How to Take Pictures in Harsh Sunlight

There are two types of photographers: the ones that have a preferred lighting type, and the ones that don’t. I happen to not care - light is light.
— Me

So when I first started practicing photography, one of the main things I, like all new photographers, had to learn was finding the best light and learning how to shoot in it. But there was just one problem:

Good light doesn't wait around for you. 

Seriously - it's just never there when you need it. It's either too harsh, too dark, too dappled, on the wrong side of the building you want to shoot in front of, too low, too high, too orange, too blue, too diffused, you name it. And when you have clients that need to shoot at all hours of the day, guess what? You have to learn to adapt. So here are some tips for dealing with the most daunting of lighting situations: harsh light.

But first - how do you know you're dealing with harsh light? Well - it's usually way too bright, the sun is way too high in the sky, there are ugly shadows everywhere, and the contrast between light and dark is pretty extreme. Sounds pretty ugly, doesn't it? Meh - some of my best pictures are in harsh light. You just have to learn to manage it!

So what do you do? 

  1. If you have an assistant, or someone with at least one arm available, have them hold up either a diffuser or some sort of large shade. The problem with this tip though is that if the sun is too high, your assistant has to be taller than your subject because he or she will have to hold the diffuser right over the subject's head, perpendicular to the subject's body. That can be rough to accomplish. This tip is also not very practical when, as is often the case with me, it's just you and your subject. No one else.
  2. For tip number two, you can also invest in Scrim Jim and a stand or some other apparatus that can hold up shade for you (like this affordable light stand and reflector holder). But again, this isn't practical when, as is often the case with me, you're shooting on the street, in public areas, or have very little time.
  3. If you can't create shade, look for some. If you're shooting around a building, find the side of the building that's casting a shadow. If you're shooting near trees, get under the trees. Just remember to pay attention to whether the bright sun will affect other parts of the picture, like perhaps the background. If you're exposing for your subject under the shade, the blown out highlights in other areas of the picture may be distracting. Try experimenting with composition here to cut out those unsightly highlights. 
  4. For tip number 2, if you find shade in harsh sunlight, sometime that means the shade is darker than normal also. If you feel you've found shade but it's a bit too dark, look for natural reflectors to place in front of the subject. So for example, I love shooting where the shade meets the bright light. I'll stick my subject, in the shade, close enough to the line where the light starts so that that light can bounce back up into my subject's face. Beautiful!
  5. If you can't create shade and can't find any, then F* it - you're shooting in the sun. If your subject has sensitive eyes, tell him or her to put sunglasses on and just own that direct, harsh sunlight. What I'll do if this isn't looking that good, and there's weird shadows all over my subject's face, I'll have my subject angle his or her face up a bit towards the direction of the sun until things start looking good (I'll usually say something like, "tilt the chin up so you can feel the sun on your face, like you're soaking it in"). But just remember, expose for the brightest parts! Unless you're getting artsy and are doing something with blown out highlights I have not yet been brave enough to tackle, definitely expose for the highlights.
  6. If your client can handle tip number 3 without sunglasses, experiment with that, too!
  7. You can experiment with hats also, although sometimes the hat can create weird shadows. Any way - if you go this route, a cool way to do this is to have the subject put the hat on, face the sun, and then tilt his or her face all the way down so that you can no longer see it. Of course, this only works if you don't care about whether or not you see the face in the picture.
  8. Finally - play with shadows! This is the time to do it! Find cool shadows in places like underneath palm trees or near gates. Check out the last two pictures in this post for some examples!

Fair warning - not every subject does well in harsh light. Some people just don't look good in it, and that's OK. Just know that for those people you likely can't utilize tips 4, 5 and 6.

So the point is, next time you find yourself in harsh light, just have fun with it. The more you practice, the easier it becomes. And once you start getting good at it, you'll be surprised at the number of clients that actually ask to experiment with harsh light.


The Fashion Muse Priscilla Torres Miami Beauty Blog Photography Little River Studios Christine Michelle Photography Blogger Photographer

Pictured here: Priscilla Torres of The Fashion Muse (You can also find her on Instagram, here)

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