, ISO 200 allows you to utilize a shutter speed that’s fast enough to avoid camera shake and compensate for any movements the subject might make while the shutter is open.
Also set your camera to single shot autofocus with single-point metering, assuming that your portrait subject will be stationary during the shoot. This allows you to depress the shutter halfway to focus, and all you have to do is select which autofocus point your camera meters from, and on the day of the shoot, place the autofocus point over the subject’s face and take the shot.
The Day of the Shoot
Depending on the lighting conditions during your outdoor shoot, you might need to use the exposure compensation feature on your camera. If the background is too light, you will need to dial in positive exposure compensation, like +1 or +2, to ensure that the subject isn’t underexposed. The converse is true if the background is darker than your subject: dial in -1 or -2 of negative exposure compensation to ensure your subject isn’t vastly overexposed.
Another setting that might need some adjustment on the day of the shoot is white balance. While you might begin with cloudy conditions, as time passes, the clouds might dissipate and the sun might come out, requiring you to use the daylight setting or move to a shady area and use the shade setting. Naturally, you can use white balance for creative purposes as well, and utilize them to suit your aesthetic tastes rather than adhering to strict usage according to the type of lighting that is present.
Be prepared to pull out your reflector set or a flash to provide some fill light, especially if the lighting conditions are harsh, such as direct, afternoon sun. Using a reflector will help you bounce the light onto your subject, which helps soften the harsh shadows that result from the daytime light. Similarly, a flash can provide fill light to reduce harsh shadowing. Set the flash to TTL auto exposure, which allows the camera to control the power to the flash. When enough light is being emitted by the flash, the camera will cut the flash and you should have a well-exposed image.
Other Recommended Settings
Give yourself the best chances of success by shooting your outdoor portraits in RAW, rather than JPEG. Since RAW files are uncompressed, in post-processing, you will have access to all the data the sensor captures, making editing a much easier process. And since editing RAW files doesn’t change the file itself, it is a non-destructive process, so you will still have the original RAW file to work with, even after you make changes to it in post-processing.
Naturally, there will be times when you have to adjust your aperture to account for lighting conditions, or if you simply want a different background look. Most portraits make use of a wide aperture and a shallow depth of field, but be willing to experiment with various apertures to see if a larger depth of field better suits the portrait or your personal style.
Likewise, the ISO you preset to 200 should work in most situations, but if you find that in aperture priority mode that your camera is selecting a shutter speed that is too slow, you will need to boost the ISO. Try ISO 400, then 800 if need be. Even at ISO 800, your camera should retain a good level of quality without too much noise in the image.
In the end, the key to better portraits isn’t in a group of specific settings that are set in stone. Rather, use the settings recommended here as a starting point, and make adjustments to them as you see fit or as the situation calls for it. Better outdoor portraits are a result not just of understanding how to make these adjustments, but also of spending time in the creative process and learning how to use your camera’s settings to your advantage.