How to shoot great portraits on location

Charming girl with red hair

1 Mission

Shooting an outdoor portrait seems easy and at hand to anyone. We are all doing this during our vacations or city breaks. We only need a mobile phone camera and that is it.

But when is about artistic portrait then the mission becomes a bit more complex. First of all we need special portrait dedicated settings available on our camera/device (explained further below) and the knowledge in choosing the right moment of the day and light orientation (to be explained within this article as well).

Moreover, the goal of this material is to challenge a small paradox which could be seen prejudged as a conflict, but in fact it is a intended to be our test for today, to try to reach the impossible: an artistic portrait projected on a crowdy interesting background. Above all this, the ideal outcome should be either highlighting the human presence in front and the essential recognizable details of the background as well.

Let us hope for an interesting result at the end of the day.

2 What you’ll need

First of all you need a nice, pleasant person as subject, of course. But I think this is not an issue. However, keep this in mind as a tip: if you use the best settings and play with the light, any subject becomes interesting and artistic.

Second, select a camera with a lens able to provide a high range of DOF (depth of field) with a very low number of the aperture (an aperture opening as large as possible). If possible a tele lens (high focal length).

Nota bene: the modern mobile phone cameras manage to simulate the DOF with the “help” of the software inside. I.e. “portrait photo” setting.

Nice-to-haves: tripod, light reflector, flash, sun positioning app

3 Shooting

1st Rule*: The lowest is the DOF the more artistic is the portrait – that is my vision. For that you just have to lower your camera aperture close to the smallest number (e.g. f1.8, f2.0, f2.2 or if you afford a very expensive equipment, even f1.4-f0.9). When you do it so, the image behind will become blurred and sometimes in some weather and light conditions will provide a very attractive effect called “bokeh”.

Beautiful young woman. Dramatic outdoor autumn portrait of sensual brunette female with long hair. Sad and serious girl.

This technique and the resulted effect lead to exceptional artistic photographs, the background texture and uniform pattern highlighting a lot the subject and influencing the viewer’s eyes to focus on it.

*This is the most important setting that we were talking about above, at the beginning of our journey, when we have stated our mission, supplying the highest impact.

2nd Rule: Use tele lens instead of wide lens, if possible. The long focal lens manages to compress the vertical plans – from the nearest to the furthest - reaching a sort of collage between the subject in front and the background in the back, reducing the forms distortion on one hand, and on the other hand, overlapping the person with the back image as it might be one natural unitary composition. The result is more spectacular image than capturing the same frame with a wide-angle lens (imaging one man adjoining a mountain peak from behind which seems to be nearby).

3rd Rule: Use tripod. Even if the exposure time is very short if we want perfection (in this case: sharpness) we must use tripod all the time. (There are tripods for mobile camera as well)

Tip: when you use tripod remember to deactivate on your lens the IS - image stabilization (e.g. Canon) / or VR – vibration reduction (e.g. Nikon). Otherwise there will be a conflict between the technical equipment and the tripod.

4th & 5th Rules**:

Choose the proper best time of the day to organize the shooting. There is like a common law that the best photographs are taken in the morning and in the evening , @ “golden hour”. Why? Because at this moments of the day, the sun light has two important characteristics: low angle and low intensity so we cannot ruin our subject face with over exposure or even “burn” the details of the white end of the histogram.

Young brunette lady watching herd of horses

Choose the best position of the camera-subject-sun triangle. E.g. the sun light I recommend to be used either as a side light or better: as a back light – called “contre-jour” technique. In this way, in first case we will have as result a “chiaroscuro” technique, while by opting for a shot against the light – the result will be a glamourous silhouette with a beautiful diaphanous and translucent outline of the subject (person). Which is another step forward towards an artistic outcome.

Young couple walking a majestic horse - seaside landscape

Sometimes is needed to support the natural light with an artificial one to light the subject’s face (e.g. if in countre-jour). Use a light reflector or a professional flash. If you use the flash, set its intensity very delicate/gentle. Avoid amateur or default incorporated flashes.

**These are the other most important rules that we were talking about above, at the beginning of our journey, when we have stated our mission, supplying a huge impact.

Fashion photo of beautiful lady in dress of flowers

6th Rule: Use a special (different than the common ones) POV - point of view. Try lower your camera level until the floor/pavement and decline it upwards or the opposite: shot from up above the subject.

Tip: I.e. children or pets – get down to their hight.

7th Rule: Guide the model/subject person. Maybe this is the most difficult part. It could take years (if not a native gift) to learn how to work with the person who poses. It is not only a technical knowledge but chemistry and psychology as well. There are many ways of posing. Some are common. Some are clichés. There are few creative positions of the human subject’ body parts that will get you out from the mediocrity. But it worth to exercise and discover you own preferred schemes. Anyhow, at least try to use the most known ones and to avoid the worst ones (check the last chapter of this article). It is about the pleasure to watch. There are natural forms and ratios in the nature. This is our goal. As the ancients (i.e. the Greeks) manages to decompose and recompose the nature perfect proportions (e.g. golden ratio, etc.), we shall do the same. We should find the most beautiful posing that would mean pleasure and relaxation for the viewer to watch it and not inducing stress.

Young woman

Tip: The model’s face expression is one of the most important condiment of the recipe of success. Thus, get close to the person( if not already), get friends! Talk to each other before the shooting. Try to become familiar and get to know the person. And find what hypostasis is more favorable to him/her (i.e. smile or laugh etc).

Beautiful slender brunette at the sea

8th Rule: The Composition

The main rule - generally speaking about photography – is to create a harmonious composition.

Easy to say but harder to achieve. But is not impossible and not rocket science.

There are some tricks and base sub rules that must be followed and in this way we avoid the failure at least.

Here are some recommendations:

√ Use one of the best crops tested over time: head portrait, bust (half-length) portrait, whole/full portrait (from head to feet) or American portrait (cut below the knee).

√ Locate the subject avoiding the middle of the frame: e.g. on the third rule position or one of the power/crash point. If the face of the model is orientated straight to the photographer, you could deviate from the rule of third and put one eye of the model on the center vertical axe of the frame. This eye will be called: “dominant eye”. This rule is suitable mostly if the portrait is head.

Beautiful woman on beach

√ Keep the model’s look inside the frame, towards the empty part of the picture. For example, if the person is aligned with the right third vertical line of the width, the body of the subject and thus her/his look (eyes orientation) should be rotated to the left.

√ Try not to fill too much the frame area with the person contour only. Keep significant margins around the model with enough distance to the edges of the frame.

√ Play with perspective. The person could sit/stand with the eyes closer to the camera and the legs far away or vice versa.

√ Experience always new framings: i.e. details only (like: eyes, hands, head without the top of the head etc)

√ Play with colors or contrast (especially if shooting black and white). The colors are a part of a composition. Try to play with patterns and forms ratios.

And last but now least. Actually, now we are getting to the subject and our main target: combine a portrait with a beautiful background. Which is a priority? How could be handle both in order to store each of them as accurate as possible in the box of memories, as close as possible to the real view and feeling?!

9th Rule: The portrait vs the background – the first one must always win the compromise.

I have started this rule with the conclusion of this article challenge and aim.

If you have to choose between the two – subject or background – in my opinion the first one should be favoured.

It is normal to be so. But. Of course that: (1) we want to memorize our subject person in that particular environment, place, not “somewhere”, “anywhere”; (2) we want to capture the scenery particularities as well.

Thus, we have an equation where there are two components where one should be highlighted (the subject) and the other one (the background) should be mitigated somehow in order not to compete with the subject but at the same time to keep the prominent and defining characteristics so that the viewer will recognize that place, scenery or environment.

As technique, it is relatively simple.

For the subject choose an aperture enough to assure a good DOF but not too open to hide too much the back.

As for the background, put into the frame and thus inside the composition: the most defining element or pattern that is enough to recognize the spot of the scenery (e.g. a lighthouse, a front side of a landmark building, a landscape/natural scape, a seascape or cityscape, etc.).

Women portrait outdoor

attractive couple together outdoors

Travel by train

4 Editing

For editing I recommend the most two apps: Adobe Photoshop and Nik Collection Plug-In.

In Photoshop I am using frequently: dodge and burn (or grey layer technique), liquefy, patch/healing tools (for the face defects retouching), tone/colors adjustment, contrast and exposure adjustments, etc

As needed, the background could be also adjusted in Photoshop if not enough blurred. There are additional effects available as motion blur if suitable with the image.

Nik Collection gives us a gallery of pre-sets that creates instantly refined photographs combining diverse adjustments in an efficient combination with great final effect.

5 Do's and don'ts

Try not to “cut” accidentally the subject/model’s feet, hand/ fingers, ears, hair etc) out of the frame.

Play with "frames". Fake or artificial frames helps the composition to guide the look to the subject and at the same time should tell the viewer what is the context (e.g. a window frame is giving the message that the scenery is located in the area of a housing zone and what is the architectural style of the houses in that region).

Poor Children

Avoid overlapping the model’s head with a pillar or other vertical element from the background.

Do not leave the person to stand in a common tedious position. Guide him/her to move and freeze in interesting geometrical forms defined by angles created between body and arms or legs. E.g. the triangle is very attractive to the human eyes. So, teach the model to define triangles with her/his arms for example, bending the elbow (or the knee in legs case).

Focus the lens on the model’ eyes.

A model’s smile is always welcomed. So, keep the person merry and relaxed, by talking with her/him. Even saying jokes or nice stories etc.

Brief history and experience about author

Sebastian Vasiu is a Romanian awarded photographer. He was born 43 years ago in a lovely small town called Orăștie (German name: Broos), in Transylvania.

Orăștie has always been considered as a regional cultural center. Nearby, in the Orăștie Mountains, are located some of the oldest human settlements in Romania (A.D.), from the times of Dacians and Romans: Sarmizegetusa Regia and Sarmizegetusa Ulpia Traiana - the two capital cities 2000 years ago. In this region, the traditions have survived throughout the time. The highlands of Orăștie’s neighborhoods probably influenced Sebastian and pushed him towards landscape, travel and documentary photography about villages and villagers. One of the most picturesque site in this countryside areal is Fundătura Ponorului, a place where the time had just stopped and where life is so simple. This is one of the most photogenic spots in all of Europe, but unfortunately not known to many of my own countrymen. It was love at first sight for Sebastian. Most of his favorite photographs are located in Fundătura Ponorului, called by some, the “Hand of God” or „Heaven on Earth”.

Following his heart and talent for sketching (yes, he drew a lot since childhood), Sebastian decided to attend the Architecture Faculty of Timișoara. He loves natural living that involves not only a eco-friendly living but natural homes with a “natural” approach in life, as well. He is an assiduous seeker of traditional old homesteads and traditional way of living.

Sebastian was an editor for diverse magazines and the founder of his own magazine called „Fotografia Românească”.

He was also a jury member in several photographic competitions and even founder of one of the most important event in his country: Romanian Photographer of the Year.

As a top side of his career, Sebastian was a teacher and trainer, organizing photo tours and workshops all over Romania and Europe. He shared his experience gained in time and confirmed by many prizes and awards.

Sebastian’s first contact with a photo camera was years ago, in the mid 80's. At that time his father used a Russian photo camera named Smena ( Смена). He was fascinated with the “camera obscura”, (as many children probably were), and the sepia photographs with friends and family.

But Sebastian’s attraction to photography is somehow secondary; it came as an attachment to his passion for travel, to enjoy being in nature. At first he used photography as a tool, a vehicle to get to the photographic memory, to be able to archive the best moments, to share them with the others. Now he is doing it most of the times premeditative, in advance organized in order to be able to reach the result beforehand imagined and planned.

Photo credits: George Mayer, Yauheni Hastsiukhin, Konradbak, Pressmaster, Sebastian Ionuț Vasiu, Sergii Vorobiov, Ivan Mikhaylov.

Your post must be written in English

August 24, 2020


Good inspiration!!

August 23, 2020


Nice useful article 

August 10, 2020



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