How to Take Beautiful Photos Using Harsh Light

Do you struggle to capture stunning images when the sun is high in the sky? You’re not alone.

Midday lighting is a major challenge for most photographers; it creates excessive contrast, blown out highlights, washed out colors, muted shadows, etc. The most common solution is to simply avoid filming at noon, but that’s not always an option. What if you are hired for a portrait session and your clients are only available at lunchtime? What if you are traveling and only have a few hours at your destination?

Luckily, if you have to shoot at midday, there are a few simple techniques you can use to reduce contrast, even out your exposures, and get great results. And that’s what I share in this article: My five favorite ways to create great midday photos!

Let’s start.

1. Find some shade

What’s the easiest way to manage midday lighting? Get away from her.

I don’t mean that you have to wait for the light to be better (even if is an option). Instead, I encourage you to hide from the bright sun in the shade of buildings, trees, bridges, etc. I took this following photo in the shade of a water tower:

a woman with a camera in the shade

Now, not all shades are created equal. Each shadow type will give you a slightly different photo because each shaded area has different levels of diffused light. (Remember: shadow is not the absence of light. Otherwise, you couldn’t take shaded photos!)

So whenever you find a shaded area, spend some time analyzing before shooting. Try to identify the main light source; it is usually the nearest reflective object or the object made of the thinnest material. Then position your subject accordingly, to get the backlight, sidelight or frontlight you want.

Pro tip: Turn your subject sideways – dark shadow on one side, reflected light on the other – and you’ll get a more dramatic portrait with side lighting and lots of depth.

Note that you will also need to pay close attention to the area behind your shaded subject. If you want an unobtrusive image, you can position the subject near the edge of the shadow and let the background fall into shadow. If you want a high-key image, you can position your subject in deep shadow and adjust your angle until you have a well-lit background. And if you want a more even-toned image, make sure the subject and background are close together in the same shaded area.

2. Use Primes and Polarizers

Prime lenses and polarizing filters are an easy way to reduce midday photography problems.

Primes, for example, tend to handle contrast and highlights very well. Have you ever taken photos in the sun only to find green highlights and fringing in your photo? Primes will generally do a good job of minimizing glare (although a good lens hood can do wonders too!).

And polarizers work to reduce glare and haze, both of which can be problematic at midday. No, a polarizer won’t help you eliminate those unflattering under-eye shadows, but it will definitely add extra clarity to your travel and landscape photos.

Midday photography chairs on a beach with a thatched umbrella

Bonus: A polarizing filter will also improve the colors in the image, especially the blues in a midday sky.

3. Avoid the front light

Much of the frustration surrounding midday portrait lighting has to do with the issues of front lighting. The sun shines in front of your subject, producing dark circles under the eyes, squinting expressions, unflattering shadows under the chin, and more.

But if you backlight your subject, you can eliminate many of these problems. Sure, you’ll still end up with a bit of contrast, but you’ll lose the squint and unflattering shadows on your face. (Note: as I explain below, you can also use a reflector or flash to add life to a backlit portrait!)

woman walking in the snow

Just be aware that if you expose for your main subject, you’ll blow up the sky (see image above!) – and if you expose for the sky, your subject will become a silhouette. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, so as an artist you will have to decide which one you prefer. If you’re not sure, feel free to take a few test shots and see what you like best.

Here, I’ve positioned my subject so that the sun is behind it and to the left:

backlit city portrait

As you can see, while exposing for the subject, I lost a lot of detail in the background – but I think the effect is working, and I was happy with the result.

4. Use a reflector or scrim

The biggest problem with midday lighting is contrast. Fortunately, reflectors and canvasboards are designed to reduce contrast between your subject and the surrounding environment.

Reflectors, for example, come in tons of different sizes, shapes, and colors; they can be used in full sun or in combination with shaded areas. The idea is to simply identify the unwanted shadows, then reflect light in their direction. The reflected light will minimize shadows, and – voila! – you will have a better shot.

Reflectors are very portable, so they are ideal for the outdoor photographer. Note that you will need to choose the color of your reflector carefully. The white reflectors return a soft, neutral light, and while the silver reflectors also produce a neutral light, they are stronger and more contrasty. Then there are gold reflectors, which reflect warm golden hour style light towards your subject. A golden reflector often works great in the late afternoon or early morning, but if you use one when the sun is too high in the sky, the result can look unnatural.

For this next photo, I took in the shade, but I also added a reflector to the bottom right. See how the catchlight is in the lower right part of my subject’s eye?

Close-up portrait of a woman using a reflector

Then there are scrims – sheets of diffusive material designed to sit between your subject and the sun, softening the light. Scrims vary in their strength, but a weak scrim may only affect the scene by a fraction of a stop (while a stronger scrim will reduce the light on the subject by several stops).

When using a scrim, simply have an assistant hold the panel over the subject so the light is diffused, then have fun taking pictures!

By the way, if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on high-quality reflectors and scrims, there are tons of ways to make them from stuff you scavenge around the house or buy from a hardware store. local craftsmanship. For example, you can create a white reflector with foam panels. I’ve done this many times for low budget or personal test sessions when I’m traveling to a venue and can’t pack a big reflector.

As for scrims, they can be made from anything translucent, like a bedspread. Make sure any canvas material is solid white or you’ll cast color onto your subject.

5. Light your subject

As I’ve pointed out throughout this article, midday shadows look pretty bad – and an easy way to get rid of shadows is to banish them with your own light!

You can use any light source, from in-camera flash and mini strobes to complete lighting kits. Just keep your overall goals in mind when shooting: eliminate nasty shadows, reduce scene contrast, create a well-exposed subject, and retain background and sky detail.

If you’re considering doing a photoshoot with artificial light, I recommend reading up on the most common lighting patterns and popular lighting modifiers. By eliminating light from your camera, you can create many beautiful effects. And dimming the flash with a softbox will produce soft, flattering light that will look great on your subject.

woman looking at camera blurred background

I also encourage you to test your lights beforehand. Artificial light is not difficult to manage, but a little practice can make a big difference!

Midday Photography: Last Words

swans on a lake with mountains in the background harsh lighting midday photography

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to capture great photos, even at midday.

So memorize these tips. Buy a reflector, canvas or flash. And have fun in the sun!

Which of these strategies do you plan to use to manage midday lighting? Share your opinion in the comments below!

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