Shooting in Harsh Light

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What do photographers and vampires have in common? 

They both shrink back in fear of bright sunlight. 

But while vampires are stuck with hiding in the shadows, photographers have a plethora of techniques they can use to counteract and even embrace harsh light. Let’s explore some of the many ways you can shoot gorgeous images, even at high noon — the “worst” time of day to photograph.

 

1. Switch to Manual Mode

Cameras are super smart these days. Many photographers depend on their cameras to help them properly expose their images by using Aperture Priority, Program, or other automatic modes. 

Unfortunately, bright conditions mean that light is bouncing all over the place. Your camera can get confused easily and you’ll end up with a lot of improperly exposed images. 

So, if you haven’t already, it’s time to dive into manual mode. This mode gives you full control over the aperture, ISO, and shutter speed to expose the image properly for your subject. For the most part, you can set your aperture and ISO where you want them, then adjust the shutter speed as needed to get the right exposure. 

Because of the strong contrast, you might end up with some blown-out highlights or crushed blacks in the background. But that’s far better than highlights or dark spots on your subject’s face.

2. Expose for The Skin

There’s a lot you can do in post-processing to clean up an image, but without the proper camera settings sometimes it is impossible to get a decent image. Skin tones are one of those things that you really need to get right in camera or you will be struggling with the images in post. 

Thus, when photographing a portrait in the bright sun, expose for the subject’s skin. 

Of course, if you completely ignore other elements in the scene, your image could get a little crazy with blown-out highlights, etc. That’s why the subject’s positioning and posing are also important. Keep reading because we’ll discuss proper positioning in a moment.

What if you don’t have a human subject? Define your subject and expose for that. 

3. Open the Aperture Wide (For Portraits)

One of the most awful things about harsh, bright light are the harsh shadows it will cast on human faces. People’s eyes look dark and sunken in, the shadow under their nose can look like a faint mustache, and tiny wrinkles start to look like the Grand Canyon. 

One way to combat this is to shoot with the aperture wide open. This will soften all parts of the image that aren’t smack dab in the middle of your extremely narrow depth of field. 

Keep in mind, you have to be extremely mindful of your focus placement when shooting wide open. Otherwise, your image will look soft and blurry. In general for portraits, you want to ensure the subject’s eye that is closest to you is in perfect focus. 

Experiment with apertures of f/1.2, f/2.5, or whatever is your lens’s widest aperture.

4. Watch the Shadows

You might think you should position your subject with the light source in front or off a bit to one side to evenly light their features. Unfortunately, with bright sun that means that human subjects will be squinting and anything that sticks out (e.g. a nose) will cast a harsh shadow. 

It’s better to position the light source behind your subject, even if it’s just slightly. 

Close to noon, it can be difficult to tell which way is behind, the sun seems to be directly overhead after all. In that case, watch the shadows. 

The shadow of your subject will only be directly under them for a few minutes around high noon. On either side of noon, the shadow will start to elongate. Make sure the subject’s shadow is elongating in front of them and that’s how you know the light source is behind.

5. Look for Shade

When possible, look for shady places to shoot. Shady spots offer more even lighting that won’t create those harsh shadows we’re trying to avoid. 

Be aware of your white balance when you do this. Light in the shade tends to be cooler than light out in the bright sun. You can always adjust the white balance later, but images taken with optimal camera settings will generally turn out better. In most cases, the difference is negligible, so don’t stress about it too much, but be aware of it.  

The shadow of a building, fence, tree or anything else can provide enough shade for a nice image. Just watch out for dappled sun directly on the subject. You don’t want the subject in shadow with dappled sunlight blowing out the highlights in blotches on their face.

6. Look For Tunnel Lighting

A great way to get even, natural lighting on your subject is to force the light to come in from the side. Place your subject in a doorway or window, under a tree or overhang, or anywhere else with something blocking the overhead light but allowing the light to enter sideways. 

Make sure you don’t place your subject too far back otherwise parts of it will start to be in shadow. 

You stand out in the hot sun and shoot into the “tunnel”. That sideways lights will beautifully embrace your subject with no harsh lines or shadows. 

7. Reflectors or Natural Reflectors

Many times having a strong light source behind your subject will put the front of it in shadow. In portraits, this can give the subject’s skin a bluish hue or washed-out look. 

To avoid this, you need to brighten up their face or the front of your subject. You can do this with reflectors. Grab an assistant and have them hold a reflector so that the light bounces back at the subject and fills in the shadows on their face. 

If you don’t have reflectors (or an assistant) look for natural reflectors in the environment. For example, a bright sidewalk, light-colored pavement, or some sort of large, neutral-colored object will throw light back up on the subject. 

Think about that in comparison to having your subject over grass. Very little light will be reflected back up on the subject. Plus, what is reflected will leave a greenish cast on the skin. 

Just be aware of what is in the environment around your subject and how you can use it to your advantage.

8. Use A Flash

Wait, isn’t the whole problem here the abundance of light? Why would you need to add more light with a flash?

Well, bright light isn’t really the problem. Rather we want to avoid the harsh shadows caused by the bright light. 

One way to eliminate those is to light your subject with an off-camera flash. Place the flash to the left or right at about a 45-degree angle to the subject. Don’t forget to use a softbox or diffuser to soften the light from the flash. 

A properly positioned flash will evenly light the subject’s face, chase away the dark shadows under the eyes and nose, and help you produce a gorgeous image.

9. Blend Multiple Exposures

Most of our tips so far have focused on human or other moveable subjects. Sometimes, your subject will be fixed and you can’t move it to find the best position for the light. 

You could wait for the light conditions to change or you could try this trick. Take multiple images of the same scene, exposing for different parts of the scene in each image. Later, the images can be combined in post-processing to create one image where all the elements are properly exposed. 

Pro tip: set your camera on a tripod so it doesn’t move at all between images. Keep the same ISO, aperture, and focus point for each image (if possible) and use the shutter speed to adjust exposure.

10. Embrace the Hard Lines

Our final tip is to embrace that harsh light and use it in your composition. There are plenty of intriguing looks you can create with hard shadows. 

This is easiest with landscapes or other images where you don’t have a human subject. However, it is totally possible to take stunning, powerful portraits even in harsh light. 

Experiment with positioning the camera differently so that elements interact with and shade each other differently. Position your subject differently so that light falls on them in interesting ways. Play with emphasizing the shadow or using it to point to your subject. 

The possibilities are endless!

Get Creative and Have Fun!

You may have heard that the first rule of shooting portraits in harsh light is to avoid it at all costs! As you can see, that shouldn’t be a hard rule and sticking to it puts you in a box with your photography. 

It also greatly limits your ability to photograph outside during the summer.

The next time you’re out shooting on a bright sunny day, try implementing some of these tips and see what amazing work you can create!

4 thoughts on “Shooting in Harsh Light”

  1. Your one of my favorite teachers, I learn so much with ur teaching THANK UUUU!! My first sweet 16 next week and this Helped so much this blog.. Ur my photographer mentor I APPRECIATE ALL U DO! God bless your heart.. :))

    1. David Molnar - Your Photography Mentor

      Thank you for the kind words, Linda. I’m so glad I can help you on your photography journey!

  2. Very insightful article. Could not have come at a better time, as I got my first photo session coming at the end of this week. It is an outdoor shoot and I have been at the site twice taking practice shots so I can be ready for whatever the light wants to do.

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