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Five Things To Look For In A Portrait Location

Wide portrait shot of a young woman sitting on rustic wooden fence and looking off to the right.

Picking a place to take photos is a difficult thing to do. If you don’t spend a lot of time taking photos, you may assume that you can get good ones anywhere. Or you may feel the opposite, like you don’t know enough to pick a spot.  I find that it is often overlooked or forgotten by my clients, but I also know that the best photos I take come from well-planned shoots with well-picked locations. That is why I put together this checklist of things you should look for in a good photo location. To help you pick the spot where we will take photos that you will love for the rest of your life.

The five things that we ask people to look for when choosing a photo location are: interesting backgrounds, relative privacy, good light, access and variety.

Wide portrait of young woman standing in front of a mural of Atlas and mimicking his pose.

Interesting backgrounds

The first thing you want to look for is a spot with an interesting background. You want backgrounds that are large enough to put a person in front of. The bigger the useable space, the more variety you’ll have in shot size – that means you can get wider shots and tighter shots and generally have more room to get creative. You’ll also want to look for backgrounds that have a consistent look. You don’t want them to be busy or to draw the eye. You are the focal point of your portrait, not the background. That also means you want to avoid backgrounds that are marred by immovable signs or fences or any other distractions.

Think about getting up high or down low. Good grass to lie in, or a place to frame yourself against the sky can make for beautiful backgrounds. And I’m always a fan of something to climb on, hang from, or jump off of. So it never hurts if your location has something along those lines.

Medium close up portrait of a young man, shot from below, with a colorful geometric pattern in the background.

Relative privacy

You don’t have to find a location that is absolutely abandoned to get a good portrait, but there are a few reasons why you’ll want to find a relatively isolated spot. It saves time. It makes life easier. It leads to better photos. It is all about removing distractions. You want to create an environment that is conducive to getting the best photos possible. That means you don’t want distractions in the photos (e.g. people walking through the background).

Wide portrait of a girl spinning in an alley.

You also don’t want distractions in the shoot itself. Some people don’t mind being the center of attention, but most of the people we shoot with aren’t big fans. Every person, even the ones who like getting their photo taken in front of strangers, is aware that there are people around and will be way more likely to put up a front, to put on a mask, to come out of themselves a little bit because of that awareness. And that will mean worse photos.

So find a place that doesn’t have too many people around. Or find a time when it is not very busy. Or see if you can get access to the space when it is closed. Or see if the owner’s will let you close it off from the public for the time of your shoot. There are always options. But your life (and mine) will be better with fewer people around while we try to take photos.

Medium portrait of young man standing on the edge of the forest with his arms crossed.

Good light

“Good light” is relative. Talk to a few photographers and you are sure to hear all sorts opinions. On top of that, the kind of light you’re looking for will vary depending on the style of photo you are trying to get. However, a good rule of thumb is that bigger light sources are better than small ones. That means windows are better than can lights inside and the sun behind a cloud is better than direct sunlight outside. If we have to shoot in direct sunlight, I’ll usually want the sun to be at your back (so you’re not squinting in the photo) so take that into account when looking at backgrounds and picking the time of day to shoot. I’ll almost always advise that outdoor shoots take place in the hour or so after sunrise or the hour or so before sunset because that is my favorite light to shoot in.

Wide portrait of a young man sitting on the ledge of a stair well and looking up, in black and white.

Another thing to look for is a consistent color temperature. Unless you are doing something pretty stylized, you want your face to be illuminated by white light, but even “white” light has a color cast. It is usually described along a temperature scale from cool (more blue) to warm (more orange). Daylight (from the sun) is on the cooler end of the spectrum and lamp light from a tungsten bulb is on the warmer end. I tend to prefer to shoot in daylight myself, but the most important thing is that the temperature is consistent. All the lights should be "warm" or "cool", not a mixture of each. If there are some of each, it makes it very difficult to get the skin tone right and, for so many reasons, it is incredibly important to get the skin tone right.

Portrait of a young woman leaning against a Greek-style pillar and looking towards the horizon.

Access

This may seem obvious, but we need to have access to the location at the time we want to shoot. I may also ask for access beforehand, if I need to scout the location out and confirm that it will work for your portraits. This is not usually a problem in public places or spaces you own, but if you have a privately-owned location in mind you should probably ask a head of time. If that is not a thing you are comfortable doing, let me know. Just give me whatever information you have and I’ll do my best to get ahold of the owner and secure permission.

Wide portrait of a young man sitting on a ledge and letting one leg dangle, in black and white.

Variety

If you find a place with interesting backgrounds, relative privacy, good light and access, you’re probably good to go. It is hard enough to find a place with all four of those things, but if you can find multiple locations within walking distance that all meet all of those criteria, that is just icing on the cake. That will give us more opportunities to try different things, to figure out what works, and to get photos that you love.

Wide portrait of a young woman standing in an alley with her hand on her hip.

Wrap-up

So as you go about your life, keep your eyes open. If you find a place that seems like it has good backgrounds, is relatively private, has good light, that you have (or can get) access to, make a mental note of it. Keep a list, either in your head or on paper, so that when it comes time to get your portrait taken you have some ideas. Maybe someday one of them will be the spot we take your favorite portrait.

Dillon McElhinneyComment