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How to Shoot Portraits in Harsh Sunlight

How to Shoot Portraits in Harsh Sunlight


How do you get professional looking photos that look amazing even in bright direct sunlight?  It’s around midday, when the sun is at its peak that professionals know to look out for those unexpected sharp distinct shadows that can loom over areas in your frame with unflattering detail. 

Most professionals will say from experience that this is something you will have to learn because photographers are constantly photographing in harsh sunlight.  Capturing that perfect photo is as much about timing as it is about environment.  When it comes to lighting and subject, getting that perfect timing may not be that easy and you will have to adjust accordingly. 

With the right preparation, knowledge, and tools, you can use any lighting condition to your advantage.  Let’s look at a few easy techniques and ideas that can help guide you along your journey to becoming a better photographer.  Gaining experience is key.  Be versatile in your approach.  Practice makes perfect.

Positioning

Photography in harsh sunlight can enable some interesting photos.  To achieve the light in a manner that fits your vision, you will need to find the correct positioning.  Positioning is probably one of the best practices for getting the shot with the right highlights while diminishing any unwanted shading.  

When your subject is directly under sunlight, you may notice sharp shade lines under cheek bones or any other defined feature.  This is where positioning is crucial.  To find the right positioning where your subject and the light has synchronicity, follow these simple tricks for a better shot.

  • Position your subject away from where the sun is facing which will reduce shading and squinting
  • Have your subject face angled slightly towards the beam of light to eliminate shading and maintain accurate natural skin tone and colors (careful not to look directly at the sun)
  • Use your surroundings to find the best spot for your subject. Once you have a location, look around the scene and test different viewpoints and angles for the best lighted or shaded areas that will either block the harsh sunlight or work it to your advantage

Shadows

Harsh sunlight photography is not only about light, but also about shading and can give you interesting artistic imagery.  Natural shadows can come from anything natural like trees, leaves to man made things like fences, bridges, and buildings.  Some of these shadows create a awesome patterns that can be really cool when shooting your subject, especially for portraits.  Professionals often combine subject with these natural occurring shadows for high production photographs.

Photographing silhouettes are some of the easiest types of shots when shooting in harsh sunlight.  You actually need a harsh light behind your subject to achieve this shot.  Embrace the sun!

Reflectors

While scoping out your surroundings it is a good idea to look for natural reflectors.  The purpose of this is to find areas that will reflect light onto your subject offering balance and from the harsh sunlight.  Reflectors are everywhere.  From sidewalk pavement to neutral-colored landscapes and buildings are just a few examples of things around you that may offer reflective properties that opens shadows and brings an extra subtlety to your photographs.  Most professionals often use specialized reflectors built for photography in their shoots, and can be used outdoors, but you can usually find plenty of natural reflectors midday when the sun is strongest. 

Equipment

Coming prepared to any photoshoot will expand the possibilities of the types of shots you will get.  You can get fantastic images using only a great camera, but there are a few things that can help make it easier to enhance the quality of your images, especially for harsh sunlight photography.   Many brands will have compatible lens options such as Nikon with their NIKKER series lenses.  There are mount adapters and rings which enable the use of camera lenses from incompatible systems thus expanding your equipment’s uses.  Then there are ND and CPL filters which will definitely assist you in capturing the perfect picture.  These work in similar fashion to your “polarized” sunglasses.  Even though these filters are not magic and still require you to use your skills when photographing, they will reduce light and provide more versatility from your depth of field, aperture, and focus.  Some work a bit differently than others, so it’s good to prepare what you will need.  Knowing what light environment, you will be shooting in will help you understand what qualities to look for in a filter.  Filters can reduce reflections, remove haze, darken the sky, and enhance colors, which helps clarity and focus in your frame.  On the flip side, if you’re looking for reflections, reflective colors (such as a rainbow), or wide-angle shots, a filter may not be your best bet.  I personally ensure to have them handy in my camera bag in case the sun is dominating and overpowering my frame where I find it difficult to adjust.

Camera Settings for Harsh Sunlight

For your desired exposure in harsh sunlight, I suggest shooting in manual mode.  This will allow you full control of all the light sources that surround the subject to achieve proper color and skin tones.  Many cameras auto features and programs can overcompensate due to the harsh light causing underexposure in your images.

Portrait photography in harsh sunlight can be tricky because of the facial shadows that occur as I mentioned earlier.   Widening your aperture will help soften the subjects skin tones and alleviate the harsh sun.  Generally, f/1.2 and f/2.5 will work great for portraits but is worth noting that widening your aperture can reduce the focus in your shot, so adjust slowly and gradually for overall perfection.

One challenge that harsh sunlight presents is when the background’s exposure is vastly distinct than your subject’s.  This can create an image that looks unnatural in color.  Using fill flash from your camera may help fill in the dark areas caused by the key light (in this case the harsh sunlight is your primary light source) while keeping the exposures highlights. 

sunlight

You may want to consider spot metering which will expose just for central areas of your image vs the entire frame.  This will help you lock in your subject’s skin.  Once you achieved this, it’s time to tweak the exposure with your shutter to get brighter and cleaner skin tones.  Since you’re in manual mode, you control your shutter speed.  Take your time to slow down the shutter speed where it will overexpose your subject ever so slightly until you reach the perfect light balance on your subjects’ skin.

Be versatile and expand the artistic nature of your photographs.  Shooting in styles like black and white presents a more binary style of highlights and shadows that will add tons of flair to your images.  This is when the sharp deep shadows are your best friend and can be used to compliment and flatter the subject.  I do suggest shooting these types of images in RAW so you can create a colorized edition if you desire during post editing production.

Summary

  • Be prepared
  • Shoot in manual mode
  • Use the sun to your advantage
  • Positioning is key
  • Be versatile and open

Sure, there are times where it is just not working and you will need to go inside, or simply wait for the sun to move, and that’s ok too.  However, with the right experience and practice, you will become great at photographing during harsh lighting conditions.  Never be afraid to expand your boundaries and achieve your goals. 

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