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Simple Tips to Improve Outdoor Portraits

by David Tong

Most of us bought a camera for the same reason, to take portraits of our love ones. Quite a number of people are content with the idea of “I’m after the person in the picture, I could care less about photography techniques!”. While that reasoning is justified, as capturing the subject take precedence over technicalities of photography, you have to ask yourself, “if I’m taking a photo anyway, why not make the photo nicer since it’ll take the same amount of effort, film, storage, anyway?”

Here are some simple tips and pointers to improve your day-to-day snapshots to make your love ones look better in your photo album!

The series of photos below are taken in this small area. A typical Singapore housing void deck with the public parking lot in the background.


The most common mistake that snapshots show is a busy background. Before you take a shot, do a simple scan of the background through your camera’s LCD or viewfinder. If the background is not an important element (a tourist landmark, for example), don’t include it in the scene.

In this example, the background is competing with the subject for attention and the viewer’s eyes wander around the frame trying to see what’s behind the subject. How do we improve this shot? We have a couple of tricks up our sleeves.

  • Zoom in closer – By using a longer focal length, you crop out other parts of the scene and keep the attention to your subject while blurring the background as well.

  • Find a cleaner background – By simply moving your camera position and finding a blank wall or less cluttered background, you can effectively clean up the clutter of the image as well.

Strange Objects

Another common problem I see in snapshots are objects sticking in and out of the subject’s edge, such as the photos below:

I’m sure my wife won’t appreciate the antlers and Nicole, my niece, won’t appreciate becoming Sideshow Bob. So keep an eye on those common scenes.

Squint and Shadows

The common misconception with casual photographers stems from instructions from camera manuals back in the 70s where they tell you never to shoot against the sun and always have the subject face the light source. While it works when the sun is less intense, such as sunrise, sunset, or overcast days, during bright sunny outdoor shots, this isn’t very flattering for your subjects. The subjects will have dark shadows in inappropriate places and will most likely be uncomfortable and squint due to the harsh light.

As my son shows, he doesn’t like facing the 11AM sun that much. The shadows around his eyes make him look like a panda and he couldn’t look towards the camera due to the glare. The solution is incredibly simple, just turn him away from the light source!

By turning away from the light, we get a nice rim-light around his hair and shoulders while having a soft light reflecting from the ground. Another way to improve the situation is to move the subject under a shade but still have the sunlight coming in from the side, resulting to a more directional light hitting the subject even at high noon.

As you can see, even in a limited and confined space, there are ways to make your images look more presentable than mindlessly snapping images without care. If you find these tips helpful, feel free to post your examples below this page.

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