Digital SLR Photography

6 Ways to Improve Your Location Portraits

By Caroline Schmidt. Posted

1. Find Colour

You don't need complex backgrounds to make a great portrait, in fact less is quite often more if you want to keep the focus on the person. Walls are ready-made studio backdrops; whether white, painted or covered in graffiti, you have the makings of a striking but simple shot. Any background should be evenly lit, unless you plan to make shadows a part of the composition, so either find backdrops cast in open shade or front-lit for a bright, summery feel. Be careful of standing too close to the coloured surface however as the light bouncing off the surface will take on the same colour.

In rural locations, look for colourful fields to shoot in when the sun is low and warm or look out for flower-filled bushes – it's amazing what you can use with a wide aperture and some clever cropping.

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2. Look for leading lines

Composition-wise, aside from the rule-of-thirds, lead-in lines are perhaps the strongest aid for focusing attention on a subject when shooting them within wide-angle views. Stairways are a perfect example of how lead-in lines can work for a centrally composed subject, in a similar way to decommissioned railway lines, empty roads, corridors and bridges. Try to capture some symmetry in how you position the lines and subject within the frame and you may find a low vantage point and wide aperture complement such compositions.

For off-centre compositions, having subjects in the middle distance lean against a railing, fence or lined wall will lead the eye from foreground to the subject as well as establish depth. Make sure any use of lines is deliberate and control the viewer's gaze.

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3. Take in a wider view

Sometimes the landscape is just as beautiful as the subject, or the place gives context to the person's story. Most photographers will reach for their 50mm, 85mm or 105mm for a realistic look to subjects, but to keep the person prominent in the frame while including more background, opt for the likes of a 35mm lens but keep the subject at a safe distance to avoid distortion.

For portraits where the environment is an important part of the story, you might want to embrace the slight distortion and go slightly wider at 24mm and place the subject in the foreground to make the background bigger. It can make for compelling images, but be careful to keep their hands and feet neatly posed as their size will be exaggerated if too close to the camera and distract from the main focus of the image.

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4. Match the background

Once you've met your subject, find a location that suits their style and personality. Are they quiet and fragile – maybe suiting florals; do they have vivid red hair that will look great again green; or does their slick appearance call for chic city lines or cool teen-spirit scream graffiti and concrete? Let your subject guide your location, but once you have your location – guide the subject.

Coordinating clothing to your location is important whether it's to avoid clashing colours or patterns, confusing the context or delivering the wrong impression of a subject. For instance, if you're taking travel portraits of a rural villager who loves his New York Knicks cap, you're probably best to take control and gently ask for it to be removed as out-of-context clothing like that can weaken your portrait.

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5.Use foreground interest

A very strong compositional tool, not only reserved for landscape photographers, foreground interest can establish depth and complement your subject by making a portrait even more intriguing. Often foreground interest can help a location portrait pop when only natural light is in play, rather than using flash, which doesn't often work well with foreground interest and does the job of adding punch.

When choosing foreground interest at your location, it's important to keep focus on your subject and employ a wide aperture. Too much depth-of-field can make foreground distracting from the main focus. Look for objects you can shoot past or through such as cars or buildings or foliage. Try adjusting your viewpoint too to make the foreground more prominent.

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6. Look for reflections

Not all location portraits need to be outdoors; a shoot in the city can reveal many unusual possibilities – one popular option being shooting into restaurants and cafes. Not only do your subjects benefit from the soft window light but you get lots of interesting reflections cast across the windows, often revealing context of the location they're in and what's behind you.

It's not a technique that's as easy as it looks because your shooting angle to the glass, the angle and strength of the light and focusing past the reflections can all prove challenging, but it's worth the effort. You're best to manually focus past the reflections, glare and smudges on the window to get your subject sharp and use a wide aperture. If, of course, you want to shoot through a window without reflections, use a polariser.