What camera settings should you use for outdoor model portrait photos?

October 31, 2016 Photography Tips 2 Comments

More and more I’m finding that the number one thing I’m focusing on when taking pictures is the lighting. At a recent photo shoot with model Amanda Celine I decided to take a simple approach to the whole shoot. Now we’ve all seen on YouTube those photo shoots where the photographer has a bunch of gear setup to grab that perfect shot. Not everyone has a grew hanging around waiting to help. So what are you to do when you’re on your own or want a more simple approach. Well you work with the available light and learn what camera setting work best for the situation you’re in. Yep it’s that simple, ok not simple but the concept is.

Challenges to finding the right camera settings when on location for a model shoot

One of the biggest challenges you’ll find is that as you work the location and find new ‘cool’ spots to take pictures from the lighting can change dramatically. This is at the heart of almost all of your issues when on a shoot with a model. Not only do you have to help manage the shot but you have to be fully aware of all the changes in lighting.  While scouting for spots to shot while on location you’re also thinking of the changes needed in your camera settings.  It can become overwhelming at first but there are a few simple tips to remember.



One of my most rushed and in some ways most challenging photo shoots was when I was taking pictures of Amber Marshall at the Royal Winter Fair (or Royal Agricultural Fair also known as The Royal Horse Show) in Toronto. I was lucky to be a Toronto photographer and given less than 5 minutes to take a few photos of Amber while she was riding a horse that wasn’t her own inside an arena pathway to the actual arena. For those of you who don’t know horses are generally very nervous of a new rider as well not fans of flashes. So when taking my photos of Amber Marshall I had no time and no light, so what settings do you use in that situation! Well it wasn’t the best and by far not my best photo of a TV star but in the end it was good enough for the front page of an industry trade publication. You can see more from that and other shoots to see the camera settings I used on that picture of Amber Marshall.

What aperture settings are best?

In general when photographing a model the best aperture setting is wide open. Having a setting of f/2.8 – f/1.8 will give you a very shallow depth of field and very effectively blurring out the background. This strategy pops the model out and allows you to shoot almost anywhere since the background is just a blur of color. The drawback is where you capture focus. Ideally this should be the eyes but in many cases a photo shoot with a model is a fluid situation and locking in on the eyes isn’t always going to happen. Combine this with how close you are to the model you can easily have the chin out of focus. I suggest playing around a little with this and to start off with a slightly more forgiving f-stop such as f/2.8 – f/3.5.  If you’re outdoors and are shooting in a location where things are far off in the distance you can get away with a larger aperture ensuring you get your model in focus.  So the best aperture setting is largely dependent on your surroundings and the look you’re going for.

How much does shutter speed matter in a non-sport shoot?

It matters but not that much. When I’m shooting sports photography shutter speed is very critical for the obvious reason, to freeze the movement. Shutter speeds over 1/100th of a second are common, check out these tips for indoor sports photography. Now when being creative this all changes but for the most part it is critical when shooting sports. The best shutter speed setting for model portrait photography isn’t as critical. Usually you are looking at a frozen subject while you’re also frozen. If you’re using an image stabilizing lens you have even more support for changing the shutter speed. One area that might trip you up is posing and what outdoor portrait photography poses you chose to use. If the model is moving a lot or the hair’s blowing in the wind you’ll have to then consider what’s the best shutter speed. You can get pretty creative with slowing the shutter speed down to give a sense of motion in the hair. Take into consideration the model as a whole when dropping down the shutter. You want her hair to move but not always her face.

Is the golden hour the only best time of day to take portrait photos outdoors?

Not all of us can arrange a photo shoot at the perfect time of day. Although the sunlight is beautiful at sunrise and sunset it’s not always doable for us to have a model for that time. I tend to take the approach that the best time of day to do a portrait photo shoot is the time the model and I are there. As I said up above lighting is the key and light mid-day can offer some amazing opportunities. Using a big white wall or the side of a large white truck can diffuse the light enough to help you get the image you’re looking for. So be creative and move around the location. During your scouting see where the sun is and picture it in your mind as it moves across the sky during the day. On this day we were out early enough to capture some of that golden sun, we were ready but the overcast clouds above had a different plan.  So I switched gears and went from thinking of taking those golden photos to taking overcast even light pictures.  In the end it’s the outcome of your photo shoot that matters.  Models are looking for a good picture they can add to their portfolio and it’s your job as a photographer to do just that.

Bonus outdoor portrait photography tips.

Tip #1 – be on time! Are you serious thinking it’s ok to be late? Come on being late without a good reason is simply not cool. This isn’t a get together at grandma’s it’s a business relationship one if done right will help you and your new business. So show up on time!

Tip #2 – get real! Ok let’s face it we are not all New York fashion photographers but more likely good photographers wanting to improve our skills. So be real and realize that both you and the model are on a learning curve and doing the best you can. If either of you are having a bad day take it in stride and re-schedule rather than get upset. In the end your photos will show it.

Tip #3 – be flexible! Similar to tip #2 don’t get hung up on it must be a certain way. The pros have tons of support to make sure they’re at the right location at the right time of day and the right time of year. More than likely you’re looking at juggling multiple schedules just to have a shoot. That in itself requires you to be flexible. Have a few ideas on what you’d like to shoot and hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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