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Don’t let bright sunlight put you off

Light is at the centre of every photograph. Without light there can be no photograph, so photographers need to find ways to use, manipulate, create or block the light. Working with too much light is as much of a challenge as working with too little light.

We’ve looked at photographing in low light, so now let’s look at photographing in what often feels like too much light, direct sunlight. When it is now or never and you can’t choose a better time to photograph, but the light is hard, high in the sky and casting horrible shadows, you can still get great photos. You just have to think a little harder, maybe look around at your options and get a little more creative.

Ideally, when photographing outdoors, we’d just stick to the best times of day, the golden hour, and be happy with that. But if you’re photographing a wedding, you generally don’t get a say in when the happy couple emerge from the church. If you’re on holiday somewhere, you can’t not visit the attractions, just because it’s a bright sunny day. What about a beach holiday? You can’t not photograph the kids for most of the day, just because the light isn’t perfect for you.

Luckily, if you’re on safari in Africa, most wildlife would agree with you that the start and end of the day are the best times to be out and about. The African sun is strong and you might not be used to such harsh direct sunlight. (I had the reverse problem – I struggled to adjust to the UK’s very soft light when I first moved here from South Africa.)

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7 tips for photographing in bright sunlight

These tips will help you embrace photographing at any time of day.

  1. Find shade
  2. Use doorways
  3. Create shade
  4. Reflect the light
  5. Create some light
  6. Shoot into the sun
  7. Use the angle of the light

1. Find shade

I know – a bit obvious, but not all shade is created equal.

Your ideal shade is solid shade from a building or a tree with thick foliage, not the dappled kind of shade that you can get under a not so leafy tree. While dappled light is great for camouflage, it is not a photographer’s friend as your subject will be patchy.

If you position your subjects under a tree, face them out with the tree behind them. This is called open shade….because it is open. Remember, light is still hitting the scene, even if it has been diffused by the tree, and the direction of the light still makes a difference.

Man with harsh shadows caused by direct sunlight
These photos were taken 30 seconds apart at 11.26 on a very sunny day. Above, the harsh shadows across his face and the bright sunlight made him screw up his eyes. Below, he moved a meter back into the shade of the wooden shelter, so no harsh shadows. However, I like the texture of the wood brought out by the direct sunlight skimming across it in the above photo.

Man in open shade on a sunny day

2. Use doorways

This doesn’t have to be an actual doorway to a house. The entrance to a tunnel, an archway, or just inside a barn door, or even inside a car all work really well. Basically, anywhere that has a roof overhead, like in the photo above.

Indirect light spilling in from outside will illuminate your subject beautifully. I say indirect, because if sunlight is pouring into the doorway and onto your subject, the light will still be harsh. If, however, the doorway is in shade, the light that filters in will be soft and perfect for portraiture.

Position your subject just inside the doorway facing out and photograph them from the outside. The advantage of doing this is that you cut out the bright sunlight coming from directly above them, so they won’t have “racoon eyes”.

3. Create shade

For the times that you don’t have a convenient building or tree on a bright sunny day, try to create shade. If you’re on the beach with surfboards, you could incorporate the surfboards into the shot in a way that creates shade. For example, if your subject holds a surfboard above their head it creates a handy bit of shade over their face. A beach umbrella would be great too – just be aware of the colors as they will reflect onto your subject.

Or you could bring a foldable diffuser with you so that you can block the sunlight from hitting your subject directly, which is what I do. Read more about diffusers here.

4. Reflect the light

Although using an actual reflector is the most obvious way to reflect light coming from behind your subject, it’s not the only way. You could use a white sheet or cardboard.

Look for sunlit white walls. The light that bounces off the wall will be soft and even. Make sure it’s a white wall, as the color of the wall will be reflected. A green wall, for example, will cast a green color over your subject, making them look ill.

Wet ground reflects light back very well. Glass surfaces are also great. Anything shiny is great for reflecting light, but be aware that the shinier the surface, the harsher the light and therefore the harsher the shadows will be.

Further reading: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Man against a beach hut shade on a sunny day
Above, we stood between two beach huts. The white wall of the beach hut behind me reflected back into his face and reduced the shadows.

Below, even though we were in open shade of a building, one side of his face is brighter than the other. That's because the light was coming from camera left (see point 1).

Man photographed in the shade on a sunny day

5. Create some light

Using flash to fill in the shadows will help to take care of those “racoon eye” shadows caused by sunlight overhead.

The confetti throw shot at a wedding is a perfect example of when to use on camera flash to fill in shadows. You can’t exactly arrange the bride and groom facing a convenient white wall and you certainly can’t stand there with a reflector in front of them.

6. Shoot into the sun

Although it is not the best time of day for photographing outdoors, as long as it is 30 minutes either side of midday, you will be able to turn your subject away from the sun so that their face is in shadow. This is helpful for them so that they don’t have to strain their eyes, but actually it is even more helpful for you as you won’t have harsh shadows travelling from their nose across their face or from their eyebrows downwards.

Bonus tip – try to shade the front of your lens so that you don’t end up with unwanted lens flare or a cloudy image from the sun hitting your lens. Even better if you can position yourself in a patch of shade or have a helper block the sun from hitting your lens.

When you shoot into the sun, colors will be faded and the sky in particular will be blown out. If you’re okay with a blown out sky, great. If not, find ways not to include the sky in your image – look for trees or buildings, or shoot on the slope of a hill.

As mentioned above – use a reflector to bounce light back into your subject.

7. Use the angle of the sun

Lastly, embrace the bright sunlight. Some subjects look great in harsh sunlight. It’s just a matter of being aware of where the sun is and what shadows are being created by the angle of the sun, then adjusting your subject’s position accordingly.

If you know how to use portraiture lighting patterns, then just pretend the sun is a giant studio light and go for it.

Further reading in our angles of light series:

1. Angles of light – how to use back light

2. Angles of light – how to use side light

3. Angles of light – how to use front light

If you’re photographing a landscape or architecture, it might be that textures are highlighted by the angle of the sun, which would be great.

If the sun is behind you, the scene’s colors will be more saturated.

Shooting into the light on a sunny day These photos were taken at 12.24 and 12.42. The first I shot into the sun and for the second shot she simply turned the other way to face into the sun. In both photos I used the building to block out the sky.

Using direct sunlight for portraiture

7 small, but important, things to remember…

ISO – keep it low at say 100

White Balance – set it to sunny

Metering – it is best to use spot metering and meter off the area you want correctly exposed, especially if you’re shooting into the sun. If you’re photographing a person, meter off their cheek so that their skin is correctly exposed.

Shadow – make sure your shadow isn’t in the shot. It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how easily this can be overlooked.

Angles – walk around your subject to find the best angle of light and if necessary, and possible, turn them around until the light is hitting them just right.

Shoot in manual mode or use exposure compensation – especially if you’re shooting into the light as the tricky lighting conditions will fool your camera’s metering system. If the sun is behind you, the camera will find it easier to meter, unless you’re on a beach or in the snow. Then all that light bouncing around will confuse it.

Lens hood – The last very important tip that I almost forgot to mention is – make sure you use a lens hood. It will help to block the light from hitting the front of your lens and creating flare. I would actually advise always using a lens hood, even if it is just to protect the front of your lens from accidental damage. My lenses would definitely have picked up a few scratches over the years without lens hoods.

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