3 Quick Tips for Photographing in the Harsh Midday Sun
One of the most important elements of photography is light. So it’s only natural that as photographers, one of the most important skills to have under your belt is the understanding of different kinds of light, and how to SEE it before taking a single shot. Every photographic frame needs some sort of light but the intensity, direction, and quality is always in question.
For natural light or outdoor photographs, early morning sunlight (when the sun is low in the horizon and has a soft quality), or beautiful golden light of the setting sun is ideal. However this is not always practical, especially when dealing with clients. Firstly, not all clients are open to early morning or sunset photoshoots. Secondly, particularly in wedding photography, timing is not something the photographer has much control over. Many wedding ceremonies are scheduled outdoors at noon, when the sun is the highest in the sky, and the light is the harshest.
As photographers we know that good quality light does wonders to an image, almost giving it an ethereal, magical look, but we cringe when we have to deal with harsh midday sun. Luckily there are a few tips and tricks to deal with this harsh light source, while still achieving beautiful images. In this article, my aim is to help explain some of these simple tips, using my newly purchased rose bushes that are waiting to be planted, and also prove that they will work for any subject, not just people!
Beautiful roses photographed at noon, under the shade cast by the front of my home.
Please note – most of the images used in this article are SOOC (straight out of camera). I have applied minimal to no processing, because I want to show the direct results of shooting in harsh light, similar to what a photographer would experience, so as to fix as much as possible in camera, not via post-processing later.
#1 Put the subject’s back to the sun – backlighting
If there is no shade is available, and your only choice is to position your subject in full sun, an easy tip to follow is to position your subject with their back to the sun. This will help block most of the direct light from falling on their face, which causes them to squint their eyes. Instead, their face or the main part of the subject will be evenly shaded. This technique is called back lighting.
As you can see, in the first image below, the roses are in full sun. To backlight them, I simply moved the plant so that the roses I wanted to photograph, had their backs to the sun. This is sometimes easier to do with one subject because you can position them perfectly, to make sure no sunspots are making their way onto their face. If you are dealing with two or more subjects, particularly people, then have their faces closer together or even have them turn their bodies slightly inward towards each other. This helps eliminate any harsh light spots on their face.
Make sure to expose for the subjects’ faces or they will be too dark to see any detail. Something to note, is that when metering for the face in a situation like this, your background may be overexposed and may lose all the details, that’s okay.
Roses in full sun. You can see from the shadows that the sun was high in the sky, almost overhead at the time of these pictures.
Image on the left – Roses are facing the bright sun and almost appear washed out. Image on the right – Roses are in shadow and are darker when backlit.
If you want to maintain detail in the background or sky in a backlighting situation, you should use a reflector to bounce some light back into the subject’s face. This eliminates the need to overexpose the background especially when metering for the face (or part of the subject in the shade). Depending on the strength of the reflector, and the position of the sun, you can even underexpose the image to retain more highlights in the background while evenly lighting the subject by way of the reflector.
Left: A reflector with the silver side facing the roses is used to add more directional light on the flowers. Right: A close-up picture of the roses, slightly underexposed to maintain the clear blue in the sky, the light from the reflector is adding the pop of light on the flowers.
#2 Open shade or even lighting
The best way to avoid distracting facial shadows from midday lighting, is to bring your subjects into a shaded area. Shade can be provided by a large tree, an open garage, a building, an awning, or anything that casts a big enough shadow to cover your subject. The benefit of shade is that it creates even lighting where no direct sun is hitting the face or body, allowing the subject to be evenly lit. The key is to place your subject at the very edge of the shade, so that while they are evenly lit there is still enough light to illuminate them. If you place your subject in the darkest part of the shade, the light hitting them may be lost. Also make sure you are not using patchy shade, especially when subject is placed under a tree. This can cast what is called dappled light on your subject, causing uneven spots of light on their face and body.
Left: Rose bush under the shade of a tree. Right: An example of dappled lighting on the roses. Notice how some roses are in the sun, while other are in the shade. This type of uneven lighting can cause undesired hot spots, especially on skin and hair.
Left: Rose bush at the edge of the shadow cast by the front of the house. This type of open shade is more even and uniform. Right: Close-up of the roses in the shade.
A simple white foam core board was used to add a little pop of reflected, directional light, onto the roses in the shade.
#3 Full sun with a diffuser
If all else fails, and you have no other alternative but to place your subject in the full, harsh sunlight, either because of location restrictions, or time of day limitations, then using a diffuser (translucent panel of your reflector) might be the next best option.
A diffuser takes in the harsh sunlight and spreads it evenly over your subjects. This also gives your subject some respite from the harsh sun, and casts a shadow on them so they are not squinting into the sun. In the simplest form a diffuser can be a piece of translucent white fabric (like a bedsheet). Of course, this does assume that you have an extra pair of helping hands to hold up the diffuser, when you’re shooting on location. I have been known to solicit the help of strangers, to help hold the diffuser for a quick minute or so while I take the shot – be resourceful!
Left: Roses in full sun. Right: A simple diffuser panel that casts even, soft light onto the flowers
Close-up of the roses with diffused lighting for a more even tone and color under harsh midday sun.
So the next time you have a client wanting to shoot in the middle of the day, don’t hyperventilate and come up with excuses to avoid the situation. Instead take up the challenge and try these techniques. If nothing else, it will make you more confident as a photographer, and also help you understand light a bit better.
For more reading check out: Portrait Photography: How to Photograph People in the Harsh Midday Sun or 5 Ways to Create Dramatic Landscape Photos at Midday.
What other tips do you have for photographing in the harsh midday sun? Please share in the comments below.
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