Step-by-step: A simple outdoor portrait with just a reflector

One camera, one lens, a reflector and a bit of know-how is all you need for great portraits

A pretty girl and a gloriously sunny day may seem like the ideal recipe for some great photographs, but it’s very easy to get it all hopelessly wrong. Taking portraits of people can be a tricky subject, especially if you’re too busy fiddling with the camera settings to really engage with your model, or not really looking at the light and how it falls on your subject.

Or worse, everything you thought you knew about how to take good photos goes out of the window as you focus totally on interacting with the person in front of you but forget what to do with the camera. We’ve all had pictures with wonky horizons, trees seemingly growing out of people’s heads, fussy backgrounds and poor exposure. To show how easy it can be to take professional-quality portraits, I took a local model to a footpath that goes beneath an underpass on a scorching day. And show he easy it is to venture off Program or other automatic modes!

The location: Underneath an overpass on a bright sunny day. But it's what you do with it that's important!
The location: Underneath an overpass on a bright sunny day. But it’s what you do with it that’s important!

Shot 1: Starting point

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Loads of sun, a nice girl and yet it’s so easy to get it so, so wrong

Shooting a portrait in horizontal format, with the model slap-bang in the middle of the frame dead square-on to the camera, facing right into the sun, is hardly a great start. It really looks like a poor snapshot, especially as our model is squinting and has horrid harsh shadows on her face. And using Program mode means the camera sets a relatively narrow aperture and shutter speed high enough to avoid camera shake. This narrow aperture – a big f-number like f16 – means everything is in focus. From the girl’s face to the trees behind. No separation from the backround to subject, harsh lighting, a squint, loads of contrast, poor composition… need I go on?

Shot 2: Move to a shaded area

The light in the shade of the underpass is much softer and more flattering

By moving our model a few metres to under the underpass, the quality of light and hence the look of the photo is transformed. No more harsh shadows, and a lovely soft light that’s very flattering. Keeping the camera on Program means it sets a slighty wider aperture as the light levels are reduced. But this aperture means the background is still very sharp, and it’s easy to miss things like bits of architecture growing out of the model’s head. You only seem to notice them when you look at them on the computer later.

By leaving your camera’s white balance setting to Auto, it should automatically adjust itself from the sunny setting outside, to the new shade setting. If you shoot RAW then this isn’t a problem as you can tweak it later on the computer. If you shoot J-pegs, it’s a good idea to manually set your white balance to shady so that every shot is consistent. However, it’s far batter to take full control, always shoot RAW and set a manual white balance, which you can tweak away in your processing workflow afterwards. Taking control is the only way to learn.

Shot 3: Clean up the background

A wider aperture and moving the subject away from the background puts more attention on her

It’s time to make the background look less cluttered to put the focus on your model. So now it’s really time to take control. Switch to Aperture priority and set a wide aperture – possible the widest your lens has. This could be f/4 or even f/2.8 if your lens has it, and it has the effect of making the background much more blurry. Of course, full manual control is better as it keeps things consistent. Set a wide aperture and play with the shutter speed until the exposure is correct. If the shutter speed starts to get too low to safely hand hold, then increase ISO as you shutter speed can then be faster – albeit at the expense of a bit of image quality. A slighty noisy but sharp shot always beats a noise-free blurry one!

Moving your subject further away from the background also increases the separation effec, but means the light on her face may change, though. Switching to spot metering and taking a reading off her face means the exposure is right for the most important part of the shot. Or change your shutter speed, if on manual.

I also got the model to turn her body slightly away from the camera, but turn her head back towards the lens, and tilt her head slightly. This gives a more natural feel than square-on.

Shot 4: Switch to vertical composition

Try turning your camera on its side into “portrait” configuration

It’s not called “portrait” orientation for nothing, so try turning your camera on its side for a shot that’s a much more natural shape. Framing the models head with a patch of light behind her means her hair doesn’t disappear into the darkness behind too much. Of course, as everyone tends to view things nowadays on computer screens or TV screens, most photos tend to get used in a landscape shape. But the aethetics and purity of a portrait photo, in “portrait” orientation, shouldn’t be inderestimated.

Shot 5: Zoom in even more

By using a longer focal length lens from further away, the background is even softer

Zoom your lens to a longer focal length, making it more of a telephoto. This has the effect of making the background go even more out of focus – but you’ll obviously need to tale a step further back to avoid cropping too tightly. By turning the model slightly, we framed her head against a relatively light patch of wall to stop her hair blending into the background.

Shot 6: Use a reflector

A simple reflector really kicks some light into the model’s face and has a big impact

Add in a bit more sparkle to the face by using a reflector. A white reflector held at arm’s length as close to the model as possible kicks back a bit of light into her face, reducing the shadows in her eyes and under her chin. You can buy fold-up reflectors or make your own from bits of card or even just carry a newspaper. You can also get warm-up reflectors that have a gold surface. But as the light under the underpass bounced off light-coloured walls and the ground, it was already quite a warm light. A gold reflector would have made the model a bit too orange-skinned. I used a simple, circular, white Lastolite reflector.

By making the model turn round slightly and moving camera position, I cut out the wall from behind her and shot through the underpass to use the trees behind as a clean background. This natural background suits her summery clothing more.

Shot 7: Try different poses

Now that you’ve got all the settings right, it’s a good idea to take a range of images of your model in different poses, and from different camera positions. Asking your subject to just stand there and look natural is actually a tough thing to do for anyone, even a professional model. It’s a good idea to give them something to lean against.

Leaning on something makes your subject instantly feel more relaxed

Using the wall of the underpass, we got our model to lean against it, first with her back towards it then bend one knee so that her foot is one the wall, and put a hand on her hip. This gives a nice pleasing shape to the body.

Using the wall as a posing aid can give a variety of poses, such as kicking one leg up behind

She then leaned her side onto the wall, again with a hand on hip to give a more interesting shape. Then without moving the model, we moved the camera further back to include some of the foliage to give a more natural frame around her. It’s brighter because the sun is on it, while the model is still in shade.

The foliage gives a natural frame to the shot and contrasts with the brutalist concrete architecture

And lastly our model Tamrin turned to face the wall, with her head resting on her folded arms. So by altering the position of the camera and using a zoom lens to crop tighter, I got a variety of shots very quickly.

Tamrin just leaned on the wall so I moved in, cropped tighter and had another shot

Now Break those Rules

With a few good portraits in the bag, it’s time to break the rules of normal portraiture and try something a little different. I took three shots where the model is small in the frame, and is slap-bang in the middle of the shot. I tried to use the symmetry of the underpass so put our model symmetrically right in the middle. I tried upright and landscape-orientation, with the model trying different poses each time.

From the same position I zoomed in on her, and re-composed so that she was a third of the way in from the frame. The graffiti on the concrete beside her is sharp, giving a gritty contrast to the soft, flowing femininity of the model.

A symmetrical backround and a girl placed right in the middle can often work
In landscape orientation, it seems less powerful as the symmetry is less obvious. But it’s worth a try
A change of pose can give a subtly different result. The hand on hip pose give a more pleasing body shape
Zooming in and using the rule of thirds gives a more pleasing shot to my eye. You may disagree
Zooming in and using the rule of thirds gives a more pleasing shot to my eye. You may disagree

Finally I tried was a shot that was totally backlit, using the sun streaming from behind the model. By moving her a few metres towards me and turning through 90 degrees, I used a reflector as close as possible to the model and bounced some light back into her face. I took a meter reading from her face to ensure it was exposed correctly. The background becomes bleached out, but it gives a nice high-key, airy look. And very different to the shot above that was taken a minute earlier in almost the same location!Sometimes you’ve just got to work the location to come across what you think makes the best shot.

Turning the model around and using a reflector gives a fresher, high-key look


Well, you be the judge! But there’s a pretty big difference between out first shot and our last. And they were actually taken roughly 10 metres apart, with the same camera and lens. It took a while to get there, but it was worth it.

The “after” is on the left. I hope you worked that out! If not, re-read the article!