Every portrait photography session requires an ideal location. After all, location determines the background, foreground, and other key elements of the composition.
But how do you find the perfect place for portrait photography? How do you find foregrounds and backgrounds that complement and improve the object?
In this article, I share my top eight tips for choosing a photoshoot location, whether you’re photographing couples, high school students, families, or even street portraits. I also provide plenty of localization examples along the way (so you know exactly what to look for).
Ready to explore places like a pro? So let’s dive into it, starting with my first tip:
1. Make sure the location is meaningful
When selecting a portrait photography location, I encourage you to start with sense.
Sure, standard portraits — with the subject against leafy trees or a white background — look good. But if you can find a meaningful place, it will take your images to a whole new level.
So when considering each potential location, ask yourself: does this location add to the story? Does this make sense for the subjects of the portrait?
For example, if you’re doing an engagement shoot, you can accompany your subjects to the original proposal location. And if you’re doing family portraits, you could ask the family if there’s a special place they like to go (like a nearby park, a nearby lake, or even their backyard).
Most people have at least one or two places that work, both aesthetically and emotionally. But be sure to ask your subjects about potential locations in advance (you don’t want to stress them out on the day of the shoot!).
2. Look for open shade areas
Although bright, sunny days are always ideal for picnics, swimming and midday entertainment, they are do not therefore ideal for portrait photography.
You see, the bright sun creates a lot of nasty shadows, especially around the eyes – plus the bright sun often causes subjects to squint, which is a big no-no.
If you’re lucky, your photo shoot will fall on a day with nice cloud cover, and you’ll be able to capture soft, evenly lit portraits without much effort. But clouds are never guaranteed, which means you always have, still need a backup plan.
Specifically, look for portrait photography locations that provide plenty of unobstructed shade.
(Open shade refers to areas that are shaded but not completely enclosed. A small grassland surrounded by trees is a perfect example of open shade; the grassland is covered in shadows, but a lot of light can filter through the branches .)
The open shade is ideal because it doesn’t feature direct sunlight falling directly on the subject, but it does provide enough light to give the eyes a little sparkle. In my experience, the open shade provides a nice soft, directional light that creates depth but is not full of contrast.
Of course, if your photo shoot falls on cloudy days, you can skip your shaded locations. But it’s always a good idea to have a few in mind (just in case!).
3. Find guidelines
Guidelines refer to guidelines that carry out the viewer’s eye into the scene (and usually towards the main subject).
And while leading lines are especially popular in landscape photography, they also work great in portrait photography; they help create depth, they focus the viewer on the main subject, and they add a sense of movement or dynamism to the composition.
So when researching possible shooting locations, keep an eye out for guidelines. Note that lines can be anything: fences and paths are popular, but you can use twisted tree branches, lines from a cornfield, tree roots, railings and more Again.
The image shown at the beginning of this section uses a fence to guide the eye, while this next image uses the edges of the train tracks:
4. Look for backlit leaves
Here is a secret of portrait photography:
If you want really nice backgrounds – the kind of backgrounds full of beautiful, glittering bokeh – then you should look for thickets of leaves…
…and make sure that when you do your photo shoot, the sheets are backlit.
You see, when the sun filters through the leaves, it creates beautiful stings of light. And when these stings of light are blurred, ideally with a wider aperture of f/1.8, f/2.8 or f/4, they turn into a beautiful mosaic of green shimmers:
For best results, I recommend taking photos late in the day. This way the sun will be low in the sky, so you can shoot backlit leaves without needing to shoot up. Plus, the bokeh will take on a gorgeous golden glow!
Note that backlighting will create shadows, so consider using a reflector to bounce some extra light back onto your subject’s face.
5. Look for beautiful textures
This Portrait Locator Trick Is Simple, But It Works surprisingly Good:
Find places that offer lots of texture, like barn doors, rocks, tree bark, or walls with peeling paint.
Then, when you do the photo shoot, position your subject directly in front of the texture, then take a shot!
Rough textures can help bring out your subject’s skin, and they can also add an extra layer of interest to your portraits:
And I encourage you to experiment with different openings. Sometimes you’ll want to use a wide aperture to soften the background texture, while other times you’ll want to use a narrow aperture so the texture creates lots of bite. Make sense ?
6. Add geometric shapes
Our brain likes order. We want the puzzle pieces to fit together, and we want the elements of each photograph to fit together like a complete puzzle.
Therefore, if you are looking for powerful portrait compositions, you should look for locations that feature lots of eye-catching geometries.
Personally, I like to look for triangles, circles, rectangles and squares. Then I compose my images so that the shapes fit together.
Of course, you may be interested in different shapes – although when you’re just starting out, just look for any geometry. Then do what you can to incorporate it into your shots.
For example, you might find places with fences, tall trees, houses, reeds, train tracks, and more! (When you start looking for shapes, you’ll see them everywhere.)
7. Make sure the location has layers
The best portrait photos feature lots of depth. The viewer feels as if they can step into the frame and touch the individual elements.
But how to create an impression of depth, of three-dimensionality?
You use layers. Specifically, you look for locations that feature strong foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds, and then let those different elements to design the viewer through the composition.
For example, look at this following photo:
It offers a lot of depth, doesn’t it? The grass acts as the foreground, the toddler acts as the middle and the leaves act as the background – for the perfect combination of three-dimensionality!
8. Find rows of trees
When a series of trees are arranged in a line, they often create a stunning result, especially beautiful in portrait photos:
You see, a row of trees offers:
- Lots of open shade for nice diffused light
- An obvious indicator of depth
- Lots of leaves for great bokeh
Also, tree lines are often accompanied by paths, which can create nice leading lines (see the image above!).
And that’s why I look for rows of trees whenever I can!
Pro tip: try shooting from a distance with a long lens; this will produce a nice tunnel vision effect that often looks like gorgeous. You can also experiment with wide apertures for additional background bokeh.
Portrait Photography Locations: Final Words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about choosing a portrait location – and you’re ready to capture great portraits!
So go and start exploring. Create a list of locations, which you can reference as needed. And, of course, have fun!
Now your turn :
How will you choose your next portrait photoshoot location? Which of these tips do you like the most? Share your opinion in the comments below!