Harsh sunlight is notoriously tricky for photographers, but the truth is that it’s also unavoidable. It’s just not realistic to only shoot during the golden hour, and when you get right down to it, you shouldn’t want to. Direct daylight provides an exciting challenge, and a noontime photo shoot can teach you more about how to use and work with light than any sunset session can.
Now is the time for shooting bright, summery photographs in the great outdoors, so don’t let less-than-perfect conditions scare you off. With just a few simple tricks, you can become a master in no time. We asked more than a dozen talented photographers of all backgrounds, ranging from portraits to landscapes, to tell us their best advice for using harsh daylight to their advantage. Read on for fifteen quick and easy tips.
1. Shoot in RAW
While many of these tips are optional and will depend on your personal preferences, this is not one of them. Antonio Salaverry reminds us, “If you are shooting RAW, you can work the contrasts later on the computer.”
Shooting in RAW is a must; that way, if you don’t get it perfect in camera, you’ll be able to fix it afterward in post-processing. “Sometimes I have to photograph in harsh daylight,” Luis Louro confesses. “What I do is shoot in RAW, so I have better chances of retrieving all the details from the highlights and shadows.”
2. Master Lightroom
“Lightroom makes it easy to lift shadows and reduce highlights in post-production, so I tend not to stress too much about what time of day it is when capturing my images,” Tom Harper tells us. “When you capture these images right, it can really make the colors pop and give you a great summery vibe. Boost shadows, lower highlights, desaturate the skin tones a bit, and give your image a fresh, crisp look.”
3. Backlight, backlight, backlight!
“Working with busy clients means that we don’t always have the luxury of being able to shoot at golden hour,” Harper admits. “I often find myself shooting between 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM on weekends, meaning that I sometimes have to deal with harsh direct light from the sun. When I do, my favorite way to shoot is to find shade or to backlight my subjects as much as possible.”
“When shooting in backlight, it is better to use a long-focus lens,” Zoia Kostina advises. “For this kind of shoot, I prefer lenses with focal lengths of 85mm, 135mm, or 70-200mm.”
When taking backlit pictures, Slavica Stajic warns against shooting at a low angle, so keep that in mind as well.
4. Use fill flash
You don’t have to rely solely on the daylight, either. If you feel like it, bring along an external flash to fill in those problem areas. This simple tool will help you capture details that otherwise would be lost to shadows, especially faces.
5. Diffuse the light
“When taking pictures of people, use a translucent diffuser and the sun to produce soft scattered lights,” Creaturart Images suggests. This is one tool photographers bring up again and again, since it will take out some of those hard shadows and make the light soft and pretty. You can even make a DIY diffuser if you’d like. Roubicko explains, “If you do not have a diffusion plate, you can use kitchen plotter or thin silk-like fabric.”
6. Bring a reflector
“A light bouncer is your best friend, always, especially in harsh/mixed daylight,” Mila Atkovska advises. “Never leave the house/studio without it. And don’t forget to bring some clips; you will likely need to use some bushes or trees to prop it up!”
A reflector will help you to fill in any dark shadows, and as Pavel Voitukovic explains, you can get these for cheap. You can even make one yourself or use what’s on hand in the moment. Lukas Hodon explains, “If you have a white shirt or piece of cloth, it can be used as a reflector to bounce some light back to your subject.” Ruslan Mitin says foil or white paper are other good choices.
“I always use one or two reflective plates, which can be really useful,” Roubicko tells us. “You can illuminate part of a scene and focus more light on an object. If you do not have these, you can use a generic metal plate.”
7. A polarizing filter will also come in handy
“If you don’t want that extra glare, use a polarizing filter to dim it a bit,” Salaverry explains. Andre Gie, who frequently photographs in the mountains, agrees, adding, “In snow, a polarizing filter and overexposing by a stop goes a long way.”
8. Pack a lens hood too
“Always use a hood,” Kostina recommends. “It will save you from sun glare.” If you don’t have one, make your own out of cardboard or plastic. If you’re really in a pinch, Kostina says you can also cup your hand around your lens for a similar effect.
9. Find a white wall
This tip is a go-to for Hodon, who tells us, “If you can find a white building or wall which reflects the sun, this can be your ideal giant softbox for free and with no time to set up.”
10. Try spot metering
“I always use spot metering and expose for highlights or for my subject, depending on the story I’m trying to tell,” Offset Artist Anna-Liisa Nixon offers. “If my subject is moving back and forth from bright light to dark shadows, I’ll choose one or the other to set my exposure for, and only shoot when the subject is in that light rather than chasing the subject and missing moments by messing with my settings.”
11. Check your histogram
Since you’ll most likely be shooting manually, keep an eye on your histogram. It’s easy to blow out your highlights in harsh daylight, so stay on top of it.
12. Watch the white balance
“Harsh daylight is a great tool for creating trendy pictures,” Valeria Aksakova says. “But it is very important to think about white balance in post-production, because sometimes this type of light can bring unnecessary yellow tones. In food photography, I like to use harsh light for shooting sweets in a pattern or fast food on colorful backgrounds.”
13. Look for shade
As Harper mentioned briefly before, it helps to find a shady spot and set up there. “The main thing is that the face of the person being photographed is lit evenly,” Kostina reminds us. “Light in the shade on a sunny afternoon will usually be soft and uniform.”
If there’s no shade, no problem. You can make your own using a screen, an umbrella, your reflector, or something similar. Get creative!
14. Have your model close their eyes
Every photographer dreads coming home with a bunch of photos of squinting, uncomfortable-looking models, but thankfully Kostina has a helpful secret for anyone wanting to shoot portraits in the sun. “I ask [my models] to close their eyes and lift their heads slightly,” she explains. “This head position will remove the shadows under the eyes. The eyes stay closed until I tell them to open them.” She photographs quick as lightning, and the results are stunning, with perfectly defined cheekbones and well-placed shadows.
15. “Embrace the lens flare.”
This phrase comes to us directly from Gie. In other words, feel free to add in a cool sunburst effect by shooting into the sun. Try the unexpected, and experiment!