Shooting Portraits on Location—A Primer


Location, location, location might be best known as the buzzword of real estate agents, but in many ways, this classic motto is also key to capturing striking portraits. When it comes to creating images, planning a portrait session on location encompasses much more than finding a visually pleasing backdrop for your shoot.

Finding and Recording Locations

Whether you shoot portraits on a regular basis or only occasionally, compiling a reference list of suitable shoot locations will keep you well prepared for future opportunities. You probably already have your favorite spots, but it’s a good idea to add to your collection continuously. Variety counts—since the more options you have, the better able you are to make the right choice for each client or subject. Be sure to take your signature style into account, as well.

You may want to set aside a few hours from time to time to scout new locations in person. Equally important is paying attention to your local surroundings; you may find some prime settings during your everyday outings.

Other ways to identify locations—especially if you have a shoot out of your immediate area—include Google Street View, searching Instagram or various social media/image sharing sites, and contacting other photographers whose images you admire.

When you find a potential location, be sure to record where it is. Take a snapshot with your smartphone and geotag it, as described in Todd Vorenkamp’s How to Geotag Your Photos. You can photograph the nearest intersection and street signs or pin your location on Google or Apple maps. Alternatively, you can use a navigation tool like a compass or handheld GPS unit to record the location’s coordinates.

Want to know when the sun will shine on a specific location? Check out the Sun Surveyor app.

Want to know when the sun will shine on a specific location? Check out the Sun Surveyor app.

As you consider locations, keep the following in mind:

  • Site accessibility—can you and your client(s) easily reach the site and within a short amount of time? This is especially important if children or less-nimble adults are your subjects. Remember, it’s more efficient (and profitable) to spend the bulk of your session photographing rather than traveling to a location.
  • Does the location match the purpose of the shoot and the personality of your client(s)? A gritty urban location is a better fit for a musician, artist, or other creative type, while a lovely park is more appropriate for, say, a family portrait.
  • Listen to your client. Certain situations may call for portraits made at a specific place with special meaning—to announce an engagement or celebrate an anniversary, birthday, or wedding, for example.
  • Do you need special permission or a permit to stage a photo shoot? Is that cool old barn on private property? If it is, be sure to get written permission from the owner. Does the park require a permit and charge an associated fee to shoot there? What are the rules for shooting on a city street? Permits and fees are often dependent on whether it’s a commercial shoot, how many people are involved (clients and crew), and the amount and type of equipment being used. Check online at the city or local level to find out what’s required. Most parks, for example, have a separate section outlining rules and regulations.
  • What’s the lighting like at different times of day—especially for golden hour? Perhaps the most efficient way to determine the lighting is via one of two apps. The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Sun Surveyor are excellent tools for remotely determining sunrise and sunset times for any given date, anywhere in the world. More importantly, they provide visual simulations of where and how the sun will fall throughout the day so you can easily see if/when buildings, trees, or other elements might block the light or cast shadows. Both are available for use with iOS and Android devices.
  • How crowded is a location at any given time? There’s no app for this, but the more popular the location, the more crowded it will likely be—especially during the latter part of the day when the light is beautifully warm and flattering. Keep in mind that early morning golden hour is equally appealing, but probably less populated—if you and your client don’t mind being early birds.
  • Is there a covered area nearby if the weather turns bad during a shoot?
  • If your subjects want to change outfits during the session—a very popular aspect of senior student shoots—is there a convenient place offering the privacy to do so?
The Photographer’s Ephemeris app tracks the sun’s position on any given date and time so you can better prepare for your shoot.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris app tracks the sun’s position on any given date and time so you can better prepare for your shoot.

Working With (or in Spite of) Nature

Sometimes we wonder if people reporting the weather ever look outside their windows, but they’re all we have to predict conditions prior to a shoot, especially when you may be booking portrait sessions days, weeks, or even months ahead of time. If you live somewhere with weather that can be erratic—let’s say Denver—where temperatures and conditions sometimes swing wildly (a blizzard in the morning with sunny, warmer afternoon conditions in time for a Broncos game), you might want to select one or more locations that also provide shelter just in case the weather turns bad. Weather is generally more stable in places like sunny San Diego, which gives you more confidence in sticking with a chosen location, date, and time.

Regardless, be sure to have a plan for inclement conditions and write that plan into your contract (you do have a contract, right?). How will you handle rescheduling a shoot? How many times will you reschedule and what’s the financial impact? Be specific and very clear when communicating this in writing and verbally with your client.

Tools for Making the Most of Your Chosen Setting

While your ideal may be shooting during golden hour, schedules may not always work around the light, necessitating a change in the gear you bring. As a rule of thumb, you should bring a collapsible reflector—such as Impact's 5-in-1 Collapsible Reflector with Handles—on all your shoots. If you’re stuck with a mid-day shoot in the harsh sun, consider an accessory such as a Westcott Scrim Jim to diffuse the light. Also consider a portable battery-powered strobe, such as the diminutive and lightweight Elinchrom ELB-500 To Go Kit. Using the strobe’s high-speed synch, you can achieve a fast enough shutter speed to open up your f-stop for a soft background and a balanced exposure. The strobe also comes in handy to add a pop of light and eliminate the potential for motion blur under low-light conditions.

But rain, snow, and sun aren’t the only natural elements for which you need to prepare. Photographing on a pristine beach with the ocean in the background can make for gorgeous portraits. It’s here that you not only need to compensate for the sun and water/sand reflections but also for wind and tides. A fan set up in your studio to gently blow a model’s hair or dress may be lovely in a controlled environment, but a windy day on the beach can wreak havoc on a carefully coiffed subject, and being pummeled by blowing sand can be extremely uncomfortable. Add ocean spray and a beautiful shoot can turn into a disaster. And that’s not even counting the damage it can do to your gear. So, in addition to paying attention to the overall weather, make sure to note the wind speed and direction before heading to any outdoor location that’s exposed to the elements. And, when scouting a seaside location, pay attention to the tides; that beautiful span of beach you scouted might disappear twice a day during high tide, leaving you and your subjects little room to maneuver.

Each location has its benefits and drawbacks, all of which should be weighed before locking in a place and time for a shoot. In the end, it’s up to you to take control and make the best recommendations you can. Choose wisely, plan everything down to the last detail, and we’re sure you’ll come away with many beautiful images and a happy client.

What methods do you use when planning for location portraits? Tell us about them in the Comments section, below.