8 Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location

by John Stapel

How to choose a great portrait photography location

Every portrait photography session requires a great location. After all, the location determines the backdrop, the foreground, and other key compositional elements.

But how do you find the perfect portrait photography location? How do you find foregrounds and backgrounds that both complement and enhance the subject?

In this article, I share my top eight tips for choosing a photoshoot location, whether you’re shooting couples, high-school seniors, families, or even street portraits. I also offer plenty of location examples along the way (so you know exactly what to search for).

Ready to scout out locations like a professional? Then let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:

1. Make sure the location is meaningful

When selecting a portrait photography location, I encourage you to start with meaning.

Sure, standard portrait shots – with the subject against leafy trees or a white background – look nice. But if you can find someplace meaningful, it’ll take your images to a whole new level.

So as you consider each potential location, ask yourself: Does this location add to the story? Does it have meaning to the portrait subjects?

Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location

For instance, if you’re doing an engagement photoshoot, you might journey with your subjects to the original proposal location. And if you’re doing family portraits, you might ask the family if there’s anywhere special they like to go (such as a nearby park, nearby lake, or even their home garden).

Most people have at least one or two locations that work, both aesthetically and emotionally. But make 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 areas of open shade

While bright, sunny days are always great for picnics, swimming, and noontime fun, they’re not so great for portrait photography.

You see, bright sun creates lots of unpleasant shadows, especially around the eyes – plus, bright sun often causes the subjects to squint, which is a big no-no.

If you’re lucky, your photoshoot will fall on a day with some nice cloud cover, and you’ll be able to capture soft, evenly lit portraits without much effort. But clouds are never guaranteed, which means that you always, always need a backup plan.

Specifically, seek out portrait photography locations that provide plenty of open shade.

(Open shade refers to areas that are shaded but aren’t completely closed off. A small meadow surrounded by trees is a perfect example of open shade; the meadow is covered with shadows, but plenty of light can filter on through the branches.)

Open shade is ideal because it doesn’t feature harsh sunlight falling directly on the subject, but it provides enough light to give the eyes some sparkle. In my experience, open shade offers nice, soft, directional light that creates depth but isn’t full of contrast.

Of course, if your photoshoot does fall on a cloudy day, you can ignore your shaded locations. But it’s always a good idea to have a few in mind (just in case!).

3. Find some leading lines

Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location

Leading lines refer to lines that lead the viewer’s eye into the scene (and generally toward the main subject).

And while leading lines are especially popular in landscape photography, they work great in portrait photography, too; they help create depth, they focus the viewer on the main subject, plus they add a sense of movement, or dynamism, to the composition.

So when you’re scouting possible photoshoot locations, keep an eye out for leading lines. Note that lines can be anything: fences and paths are popular, but you can use twisting tree branches, the lines of a cornfield, tree roots, hand railings, and so much more.

The image featured at the start of this section uses a fence to lead the eye, while this next image uses the train track edges:

Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location

4. Look for backlit leaves

Here’s a portrait photography secret:

If you want really beautiful backgrounds – the kind of backgrounds that are full of gorgeous, sparkly bokeh – then you should look for thickets of leaves…

…and make sure that, when you conduct your photoshoot, the leaves are backlit.

You see, when the sun filters through leaves, it creates beautiful pinpricks of light. And when those light pinpricks are rendered out of focus, ideally with a wider aperture of f/1.8, f/2.8, or f/4, they’ll turn into a beautiful mosaic of green twinkles:

Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location

For the best results, I’d recommend shooting late in the day. That way, the sun will be low in the sky, so you’ll be able to photograph backlit leaves without needing to shoot upward. Plus, the bokeh will take on a gorgeous golden glow!

Note that the backlighting will create shadows, so consider using a reflector to bounce some extra light into your subject’s face.

5. Search for beautiful textures

This portrait location tip is simple, but it works amazingly well:

Find locations that offer plenty of texture, such as barn doors, rocks, tree bark, or walls with peeling paint.

Then, when you conduct the photoshoot, position your subject directly in front of the texture, then snap away!

Rough textures can help make your subject’s skin pop, plus they can add an extra layer of interest to your portraits:

Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location

And I encourage you to experiment with different apertures. Sometimes, you’ll want to use a wide aperture to soften the background texture – whereas other times, you’ll want to use a narrow aperture so the texture creates plenty of bite. Make sense?

6. Add in geometric shapes

Our brains like order. We want the puzzle pieces to fit together, and we want the elements of each photograph to fit together like a completed jigsaw.

Therefore, if you’re after powerful portrait compositions, you should search for locations that feature plenty of eye-catching geometry.

Personally, I like to look for triangles, circles, rectangles, and squares. Then I compose my images so the shapes fit together.

Of course, you may be interested in different shapes – though when you’re just starting out, simply look for any and all geometry. Then do what you can to incorporate it into your shots.

For instance, you might find locations with fences, tall trees, houses, reeds, train tracks, and more! (When you start looking for shapes, you’ll see them everywhere.)

Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location

7. Make sure the location has layers

The best portrait photos feature lots of depth. The viewer feels like they could step into the frame and touch the individual elements.

But how do you create a sense of depth, of three-dimensionality?

You use layers. Specifically, you search for locations that feature strong foregrounds, midgrounds, and backgrounds, then let these different elements draw the viewer through the composition.

For instance, look at this next photo:

Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location

It offers plenty of depth, right? The grass acts as the foreground, the toddler acts as the midground, and the leaves act as a background – for a 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, one that looks especially great in portrait photos:

Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location

You see, a line of trees offers:

  • Plenty of open shade for beautiful diffused light
  • An obvious indicator of depth
  • Plenty of leaves for stunning bokeh

Plus, lines of trees often come with paths, which can create beautiful leading lines (see the image above!).

And that’s why I search out rows of trees whenever I can!

Pro tip: Try shooting with a long lens from a distance; this will produce a beautiful tunnel vision effect that often looks gorgeous. You can also experiment with wide apertures for extra 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 some stunning portrait photos!

So head out and start scouting. Create a location list, which you can reference as needed. And, of course, have fun!

Now over to you:

How will you choose your next portrait photoshoot location? Which of these tips do you like most? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

8 Tips for Choosing a Great Portrait Photography Location