Entering the outdoors with a camera is entering an uncontrollable environment. Frustration ensues as you find it difficult to create an image similar to how you are seeing it. However, that perfect shot is achievable. The fundamental tip to it is to take control of the camera, abandon automatic and embrace tweaking settings to find the perfect result. With the advent of digital cameras, experimenting is cheaper and easier, so follow and practice these tips to get that shot you’re looking for.
Lighting is crucial to photography and is often undervalued by beginners. Getting the right lighting is a tricky process but the results are worth it. The main thing to consider is the light in relation to the subject. For example, unless you want a silhouette of the subject don’t shoot with the light directly behind them. However, if the subject is facing the direct light they may squint and it could create harsh, distracting shadows. Shooting in shade not only helps to eliminate these problems but allows for easier white balancing (talked about later). Use what you can to create shade, be it a building, tree or even clouds to help create a smooth, rich photograph. Overcast days are excellent for providing this natural soft room effect. One simple, yet ingenious, tip for shooting in overcast weather is to bring a compass. “Why” you ask? Well, it has to be remembered that although diffused somewhat, the sun’s beams are still directional. The compass allows you to find the sun and then you can put it behind you. Simple.
However, shooting in direct light is often unavoidable, but it is not the end of the world. Simple techniques or adjustments can be utilized to avoid the problems that arise. For example, to help prevent the subject from squinting, make them look just off camera away from the sun. This also produces some nice photos and shows the benefit that a bit of creativity can have. Alternatively you can try to control the light yourself. Find some form of reflector, a white lorry being the perfect example. Have a rummage around at home see what you can find. Any old sheet (no need for your finest) can act as a perfect diffuser. Just find some branch, wire or overhanging to hang it from, anchor the bottom corners to the ground and voila, a diffuser! You don’t have to break the bank either.
Camera and lenses
Once the lighting has been prepared the next thing to prepare is the camera itself. Unfortunately, to get the ideal shot you can’t just point and click. It has to be remembered that the eye and the camera are two different entities and the camera’s ‘brain’ is nowhere near as developed as ours. Therefore, we have to use ours to help the camera. To get a really nice shot use a large focal length. You should not shoot a portrait under 50mm, preferably shooting between 120mm and 200mm. This can be achieved by using a telephoto lens and zooming in on the subject. This will increase the background blur, called the bokeh, which makes your subject stand out. Again, to help increase the blur of the bokeh, widen the aperture. The lower the aperture, the shallower the depth of field, will create a nicer contrast between subject and background. A faster lens will allow lower apertures, the ideal being f2.8 or f4. This link between aperture and shutter speed should not be forgotten. Adjustments to one often results in needing to adjust the other. Learning the ‘sunny f16 rule’ can help make sure that the adjustments are correct to get the correct exposure if you are lacking the proper equipment. Basically the ‘sunny f16 rule is as follows: on a sunny day, with your aperture at f16, your shutter speed will be the inverse of your ISO speed (for example, if your ISO is 100 your shutter speed will be 1/100 second). This can then be adjusted accordingly. So if it is cloudy or you are in the shade then lower the aperture to f8. However, it is preferable to use equipment such as an incident light meter or gray card.
Gray card also has uses beyond exposure, and being relatively cheap, the benefits are limitless. It is hugely useful when trying to get the correct white balance of a photograph. What the gray card does is it produces a neutral gray. This can then later be used in Adobe Camera RAW to produce an accurate white balance that is relative to the light when and where the photograph was taken. However, one simple rule must be followed. Always shoot in RAW. This prevents the camera from turning it straight into a JPG, thus making it difficult to edit without losing any quality. RAW takes the fundamentals of the photo that can later be elaborated on and then turned to JPG. If you heed these two pieces of advice, it means you can let the computer synchronize all the photos to the correct white balance produced by selecting the neutral gray of the card. However, when taking the photographs, remember the light changes not only from place to place, but time to time as well. Make sure you take regular photographs with the gray card to get the best results. The more you take the more accurate the white balance becomes.
Now, finally, for the shooting. Even if the camera is set up to perfection, it does not mean that the photo will be an inevitable success. It would be very exasperating to finally get the perfect white balance and lighting only to go home and find your subject has a sign sticking out of their head. Make sure the background is suitable for the photo. Remove power lines, garbage, signs, anything that is going to distract the viewer from the subject of the photograph. Don’t compromise the subject of the photo; they have to be the focal point of the photo. If you use auto focus, the camera ultimately guesses the best focus out of all the focal points it collects, or only focus on what’s closest to the camera. This can detract from the subject, even just slightly, and be a detriment to your final product. Select to use one focus point, or for the more daring, manual focus, to make sure that the subject, and only the subject, is the focal point. The best area to focus on is the eyes. The viewer makes an instant connection with the eyes and by having them the sharpest and crispest point in the photo can add personality and depth.
Hopefully this advice will help you achieve that perfect portrait. Go out and experiment! Enjoy having the camera in your ultimate control. The more you do it the quicker and easier it will become, until eventually it will seem like a part of you. By having the camera in your control not only produces better, more personal pictures, it gives the taker a rewarding feeling knowing that the photograph is completely their work, not the work of a setting on a camera.
~Zahid H Javali