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The Natural Backdrop

In Arizona we’re fortunate to have some incredibly scenic landscapes in our backyard. Along with the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and Sonoran Desert, the state also boasts mountains, lakes, and forests.

Outdoors locations like these make excellent subjects for photography by themselves. Yet they also make beautiful backdrops for portraiture. As long as the weather permits an outdoors shoot, natural backdrops are available almost anytime and anywhere. You don’t have to live in a rural location to take advantage of a natural backdrop. Parks, beaches, and open space within a city can also offer up some great opportunities.

Using the outdoors as a studio can be both difficult and easy. On the one hand, you’ll have to surrender some control to the weather and environment, and sometimes you won’t be able to shoot at all. Options are limited if it’s very hot, cold, dusty or rainy. 

Yet when things are right, the results can be very satisfying and much different than what might come from working in the studio. While it’s possible to mimic the outdoors with studio backdrops, there’s no substitute for the freedom of working with a natural backdrop to help complement your subject with a great scene.

sedona portrait backdropPhoto Courtesy of Elias Butler

Here Comes the Sun

Making a portrait using a landscape for a backdrop means you’ll be working with sunlight as your source of illumination. It may not be your main light source, but you will need to factor it into your approach. 

Each situation will call for something different. My preference is to use natural light whenever possible for an organic look. Many photographers combine sunlight with artificial light to gain more control over a scene or simply to enhance the available light. For example, a popular technique involves using a softbox to flash a higher light value on a model’s face than the existing ambient light, which can make for a distinctive effect. 

Of course there are other approaches. Despite what some may say, direct sunlight on its own can make for a great portrait although it will tend to highlight skin imperfections. On the other hand, diffused sunlight such as occurs on a cloudy day can be easy to work with and tends to be more forgiving than direct sun.

When you do go outside to make a portrait, be sure to tote along a reflector so that an assistant can bounce light onto your subject. Sometimes adding just a bit of reflected light onto the shadowy side of a face can make all the difference in the appeal of your images. Also, an umbrella can be helpful for shading faces or simply to offer a break from the hot sun in between shots.

See more: What Should a Photographer Pack for a Photo Shoot?

Choosing Your Backdrop

When choosing a location, you’ll need to account for the client or model first and foremost. Some clients want to be photographed in a place where the landscape is recognizable. Others want a natural background that won’t compete for attention, for example when the photographer blurs a background of trees or beach with a nice bokeh while keeping the model in focus.

sedona family portraitPhoto Courtesy of Elias Butler

It’s often possible to achieve these different looks at the same location. One of my favorite places to shoot outdoor portraits in Arizona is a spot called Red Rock Crossing near Sedona, where Oak Creek flows below a large butte called Cathedral Rock. With a thick forest of trees available, as well as a wide-angle view of the distant butte, it offers a good balance between large-scale and more intimate backdrops.

I included photos of two different shoots at this location, one using direct sunlight for a maternity portrait and the other using diffused sunlight for a family portrait with an infant. In both cases I’ve made use of landscape photography techniques to try to make the backdrop as complementary as possible while keeping the people the focus of the image.

Both shoots were of course scheduled ahead of time, so I would be working with whatever type of light I was given that particular day. For the maternity shoot we were working with a late afternoon sun that bathed the natural scene in uniform bright light, making the landscape pop with bright reds, greens, blues, and whites in the clouds. 

The couple asked me to feature the Sedona landscape in their photos, so I relied on my experience shooting scenics to first compose a shot that I could fit the couple within. I sized up the perspective to my liking, placing the butte in the background at an angle that allowed for the mother-to-be to step into the scene without obscuring the view.

sedona maternity portraitPhoto Courtesy of Elias Butler

Because I didn’t have an assistant with me, I chose to add light from my flash unit to help lighten the contrasty scene in the shadow areas. We were in a popular spot so it was necessary to pause every so often when people wandered into the scene. This gave us a chance to take a quick break so it wasn’t a problem. I made sure to shoot everything in both horizontal and vertical formats to give the client options for selecting their favorites. 

When shooting the family at the same location on a different date, I encountered an overcast sky that diffused the sunlight to the point where contrast was not an issue and I could shoot without a flash. Using both wide-angle and zoomed-in focal lengths, I shot a variety of looks while always keeping the landscape an essential element in the photo per the clients’s request.

In both cases the clients were happy with the results and the weather was cooperative. The Sedona landscape became a special element in the photos that reflected the clients’s love for the area, helping to make the images a treasure for their walls and perhaps for the rest of their lives.


Elias Butler

Elias Butler is a professional photographer and writer based in Arizona. He's written a book titled "Grand Obsession" and has been published in Sierra, USA Today, and Arizona Highways among many others. See Butler's website here.


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