How to do a portrait session in a ugly location

I have had the privilege of doing not one portrait session but many in some pretty epic places. Having a stunning location to shoot in is every photographer’s dream. It makes the photo shoot a breeze and takes the stress down a notch! Am I right?

However, life isn’t always a dream and sometimes the locations we have available to shoot in are not the best. So I thought I would give myself a challenge and do three portrait sessions in one ugly location and see what I can achieve.

In December, I got in touch with some lovely models, and I was upfront about the challenge – that the location would not be ideal but that we would do our best to create some beautiful images during our portrait sessions together. After a few reschedules because of the London weather, we were able to get together in the course of two weeks and get on with the challenge.

Just putting this out there: what I consider ugly might actually be very beautiful to you, so do what you must with that information. I wanted somewhere with not so great lighting and limited backdrops. Somewhere that made absolutely no sense for a portrait session/model shoot. And I had to work with whatever was already there.

London is full of amazing places to do photoshoots in, so I was lucky enough to find an ugly space one morning as I was walking around my neighbourhood in Putney. As soon as I saw it, I thought – this is the perfect ugly spot for my portrait session challenge.

Here’s what I have learned and here’s what you can do when you have to do a photoshoot in a not so great location:


Look for “the one” spot in the ugly location

Here’s one of the locations that was not that special in my opinion. There were lots of dead, empty trees and a fountain that looked quite rusty and old.

I avoided the dead trees, as I personally find that branches, in particular, can make a photo look quite busy! However, I saw that the fountain had very close tones to her jumper so I decided to play with that and got the model to sit down and zoomed in on her and a little bit of the fountain!

In every location, there’s going to be one spot that you can work with. Try and look at the location for one or two minutes and find the one spot that might match or contrast the clothing of your subject, or that might provide you with a good background for some movement etc.

Focus on that one spot and see if you can make it work.

To see more photos from this model session click here

Focus on the lighting 

Often times when we are in a not so great location, we can focus a lot of our efforts on finding the best spot and we miss the light. We don’t actively look for the light, to see how it falls on the subjects face. Next time, stop worrying about your surroundings for a hot second and maybe look for the light to see what it is up to and how you can use it to your advantage!

This is what I did on this portrait session. It was really rainy, so we had to hide under roofs and bridges and it just wasn’t ideal. So instead of stressing too much about the location, I paid attention to the light and I love this photo because of how the light is placed on her face and how it emphasises her features beautifully.

To see more photos from this model session click here

Don’t forget about leading lines

Look for leading lines! Oh my landa, I love leading lines. They’re used to draw a viewers attention to a specific part of the frame, whether it’s a person, a dog – you get me! If there are any fences, or stairs, bridges, streets that you could play with as leading lines – give it a go! And see what happens.

Leading lines is what I thought when I saw these stairs by the dumpsters. And I love the results. The whole secret is to pause a moment during your portrait session, analyse your environment and look for things that might just work!


To see more photos from this model photoshoot click here

Make it about the outfit

Look at the outfit the person is wearing and think: how can I make it stand out? Where in this place can I find a background that will match or compliment the outfit?

I love this photo because I saw a pop of red that would match the pop of red the model was wearing and I thought let’s go for it:

Focus on emotions

Have you heard the quote that says “the more you focus on something, the bigger it gets”? If all you are going to focus on is your ugly location, then chances us all your photos are going to reflect that. Accept that the location is not that great and move and focus on getting emotions and the subject to do the talking!

I love the following two photos – very different emotions, but you forget about the background and you are drawn to subjects because of what they communicate.

Don’t mix bland backgrounds with bland poses. 

If you are by a plain wall, the last thing you want is for your subject to stand there doing not a whole lotta movin’. The result is going to be similar to eating toast on toast! Why go for plain toast when you could go for pizza, or pasta or sushi! Something more exciting and appealing.

Maybe mix bland backgrounds with something different – see below:


What I have been trying to say all along is that the last thing you should care about on your photoshoot is the ugly location. Care more about the lighting, leading lines, the best spots, emotions, interesting poses etc. Stop focusing on the one thing you can do nothing about and have an attitude that says “I am going to rise up to the challenge and make the most out of this opportunity”

Keep photographing and keep growing!

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