Tips for Shooting Portraits in Harsh Sunlight

Taking portraits outside is great fun and can result in some amazing shots, but you'll likely have heard that you shouldn't shoot during the middle of the day, when the sun is at its highest. Why? It's difficult to make the light flattering, among other things.

I remember my first portrait shoot, outside, during the midday sun. It was a hot, summer's day, there were clear blue skies, and the shots I had in my head I could scarcely hold back my excitement for. However, I had never really had a "shoot" at this point — I'd not long had a camera — and armed with two lenses and a flashgun, I set out.

This shoot went reasonably well, but I learned some valuable lessons. For example, I got acquainted with what HSS stood for and when it was necessary; 1/200 sync speed is a long way from sufficient if you want to use a wide aperture during the middle of the day. I also learned that despite the sun being a bright light source, I did not want it as my key light and I wanted it behind my subject. Furthermore, any way I could diffuse or bounce the light from the sun was preferred and the results were far better.

I don't agree with the advice not to shoot when the sun is at its highest point — though it is more applicable to landscapes and other genres — but it does require more know-how and equipment to get the most out of it.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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You don't necessarily need extra equipment (strobes or reflectors) to shoot in mid-day harsh light if you know how to work with it. Sun directly overhead notwithstanding, you can get by without either flash or reflectors. In the video, you'll notice that he's shooting with the sun basically behind the subject and then filling in with the flash. That's fine, but there are great shots to be had with using direct sun as a key light.

The best way of doing it is to have the subject and photographer positioned so that the sun is casting a shadow behind the subject and at about a 45 ish degree angle. That way, it's not directly in front of them, causing them to squint and it can be glorious light.

Plus, is anyone else getting bored with the background underexposed by a stop or two look? I know I am. Whatever happened to the concept of using flash to balance the light?

That was instructive, thanks. I wonder what the effect might have been if they'd been able to turn on those stadium lights in the background of the goalpost shot.

Great tips, thank you! I've been avoiding shooting in the bright sunlight because I know I'd either fail a lot of pictures or will have to spend hours in Photodiva trying to fix the lightning.