When we first start out in photography, we tend to believe that we need beautiful locations and perfect lighting conditions (as well as a bit of luck) in order to create incredible portraits. It’s easy to walk into a scene and feel limited by our surroundings if we’re not standing in a picture perfect setting. With a little creative effort and insight, however, you’ll find that you can actually capture great portraits in any location.

Video: 5 Recipes for Great Portraits in Any Location

In this article, we’re going to share five “recipes” for great portraits that you can use anywhere. Give these recipes a try the next time you head out, and enjoy your newfound freedom from relying on location to make or break your session.

These tips are based on concepts covered in our Engagement Photography 101 workshop.

Recipe #1: Repeating Patterns

recipes for great outdoor natural light portrait tips repeating pattern
Final image: 50mm prime, 1/500, f/1.4, ISO 200, edited with Visual Flow Presets > Crush Pack > Soft Light

A common compositional element to look for when arriving on location is repeating patterns. Something as simple as a solid block of leaves (such as the vines on the wall pictured above) can offer consistent color & tone and add texture to the image, further drawing our focus to the subjects. If possible, try to find backdrops like this in shaded areas to take advantage of softer, natural light.

Recipe #2: Directional Light Location

recipes for great outdoor natural light portrait tips directional light
Final image: 50mm prime, 1/250, f/2.8, ISO 200, edited with Visual Flow Presets > Crush Pack > Soft Light

Try to find an overhang or someplace that produces directional light. In portraits, directional light (which means your primary light source is falling on your subject from one direction) adds depth to your subjects and creates contrast and interest.

Consider it an added bonus if you can find such a location that also features a darker background for a dramatic portrait. Whenever you have a highlighted subject against a darker background, you can create portraits in what is known as the chiaroscuro style.

Bonus Tip: Shoot a variety of angles (wide, medium, and tight) in scenes that allow for wider environmental portraits. You already have your subjects in place, so take advantage and explore the location to look for additional interesting angles. Don’t get stuck standing the same distance from your subjects while shooting with the same focal length.

[Related Reading: How to Create Dramatic Portraits with Just Natural Light]

Recipe #3: Flat Light Is Flattering

recipes for great outdoor natural light portrait tips flat lighting
Final image: 50mm prime, 1/400, f/1.4, ISO 100, edited with Visual Flow Presets > Crush Pack > Soft Light

This recipe offers a completely different look than the previous recipe. One thing that flat lighting does not bring is drama, but we don’t need it to. In fact, you can use flat lighting to take flawless selfies and portraits┬ábecause of its flattering effects. Place your subjects in open shade and position them so that they’re facing the light source, be it the open sky or a window if indoors. The light should minimize the appearance of wrinkles and other contours of the skin.

Bonus Tip: Simple backgrounds work just fine for flat light portraits, but try to add some props to the scene for visual interest.

Recipe #4: Light & Shadow Play

recipes for great outdoor natural light portrait tips shadow play
Final image: 24mm prime, 1/2000, f/4, ISO 100, edited with Visual Flow Presets > Crush Pack > Hard Light

It’s great when you can find shadows being cast on a wall. They offer a great opportunity to get creative. In the scene pictured above, we placed our subjects a short distance from a wall so that we could capture their shadows to create a unique portrait.

Recipe #5: Backlit Grass

recipes for great outdoor natural light portrait tips backlit grass
Final image: 50mm prime, 1/2000, f/1.4, ISO 100, edited with Visual Flow Presets > Crush Pack > Backlit

If you can find it, tall, backlit grass always looks great. In situations where the surrounding area is full of distracting elements, just switch to a tighter focal length lens (ideally a wide aperture prime lens to separate the subjects from the background with a shallow depth of field). The bonus in this location is the large wall which is reflecting light back not the scene and serving as a fill light.

[Related Reading: When SHOULD You Blow Out the Highlights?]


I hope you enjoyed this article/video with five recipes for great portraits in any location. Now, rather than Googling “Photo Locations Near Me” for your next session, look for ways to make the most of unexpected spots. You might be surprised at how much you can do with just a little creative inspiration, even when you’re shooting next to (or sometimes in) a parking lot.

If you’d like to find more great photography education, check out our Premium subscriptions, which offer access to 30+ workshops on everything from posing, lighting, and editing to running a photography business.