5 ways to improve portraits on location

I’m lucky enough to have two studios (yeah, just call me greedy), but there’s nothing quite like shooting on location. Of course there are challenges to shooting out and about, not least of which the weather being somewhat unreliable here in the UK. But if you follow these top tips, I promise those portraits you shoot on location will improve immeasurably.


Ask yourself why

Shooting on location is exciting. The possibilities are endless. And here is where you can come unstuck. Think about why you are using the location you’ve chosen. What’s the context? An unusual backdrop adds lots of extra noise to a photo, but that noise must be for a reason. It needs to tell a story. Think about your subject and how the location adds to what they’re trying to say. Even better, involve the client/person. Ask questions. Listen twice as much as you speak and all sorts of possibilities open up.



staff portrait

man on boat

Lighting is everything

We all know how important lighting is to great photography. Unless you are shooting on film or a rather expensive medium format back, you will have the same issue I often come across; your sensor won’t have enough latitude to get the background and the subject both in the photograph. This is where I get the lights out. I could write for hours about light placement and modification choices, but I’ll save that for another post. Lighting is quasi-religious for me. I devote time, thought and love to it.

If you remember one thing about lighting, make sure it suits the style of the portrait, the subject and also allows you as the photographer to portray your sitter in the way you want. There is no right or wrong, it’s all about your personal preferences and making an educated decision. Sometimes I am happy using the light from a fortuitously placed cafe window, other times I go for 10 artificial lights.



Leicester Race Course



Yes, yes, yes to the rule of thirds, whether in a controlled studio environment or our and about on location. But composition is about so much more than this when on location. Think about what your location brings; bright points, text, anything red… Location adds to composition but it can also take away from it. Take your time to frame and think carefully. It’s lazy to fix in post. Aim to shoot the image right.

Uncle Frank fun loving criminals



Chose your background


I have never seen the point in shooting on location and then going bokeh mad. Granted, I am not a massive fan of bokeh and most of my portfolio is shot at about f11-16. When I do go to the F2 end of the scale, I like to shoot on a wider lens. 35, 28 and 24mm. This gives a compressions that allows the viewer to see the context of the surroundings. Don’t spend ages searching for a location to then shoot wide open on a tele lens.



we three and the death rattle

Gaz Birtles



Fail to plan, prepare to fail

An old saying, but a good one. Planning your location is key. Don’t fall back on the idea that being out on location means so much is left to chance there’s little point in planning. This just isn’t true. Think about all the detail. Knowing where the sun will be at what time, what colour the light is going to be and more importantly (in the UK) when it will rain.

When I shoot celebrities, the sitting is often very short as their time is precious. There’s still an opportunity to prepare though; with multiple test shots using an assistant sitting in, so that the lighting is ready and we’re shoot-ready when the celebrity arrives. Yes, tweaks will still need to be made, but hopefully minimal ones. Doing all this prep in advance means my full attention is on the sitter. And that makes for better photos.



Leicester Tigers




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