Photography is synonymous with one word: lighting. Good lighting can make a picture and poor lighting can ruin the most perfect setup. Mastering lighting in photography is a perpetual pursuit and there are a plethora of ways to improve lighting, but I want to focus a bit on outdoor lighting.
It would seem like shooting outside would provide the perfect lighting. After all, the sun is out and shining, coating nearly every surface in a nice, warm light. Unfortunately, that's just not the case.
Tip #1: The Best Time of Day to Shoot
There may be 24 hours in a day, but there are about 4 total hours that are quality photo shoot times. The best times of day to shoot pictures are in the morning, just after the sun has risen and about an hour or two before sunset. I know, inconvenient for everyone, right? These may seem like arbitrary times, but there is some scientific backing for it. At those two times of day, the angle of the sunlight spreads the sunlight more evenly across surfaces and it's not as intense as midday or afternoon. Plus, the sunlight takes on different colors because of the way the light scatters in the atmosphere at those times of the day.
I know the afternoon would be just perfect to shoot, but try your best to avoid it. The sun is directly overhead and extremely intense. If you think about it, the effect is similar to a bare bulb over an interrogation suspect. The top of the head is well lit, but it casts many shadows that can look natural in person, but will likely look strange in a photograph. Remember, our eyes perceive light differently than a camera does because our brains process the information through experience filters of "how the universe should be." Cameras are not so forgiving.
Tip #2: Be Careful in Shade
Sometimes you just have to shoot in the middle of the day. For instance, weddings typically fall during this time. As a wedding photographer, this drives me nuts, but I know it's part of the job. Your natural instinct would tell you to shoot in the shade, and your instinct would be wrong. Well, partly wrong. Shooting in the shade does diminish the intensity of the sunlight, but it also casts a bluish tint over everything in your photo and still causes weird shadows on faces. You can only remove so much blue before other things in the photo look strange.
I'm not saying you should never shoot in the shade, just be careful about it and make sure you are watching the faces of your subjects as you shoot to make sure there are no strange shadows or stray rays of sunlight coming through. Also, solid shade (like from a building) is better to shoot in than underneath trees, because there is less of that "salt and pepper" effect from the sunlight streaming through the leaves.
Tip #3: Choose the Correct White Balance
It's amazing to me that almost every digital camera these days -- even the point-and-clicks -- comes with multiple white balance settings and few people realize they are there or know how to use them. Don't get me wrong, white balance can be tricky. It takes multiple attempts to get it right, but that's part of the fun of photography. Just don't wait until "the perfect moment" to test out the white balance.
White balance, for those not familiar with the term, describes an adjustment in how your camera "sees" white in a given picture. As any woman can tell you -- and no man can -- there are many types of white. Your camera gravitates towards white and it can change the whole mood of a picture. Cameras come with multiple white balance settings, designed to be used in a variety of settings. There are typically 2-3 indoor white balance settings, a fluorescent light white balance setting, an outdoor shade setting, a sunny day setting and a cloudy day setting. These are usually indicated by fairly obvious icons on your camera. Digital SLRs and many point-and-clicks offer manual white balance settings. These can be incredibly tricky to master and will require you to carry a gray card to set the white balance. Honestly, the payoff for the average photographer just isn't worth it and most standard white balance settings will do the trick.
So, to get going, look at your location and find a corresponding white balance setting on your camera. For instance, if you're in the shade, the white is going to look blue, but with a correct white balance setting designed for the shade, the camera will realize this and make adjustments to make the white truly white. This makes your photo nicer and requires less time to be spent in Photoshop.
Outdoor shooting is very rewarding and much easier than indoor photography, so what are you waiting for? Get out and shoot some pictures! After all, it is summer.