Autumn is my favourite season for outdoor portrait photography. Can you guess why? Yes, the beautiful contrasting colours provided by the golden leaves on trees and on the ground make for stunning backgrounds. But it’s also that unique, soft, sideways light. And the combination of these two elements is an unmatched combo!
So I would like to share with you some of my portrait photography tips to make the best of the autumn attributes, things to consider when it comes to taking advantage of the natural light, equipment that can be handy, useful camera settings and even the best colours to wear to look amazing in portraits!
Have your camera ready with a fully charged battery, especially if it’s a bit chilly, since batteries in general tend to die faster when cold. Have a memory card with a lot of free capacity.
To make the best of your portrait session, take along a mid sized reflector. There are many options in the market to buy, but you can also make your own. Just get a thick cardboard piece of at least 50 cm on its shorter side and wrap it in aluminium foil. You can find a quick guide on How to Build a Photography Lighting Reflector here.
If it’s just going to be you and your model, then I strongly recommend you to have a tripod for your camera and/or one for your reflector. Otherwise just ask a friend to hold the reflector so that you can entirely focus on getting a great shot.
Choose your location
Stockholm has so many green areas and parks where you can get close to the water. In the autumn the gorgeous warm colours of the yellowing leaves that decorate the tree branches and the ground create a beautiful backdrop for portrait photography. So make it to a park you already know and find a spot surrounded by trees with lots of leaves on the ground. The bright yellow colour of these will reflect a very beautiful light that you can make use of for your photo session.
My absolute favourite park for portraits is Djurgården, you don’t even have to go very far inside, just walk about 5 minutes from Djurgårdsbron and you’ll already find plenty of beautiful spots close to the water with lots of trees that you can use to frame your subject.
How to make the best of the light
The sunlight in autumn has two main characteristics. It’s soft, something that is very flattering for portrait photography since the highlights and shadows cast on the face tend to be very faded. The second characteristic is that it comes from the side instead of from above our head. This light can easily be manipulated and reflected.
I normally like to place my subject with the sun behind them, then with the help of the reflector, which I place in front of them, I reflect the sunlight onto their faces. Like in the portrait below.
The effect created by having the sun in the frame and at the same time having the subject lit, instead of darkened, takes the portrait to a whole new level. A well-lit image makes the difference between a good photo and a bad photo.
Once you have found your spot, placed your subject and your reflector, then you can set up the camera. With these light conditions I would normally go for ISO 400 and then it’s up to you how you prefer to work your camera. You might want to go with the Aperture priority automatic function, which is highly recommended for portraits, or perhaps you’re like me and want to go full Manual. In any case I would work with a fixed aperture value or F-stop of F5.6 or even go down to F2.8. Why? Because we’re taking portraits and we want our subject to be the main element in our photograph. When working with a large aperture our subject will separate from the background and the background will then look blurred.
Depending on whether you’re hand-holding your camera or if it’s sitting on a tripod, remember to make sure you have your camera’s shutter speed set up at a high enough value. I recommend 1/125 sec. minimum value for hand-held if you have an incredibly steady hand, but if you’re more like me and it’s cold outside you’ll be on the safe side with setting it at 1/250 sec.
What to wear
To visually contrast and complement the naturally prevalent yellow and orange colours of the season, ask your model to wear blues or bright greens.