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How to shoot outdoor portrait photography at night - The Photography Express

How to shoot outdoor portrait photography at night

Outdoor portrait photography at nightPortrait photography in an outdoor environment is always challenging. Unexpected things can easily happen and there are just too many variables designed to catch you off guard. I lost count of how many times I struggled with this type of photography and that is why in this post I want to show you how to take better outdoor portrait photography shots. To take this even further, I am going to share with you how to shoot outdoor portrait photography at night, on a street, with a model, and with special lighting equipment! I believe by taking this to the extreme level you can get the most out of what I learned and try it at your own. So please enjoy and as always ask me questions at the comment section below or email me HERE. If you want to show further support, please like my facebook page HERE and follow me on Twitter HERE.

To get started, let me tell you a little bit of the photography class that I recently took. It was a night portrait photography session with The Showcase School located in Atlanta Georgia and the instructor Amanda Gardner was simply amazing. She started off the session by teaching us important concepts of night portrait techniques followed by providing us a model to practice what we just learned. I have heard so much that day and I recommend anyone living nearby to sign up for Amanda’s class.

In my opinion, here are the 5 points you can make your outdoor portrait photography both astonishing and intriguing to the audience.

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1)   The background sets the stage

The_Background_Sets_The_Stage_3The background is the king in outdoor portrait photography. Not matter whether you are The_Background_Sets_The_Stage_2shooting in broad daylight or nighttime, it’s very important not to be dull with your shots. If you are shooting at night and behind your subject is just a simple darkness of light, that’s not very interesting at all. On the other hand, if you shoot in daylight and you background is full of distractions like kids running around and birds flying on top of the subject’s head, it’s not going to look good either. On the picture I took on the left, I used streetlight as the background and they looked great in different color. I have to say I wish I zoomed in more to have more blurred on the streetlight but this was one of the best shot I took that night. The picture I took on the on the right is another example to not have much distraction on the background when shooting in daylight.

2)   Flash and lighting equipment are essential

IceLightDon’t feel using flash is cheating in outdoor portrait photography. In fact, you should treat using flash a Alien_Bee_1600way of creating light in an artistic way to express your point of view. I can’t stress how important flash is in night photography and I recommend anyone who currently does not own a flash to get one as soon as possible. Beside the usual flash gear that Canon and Nikon produce, other flash gears I learned during the class were the Alien Bee and Ice Light. You can also add color filters to your flash to add effect on your photos. Just as I said in my other post, let your creative mind flows when doing photography.

3)   Dragging the shutter

Dragging_The_ShutterNow we are beginning to get into the technical side of photography. Dragging the shutter means we set our camera at a slower shutter speed so that more ambient light can be captured in the shot.

Let me give you a quick example. Say you only have a camera with no flash equipment. The only way to capture more light is by setting the camera shutter speed way down. This would allow plenty of ambient light to be captured in the background HOWEVER any small movement of your object will create a blur in your image. Further imagine you are trying to solve this problem by using a flash to fill light to your object. This will give your object plenty of light HOWEVER it would cause the shutter speed to go way up that the background will turn black because it didn’t have time to capture light for the background.

So in order to have adequate light for both the object and the background we must use drag the shutter technique. To do this you first set your camera to a shutter speed to about 1/60. You also want to raise the ISO to around 800 to let the camera sensor be more sensitive. Lastly, you should use flash to illuminate the object just bright enough to stop minor motions.

I shot this picture on the left at 47mm, F4, ISO100 at 1/200 shutter speed. You may wonder why my ISO is so low and shutter speed so fast. That’s because I was using the Alien Bee which produced a very strong light source. Every setting is different so you may not get the same result using my settings described above. But if you keep this technique in mind I am sure you will get a picture with great result.

4)   Painting with light

Painting_With_Light_3Another technique that is relatively simple and fun to use is called painting with light. This works Painting_With_Lightamazing well in an outdoor portrait photography environment. As a matter of fact we can paint light on people as well as paint with light objects. To paint light using objects, use a flashlight or items such as a LED Hula Loop as shown on the picture on the left. You can then set the shutter speed to 1-5 seconds (or more) depending on the light condition to capture movements. If you have a flashlight, while the shutter is open get near the object and flash the light on the spot you want to highlight. If you are only using a flash, try setting it to 2nd curtain sync flash so this way allows you to freeze the motion right before the camera close the shutter and takes the shot. I shot this picture on the left at 35mm using f4, 2 seconds, and ISO 160. Flashlight was also fired once on the left to light up the ground and freeze motion of the model. As mentioned before the other way is to paint light on people. I used the alien bee with an orange filter to create this effect on Amanda on the picture at the right (yep my instructor that day). This makes everything in the area look orange and it was just fun to do.

5)   Add motions

Add Motions 2After you have master the above techniques you can try adding a sense of movement on your outdoor portrait photography. This can be achieved by zooming in and out of your lens while taking the shot. I must say it is quite hard to master this technique but once you have done it the picture will have a great 3D effect. Here is an example on the left. I shot this picture while zooming in and out at ISO160, f4 and 5 seconds.

I want to thank you again for reading my post and I hope you gain a lot on how to shoot outdoor portrait photography at night. I’ll be opening the resources page soon so make sure to come back and check it out. As always, keep shooting and don’t give up photography no matter how busy you are. Cheers!

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About Gary

A passionate photographer with goals to fulfill your photography passion and motivate you to take pictures even when life is busy!


  1. I often wondered the best way to do this. Great step by step post! I really like the “painting with light” such a cool idea. Great work!

    • Hi Jonathan thanks for stopping by! Yes painting with light is really cool and fun to do. One thing to remember though is to make sure to a tripod when doing long exposure. Have fun!

  2. Nice shots! I love the connection you’ve made with the series of photos – the hoop! Also the creative concept of painting with light. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Hi Heather, yes I really like the technique of painting with light as well. Before attending the class I’ve read a lot about this technique and tried a few times by myself. I was so excited to finally put it in use with a model and with professional lighting gears!

  3. hi your post was very useful to me but i had a one doubt am using mark III and speed light flash i don’t have any lighting equipment if am taking portrait in outdoor in night am not able to get background am getting only dark background can u tell me how to take portrait

    • Hi Kumar thank you for you question.

      My guess is you are shooting at aperture priority mode and have the flash set to ETTL (if you are using canon). Since the camera is guessing the proper exposure it will make the subject you’re focusing at to be properly exposed. However, the camera will neglect the fact it’s dark outside and choose a faster shutter speed. In fact, the shutter will be too fast to gather enough light for the background to be properly exposed and the flash will be blasting so strong trying to compensate the faster shutter speed.

      In order to fix this issue, I’d first measure the exposure using the P mode on your camera. Press the shutter half way and memorize the shutter speed and aperture the camera ‘thinks’ you should use. Now go to M mode then use the exact same settings. Doing this will allow you to get proper exposure of the background. To get the subject properly expose you will need the speedlite. Give it about half power and gradually use lesser power to have proper exposure of your subject.

      I hope this is helpful, let me know if you have further questions.

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