8 Tips for Beautiful Midday Portrait Photography

Capturing great portrait shots at midday, when the sun is bright and high overhead, can be very, very difficult.

(Most serious portrait photographers try to avoid midday lighting at all costs, and for good reason: harsh light hits subjects and creates extremely unflattering shadows.)

However, you will not always have a choice when and or your portrait sessions are happening – so it’s worth knowing a few tips and tricks for dealing with that harsh midday sun.

In this article, I share my top tips for doing midday portrait photography. And while midday light is rarely ideal, if you use the tips and techniques I share below, your images will be much improved.

Let’s do this!

1. Backlight your subjects

The backlight is ideal for silhouette photography at sunset…

… but did you know that you can also use the backlight in the late morning and early afternoon? As long as the sun is slightly tilted, backlighting is possible, and it’s a great way to keep your subjects looking great in bright, intense light.

You see, by backlighting your subjects, you keep direct sunlight away from their faces and also avoid those weird shadows that occur under their eyebrows, nose, and chin.

family midday portrait photography on the beach

The backlight will also prevent your subjects from squinting, which is a big problem during midday sessions.

So all you have to do is find the sun, then position your subjects so they face away from the light. You can have lens flare, but I’m actually a fan of the look:

couple by a river midday portrait photography

A word of warning:

When working with a backlight, your choice of background may be limited. But be sure to go the extra mile to find a complementary, non-obtrusive backdrop; otherwise, while your subjects may look great, the background will grab the viewer’s attention.

2. Use reflectors

The biggest problem with midday portrait photography is the shadowsthat fall below the eyes, nose and chin and can prevent subjects from looking their best.

Luckily, we have a simple tool for eliminating unflattering shadows: reflectors.

Reflectors are flat expanses of material – usually white, silver, or gold – that reflect light back onto the subject. They’re extremely inexpensive, but if you’d rather not spend the extra cash, you can always craft a reflector or two out of a bit of poster board.

During your photoshoot, tilt the reflector so sunlight fills in the shadows; this way you will get a much more flattering image.

You can get similar results using natural reflectors, like a white wall or even white sand:

family on the beach under palm umbrella midday portrait photography

In fact, natural reflectors include large parking lots, sidewalks, windows, silver or white cars, buildings with silver or reflective signs, light colored cement walls/floors, and much more!

wedding couple on the beach midday portrait photography

One note: if you’re using a shiny reflector, make sure you’re not shining the reflected light directly into your subject’s eyes. It can be very bright, almost as strong as direct sunlightand you don’t want to cause any discomfort!

And don’t place your reflector on the floor in front of your customer. This will bounce the light upwards and give you weird, unflattering shadows on your face. Instead, use a stand or have a friend hold the reflector around torso height.

family outdoors midday portrait photography

3. Use a scrim to diffuse the light

A scrim is a piece of translucent fabric that diffuses light, and by positioning a scrim between the light source and your subject, you can create a soft, even effect that looks like surprising in portraits.

Note that you can buy canvases online; in fact, most 5-in-1 reflectors come with a translucent side, which can be used as a canvas.

(You can also create your own canvas using translucent fabric and a hoop.)

midday portrait photography

During your photo shoot, all you need to do is hold the canvas to your client’s face or body. It will diffuse the bright sun and you will get a very nice effect.

However, pay attention to the bottom. If the background is brighter than your subjects, it will be overexposed. Try to match the background light to your client’s!

4. Slightly underexposed your topic

Sunlight tends to wash out the scene, creating a colorless, boring and unpleasant background:

couple in black midday portrait photography
Look at the background behind the couple. The colors are desaturated, the whites are blown out and the result isn’t great!

Luckily, a little underexposure can go a long way in maintaining beautiful background colors and tones. And the underexposure will ensure you retain details that would otherwise be cut out.

Of course, an underexposure also give subjects that are too dark; this is why, after a portrait session, the exposure must be adjusted in post-processing. Bring the shadows into your editing program of choice, and you’ll get a nice result:

bride and groom kissing by a swimming pool midday portrait photography

5. Use flash to brighten up your subjects

Many beginners are intimidated by flash photography, but it’s not that hard to do and it’s a great way to improve your midday portraits.

For one thing, a touch of extra light can easily dispel unwanted shadows. Also, a bit of flash will help you expose properly for a bright background. and get a lot of details about your main topic:

smiling boy in a field midday portrait photography

Since you’ll be competing with the midday sun, point your flash directly at your clients to make sure the light reaches them. And set your flash to 1/8th power or higher. This way you can enlighten your clients without creating an imbalance with the background.

couple on the beach midday portrait photography

Pro Tip: Once you’ve mastered the use of basic fill flash, eExperiment with your flash’s high-speed sync mode. The light will be more directional and your background will be darkercreating unique and fashionable portraits.

2 portraits of men midday portrait photography

6. Use your camera’s “Shade” white balance predefined

White balance is all about creating images with accurate colors, so you might be wondering:

Why Would I ever want to take midday portraits while using the Shade white balance option? After all, isn’t the Shade preset meant to pull, well, shadow?

And you’re right :

The Shade white balance preset is designed to work in shaded conditions. But in my experience, Shade actually helps keep skin tones even.

poolside wedding couple midday portrait photography

This is very important, especially when shooting at midday; the bright sun can cause all kinds of complexion problems, and if you’re not careful, you may run into serious problems.

Note that you can still change the white balance when editing in a program like Lightroom or Photoshop (assuming you’re shooting in RAW). I would recommend using the Shade preset when out in the field. Then check the results when you’re back at the computer. This way you can be sure to get the best files!

midday girl portrait photography with balloons

7. Adopt the high-contrast look

Portraits taken in direct sunlight have unpleasantly high contrast.

But what if, instead of trying to eliminate high contrast lighting, you embrace it?

For example, you can position your subjects directly under the shadows for a cool effect. Or you can light your subjects to highlight interesting details. Or you can use a hard side light for an intense and visible result.

Here are some examples of high contrast midday portraits:

couple with midday shadows portrait photography

You can also use hats, palm leaves, water and other interesting items to create different effects. Experiment with your flash in different positions. And try to include the sun as a bright compositional element!

midday portrait photography

Let your backgrounds darken or wash out completely. Use the midday sun to highlight the details you love. Use shadows to hide distracting details.

There are many ways to enhance your portrait with high contrast lighting. So experiment, have fun and see what you can create!

8. Put your customers in the shade

Of course, you might be stuck photographing at midday…

…but you’re not stuck in direct sunlight, are you? Instead of working in direct sunlight, find a shaded area, then move your subject away from harsh light.

You do not need a lot shadow; just enough to cover your customers. Tall buildings, tall trees, and tall walls can all do the job!

For best results, try combining a shaded light with a large reflector (natural or artificial). Position the subject close to the reflector and use it to fill in the shadows while letting the shadow reduce the light intensity.

couple with car midday portrait photography

Be sure to expose your customer’s face and not the background. This way the skin tones will look good even if the background fades.

Midday Portrait Photography Tips: Final Words

midday portrait photography

The midday light is certainly not ideal for portrait photography, but you can use it to create different and interesting photos.

Practice shooting in bright light. Bring a reflector, a flash and a canvas.

And capture amazing images!

Now your turn :

Do you like to photograph in direct sunlight? How do you plan to handle your next midday portrait session? Share your opinion in the comments below!

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