This is a helpful guide for taking pictures in harsh, bright sunlight.
We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):
Table of Contents
What is Harsh Light?
Harsh light is a very bright, direct light that tends to occur at midday. It casts sharp shadows with defined edges that may disturb your end product. These unflattering shadows can make images less attractive.
Most photographers know what harsh light is and will usually try to avoid it. Eventually, however, you must learn how to photograph in harsh light.
Taking pictures in harsh sunlight is a part of every photographer’s journey.
Being a portrait photographer, I am always photographing portraits in bright sunlight.
You won’t always have a choice, and it’s best to learn how best to deal with unfavorable lighting conditions instead of circumventing them.
A lot of cameras have difficulty exposing a scene with various light levels.
This is one notable reason taking pictures in harsh sunlight is undesirable.
Now that we know what harsh light is, how can we use it to our advantage?
How Do You Photograph in Harsh Light?
Sometimes you just can’t photograph at the golden hour; you won’t always be able to take a photo at the perfect time, in the perfect location.
So, there’s a pretty big chance that you’ll encounter harsh light now and then.
While we can’t change the weather to our liking, we can make the most out of the situation and learn how to photograph in harsh light.
For instance, you can position your subject away from the sun or under a tree and use reflectors for better lighting.
To begin, set your camera to manual. Although your camera may claim to be ‘smart’, you can’t fully depend on it to make the right decisions.
There will be lots of light bouncing off different surfaces, and your smart camera will likely overcompensate for the lighting and underexpose your subject.
So once your camera is set to manual, you should overexpose and use a wide aperture.
Harsh light on the face may reveal flaws on the subject which should be avoided. We recommend trying between f/1.2 and f/2.8 but feel free to experiment!
You should typically position the sun behind them for a greater overall look. We’ll explain this further in the rest of our tips on how to photograph in harsh light.
We also recommend moving around (both you and your subject). This may seem a bit vague, but when you move around you can easily see how the surroundings work in relation to the subject.
Moving a full 360 rotation will help you as a photographer know which angles work best for the lighting situation.
Tips for Photographing in Harsh Light
1. Have Correct Positioning
One of the best tips on how to photograph in harsh light involves positioning.
By knowing where the sun is facing, you can position your subject away from it.
Although very simple, this technique keeps the unattractive shadows away from your subject’s face.
It also prevents them from squinting, which allows emotions and expressions to be more natural.
This also gives your subject a nice skin tone which makes the picture more natural.
2. Use Your Surroundings
Using the same concept as the previous point, blocking the harsh sunlight with surrounding objects also helps. These objects also act as shade for your subject.
Consider objects that could block a good amount of light and would look great with backlight. The most popular objects are trees and buildings.
If you can’t find one, make one! For example, if you’re taking a photo at the beach, try using objects around you such as palm leaves.
3. Use Reflectors
To counteract the harsh backlight, you will need some reflectors that can bounce light onto your subject.
There are many reflectors out there that you can buy, but you can use some ‘free’ reflectors instead.
Natural reflectors are all around you – pretty much everything bounces light back. We recommend using neutral-colored buildings or sidewalks that provide enough light.
If you are still interested in purchasing a reflector, then that’s also great!
Using a specialized reflector, you can easily give more tone to your subject, especially if you want their outfit to ‘pop’ out more.
4. Trying Photographing Wide
If the sunlight is right overhead casting harsh shadows on your subject’s face, then try photographing wide.
Use a wider lens and capture more of the background.
Not only will it create a more editorial look, but it will allow you to put less emphasis on their face if you can’t escape capturing shadows on their face.
5. Photograph Differently
You can also try photographing from different angles. We recommend angles that don’t make your subject squint, so ask them to look away from the camera.
This particular technique works well with people who want candid photos. In candid photos, your subject won’t focus on the camera and, instead, they’ll look more preoccupied with their current activity.
This also includes taking your photos from different levels, either below or above eye level. Photographing in different ways helps you explore how the shadows and lights affect your subject.
6. Be Prepared
If you live in an area that’s generally sunny all day, investing in ND or CPL filters would be worthwhile.
These filters reduce the light levels and give you the freedom to play with the depth of field, aperture, etc.
Although they’re not the end-all-be-all solution, they’re pretty neat.
If you know what kind of light you’ll be working with beforehand, you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
Preparation can be the difference between a disaster and the best photo session you’ve ever had.
7. Wait a Bit of Time
While this tip is a bit of a cop out, it’s true.
I have been on photo sessions where the sun is directly overhead casting harsh shadows on my subject’s face.
My photos were not turning out that great so I decided to wait a bit until photographing in the sun light.
In the mean time, we would find a place with shadow and photograph there.
Examples include behind a building, under tree shade, etc.
Once the sun went down a bit, we stepped back into the sunlight and voila, beautiful images!
8. Pay Attention to Your White Balance
If you are photographing in harsh sunlight, play around and experiment with your camera’s different white balance options.
While you can Photoshop and edit your photos after the session, this can help in the meantime during the actual session.
9. Use Fill Flash
Leveraging a fill flash in your photo session during a very sunny day can work wonders.
Fill flash works best when your subject is either underexposed or there are harsh shadows on your subject’s face.
The fill flash will “fill in” the dark parts of your subject’s phase while still being able to expose for the highlights.
Just remember, the three point lighting setup. But in this case, the key light will be the sun so your fill flash will need to act as the fill light:
10. Experiment and Practice
This may sound obvious, but learning and mastering photography in harsh sunlight does take time. Learning one concept and then using it in relation to another is not an easy task.
Learning how certain environments can affect your subject’s appearance greatly benefits you.
There are people who love to photograph in forests while the sun scorches over them, some people also get accustomed to the way city buildings reflect light.
Experimenting with different camera modes will also help you to use harsh light to your advantage.
The more you practice and experiment, the faster you’ll get the hang of taking pictures in harsh sunlight!
To further explore the subject on photographing in harsh light, we also recommend this video by Manny Ortiz:
What is Hard and Soft Light in Photography?
Knowing how to take good photos in harsh light requires you to know the difference between hard and soft light, at the very least.
To create soft light, your light source should be close and big. Imagine directing your flashlight close to a small Hot Wheels car. It would appear softer, with a less defined/blurry shadow.
To create hard light, the lighting should be far away and small. The most notable object is the sun. Shadows cast by objects hit by the sun appear more defined.
Hard light is a good option when trying to make your subject’s clothes texture more defined.
On the other hand, soft light makes images more flattering because the subject is well lit, especially if you use a reflector.
Photography in harsh sunlight is not by any means easy. Luckily there are a handful of simple methods and tips that can help you!
The essential point of how to photograph in harsh light is to be versatile and prepared for all conditions.
Clever positioning of your subject and surroundings should pretty much do the job for you.
Consider purchasing helpful equipment like a reflector, an ND or a CPL filter to give you a little more control of the light levels.
I hope I have equipped you with some tips you can use next time you are taking pictures in harsh sunlight.
Keep practicing and experiment with what works best for you and your client! With the world “slowing down” you have all the time needed to practice, so what are you waiting for?
Nate Torres is an entrepreneur, growth marketer, and photographer and writes mostly on those topics. Nate used to run his own professional photography business called Nate Joaquin Photography but has since focused on the marketing and business aspect of photography although he still enjoys taking photos. Nate enjoys learning about new digital marketing strategy and new ways to think creatively. He is also a photography speaker and author on Photofocus.com.