Fear No Sunlight: Five Great Tips for Shooting in Harsh Natural Light

Whether you're shooting landscapes, outdoor portraits, or even architecture, natural lighting conditions can make or break your shoot. But what do you do when the sunlight doesn't cooperate?

A recent vlog from B&H tackles the issues of harsh sunlight during a photo shoot. In this vlog, host David Flores shares several valuable tips for difficult lighting conditions.

Studio photographers excluded, high-noon shooting is not 100% avoidable. Sometimes, scheduling difficulties force us to shoot outside in the middle of a sunny day. Other, we happen to have our cameras on hand and see a great shot that, despite challenging lighting, we simply can’t pass up.

Flores urges shooters to get creative with the shadows available on site. I'd add that in addition to pattern-forming elements, available shadows as key compositional elements, not just pattern-forming elements, of your outdoor images.

a view from above of a woman walking down a brick sidewalk

Among other compositional uses, harsh shadows can be utilized as "leading lines" in your images. Image by the author.

The problem with midday shooting under clear conditions is the dynamic range between harsh shadows and sunlight. It can be tricky to properly expose in these conditions, and unwanted shadows can ruin an unstaged photo.

One tool (not mentioned in  Flores’ video) can help us deal with stubborn Mother Nature: filters. Although they function differently, circular polarizing and neutral density filters both allow us to bring in the dynamic range of our daytime images, making vivid exposures possible in tricky outdoor lighting. Neutral density filters can also allow for the use of longer shutter speeds during the daytime.

image of a waterfall over a pond, with a tree trunk and roots next to it

Image by the author.

Even with a full frame sensor and plenty of exposure knowledge, midday shooting still presents us with challenges. What other shooting tips do you have on this subject? Please share them in the comments section below.

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7 Comments

Tom Jensen's picture

Kids, your lens didn't come with a lens hood for no good reason. Use it, especially in this kind of light.

Rick Pappas's picture

How, by themselves and without adding lights do CP's or ND's "...bring in the dynamic range of our images".

Luke Adams's picture

My question exactly.

Scott Mason's picture

CPL filters specifically do by cutting down the highlights, allowing for a more even exposure in bright light. Can you explain what you meant by "adding lights?"

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Hmmmm...I'll have to try that (CPLs). I've never seen that done on people shoots.

Robert Montgomery's picture

For harsh shadow I would add a fill or at least a reflector or bounce card if possible . Move around look for a better /different angle, don't just rely on a zoom change. Or if all else fails , be honest and reschedule.Explaining the situation .Better to take the loss and humility honestly than provide less than your best. All you need is 1 sub par shot out there to ruin your day. If your shooting for self I find memo journal and pencil to write down the location and come back to it. Yes I am a dinosaur that still shoots film. In mixed light situations I don't envy you digital bloks at all. Sometimes the shot just isn't there. Knowing when not to press the shutter button is also a part of being a good photographer, that sometimes is forgotten in the digital realm.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

Client: I just need a headshot.
Photographer: No, trust me look up into the sun. Bask in the glory of the sunlight.
Now look down, now lay on that rock, 3.2.1. open your eyes. Now hold your hands in the air like you’re Jesus.