Photo Techniques: Getting Better Outdoor Pictures

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Saw17 028 Fishhook Creek Valley Sawtooth Mountains Idaho. copy

Saw17 028 Fishhook Creek Valley Sawtooth Mountains Idaho. copy 1.

/For many amateur photographers, it seems easier to get good quality pictures shooting outdoors rather than indoors. Most of the time, for those indoor shots, you have to create your own light in order to illuminate your photography subjects and make sure the light comes from the right direction. All of those details tend to make it a tedious process. So what do you do? Well, quite often, you haul your photography subjects outside and let the sun and the sky be your light sources.

This is not an entirely bad idea, but unless you take certain precautions, you may discover that some of the same problems exist in outdoor photography that you were dealing with for your indoor photography. The sun can create illumination that is too strong and/or too directional, and you end up with shadows on one side of our subject's face. If you have your subject face the sun, you eliminate the shadow problem, but now you can't see the subject's eyes because he/she is squinting. Move the subject into an area where there is deep shade, and you eliminate the squinting problem, but now your picture ends up with an undesirable overall bluish tint, instead of that warm hue that you might have been hoping to get.

With the help of a few tricks and inexpensive photography tools, you can improve your chances of getting that portrait-quality snapshot out in the back yard.

  1. Time of Day. If you can choose what time of day to shoot portrait type photography, you may want to wait until the very last parts of daylight. The natural lighting that shows up about 60 to 90 minutes before sunset will be warmer and less harsh than when the sun is higher in the sky. In this situation, your subject can almost be looking straight into the western sky and not have a squinting problem. The same photography situation will exist in the early minutes of daylight, but most would agree that your subjects are more prepared later in the day.
  2. Fill Flash for Outdoor Photography. One way to get rid of deep shadows on your subject's face in harsh outdoor lighting conditions is to use a fill flash for portrait photography. This light could be from a separately controlled device or from your own on-camera flash.
  3. Finding the "Good Shade" for Outdoor Photography. If you are shooting at a time of day when the sunshine is fairly bright, and you feel that placing your subject in a shady area is the best option, take the time to choose the best kind of shade. Just like bright sunshine can seem harsh, deep shade can be equally as bad for your photography. Positioning the subject right next to a building or next to a tree that is thickly populated with leaves may give your photo that dull or blue appearance. Find some shade that is light or feathery. This is accomplished by moving your subject a little farther away from the source of the shade. For example, taking the photograph in the very edge of a shadow cast by a large tree allows for some diffuse lighting to enter your picture. Also, don't use a tree where the branches and the leaves cast a splotchy appearance on your subject.
  4. Use a Photography Diffuser. While trees are Nature's method of modifying available sunlight, they may not always be available, and they may not be the best blocking devices when it comes to getting quality photography light. Sometimes, it may be better to use a man-made device such as a scrim to block the direct light. Professional diffusers, or scrims, can be purchased from photography equipment companies, or you can make one using a frame made of PVC or wood, and a piece of thin fabric, such as muslin, cheesecloth, or even a section of semi-transparent plastic. It really doesn't matter what the material is, as long as it is something light weight and translucent. Held between the sun and the subject, the scrim will diffuse the light and soften the harshness of the direct light.
  5. Use a Photography Reflector. When you have positioned your subject's face away from the direction of the sun, you can fill in the shadow areas by bouncing some of the light back toward the subject. Your reflector can be any type of white surface that catches light and reflects it to the direction of your choice, but the commercial varieties of this photography tool are quite inexpensive, and will be useful many times over. Considering the slight cost, purchasing a reflector unit is probably better than trying to manufacture one at home. Many feature a self-expanding loop frame that has a white surface on one side and a shiny reflective surface on the opposite side. The gold-colored metallic side can be helpful to warm up the color of the faces in those shady locations.

If you've always just wandered out in the yard with your camera to shoot those family shots, you may think the idea of all of these extra considerations and additional photography tools is a bit over the top. But, if you want to get that balanced light look in your outdoor pictures, spending a little time to find a good backyard location and owning a few more pieces of photography equipment can really be worthwhile.

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