Shoot All Day Long: Techniques to Improve Daylight Photography

Shoot All Day Long: Techniques to Improve Daylight Photography

Golden hour. That time of the day where the warm sunlight makes every shot look like a magazine cover or a movie poster. It would be great if that light could last all day long. Yeah, well a lot of things would be great but not likely to happen. Location fashion and lifestyle photographers have to be able to manipulate daylight in a variety of ways in order to have a productive shoot that lasts more than an hour. Using the techniques of shade, diffusion, reflection, and strobe photographers can work with and against natural sunlight to create beautiful images all day long.

Certainly working with direct sunlight is an efficient and often beautiful way to work on a model shoot, portrait, or even an architectural image. It allows you to concentrate on styling or posing and eliminates the need for lighting equipment, but there are definitely constraints on how you compose and time your image. Even in an open area, the angle of light at the golden hour will be fixed. It will also be lower in the sky which will help illuminate the face without unattractive shadows in the model's eyes. In varied landscapes or cityscapes, the angles of light can be even more limited. Strict daylight photography requires posing the model to the lighting which can often be quite pleasing. An old rule of thumb is useful in this case: frame the background/move the subject. That is to say compose the background view in camera with the lighting in mind first and then bring the model into the shot once you have the framing set.

Backlighting, or facing the model away from the direction of the sun, is an easy approach to working in direct sunlight. Composing the shot with darker elements in the background can help avoid lens flare and maintain contrast to the image.

Another way framing can benefit a daylight shot is to be conscious about the contrast between the model's skin or outfit and the background. Framing the model against a darker background building or object will increase the contrast and often pop the figure away from the background for added graphic appeal. One setback to working with direct sunlight is the brightness of the light into model's or portrait subject's eyes. There are various ways to combat this but at some point the model will have to look into a bright scene. Sometimes coordinating when the model looks into the light for short periods relieves some of the strain on the eyes. In other cases, directing a model to look at a darker object or angle below or behind the camera will help prevent squinting. The ultimate approach is to frame the composition so that the model is looking completely away from the light and letting the sun create a halo of light. Framing against a dark subject is very helpful in this case. 

But what if your shoot is scheduled for noon instead of golden hour? This is frequently the challenge of an editorial or catalog photographer who doesn't work with the budget or resources of a large scale advertising shoot. Overhead sunlight can often be harsh and unflattering. The contrast range can often be greater than a sensor can typically handle requiring a great amount of post processing. When available, the easiest way to work with softer and more attractive light in the middle of the day is to park the model in shade. Working with in shade is easy on both the photographer and model. The model is able to open their eyes comfortably and the photographer gets the benefit of softer light and less contrast. 

By placing models in open shaded areas, the harsh light from these Arizona scenes was cut allowing the models to pose more comfortably. The light on the models comes from the light bouncing around the scene from many angles giving a soft glow on their skin.

Shade takes away the direct light from the model and allows the indirect light bouncing from all around to be the source of light for the shot. The sky, the ground, and everything around is reflecting the light from the sun and creating soft light for the photo. There are still concerns about framing and angle of light for the composition, but shade can often be the easiest method of creating soft lighting in otherwise harsh lighting conditions. White walls and concrete sidewalks can be a great source of soft, reflected light for compositions in shade.

Digging deeper into controlling light to shoot all day long is the popular method of using reflectors to actively create a beam of light to expose a model or fill in hard shadows from direct light. There are numerous brands and shapes of auxiliary reflectors from disks to panels. Possibly the most common is the Flexfill Collapsible Reflector with gold on one side and white on the other. It is also available with silver, white, or black surfaces. They are great to quickly flip out or fold up when you have an assistant to hold it, but putting it on a light stand has always proven to be problematic. I prefer the Sunbounce Micro Mini with zebra (silver-gold) on one side and white on the other which has a rugged frame that is easily attached to light stands.

Using reflectors can add both volume and direction of light to a scene where the model is in shade. Both of these shots were lit with a 72" square reflector. The shot on right has an additional reflector in rear projecting light toward camera creating an edge light effect.

What I have seen frequently with others at the workshops I have spoken at are photographers using reflectors under the face of a model projecting light up. While that will defeat under-eye shadow, it can also create some problems when the cheeks or jawline shadows the face from the lower light. When using reflectors I prefer to keep off the ground and as close to the level of the model's face as I can without risking being tipped over by the wind. Reflectors can go from photo equipment to kite with even a small gust of wind. I usually try to keep ballast on any stand holding a reflector.

If you are a fan of soft overhead light in a studio, diffusion scrims on location should be very pleasing. Diffusion panels and fabrics between the sun and the model spread out a direct ray of light into a broader beam somewhat like a soft cloud cover would do. They are called overheads, butterflies, and scrims. They are basically like carrying a cloud with you, as far as soft lighting goes. They are tremendously popular with catalog photographers who need to shoot many looks under consistent lighting conditions. The Matthews 12x12-foot Overhead Frame with artificial silk is a great tool that fashion and catalog photographers have relied on for years of heavy volume outdoor shooting, but on windy days they can be a hazard. The Matthews 6x6-foot Butterfly Set is more practical, especially for single model shots.

Two shots of friend and model Gabi with the Chimera diffusion panel. At left the scrim cuts midday sunlight from above lighting her and the truck with soft even light. At right the panel is at more of an angle and the transition between diffused light and raw is hidden in the plant.

While I do have a Matthews 12x12-foot frame and silk, I tend to use the Chimera 72-inch Pro Panel set more often both in the studio and on location (like above) because it folds down to a more compact size. Other companies like Sunbounce and Westcott have similar products. The light they give off is very similar to that of a softbox and is generally easier for models to pose under compared to direct sunlight. Diffusion and silks can cut the exposure from 3/4 to 2 stops of light depending on the material. That difference is quite apparent if the edge of the light is seen in the crop, especially when shooting full length. Experienced photographers have found many clever ways of hiding the transition between diffused and raw light like setting up on top of a small hill or variation in the ground so that the edge of the diffused light is blocked by the horizon line. Shooting closer shots makes it easier to take advantage of the soft light.

Some conditions do not allow for using shade or large diffusion panels. Windy beach settings are a good example. Strobes can be used to either fill in the shadows created by harsh direct sun conditions or used to set the main light on the model to balance with or overpower the sun. In the past, speedlights, especially diffused by softboxes, did not have enough power to balance or overcome the sun's exposure. Now a wide variety of battery powered strobes are available as well as High-Speed Sync systems that allow for more control of direct sun situations. The shots below were captured on the Coney Island beach and boardwalk using the Hensel Porty 1200 into a small softbox which had more than enough power to balance with the sun. 

These two outdoor scenes were lit with the battery powered Hensel Porty strobe into a small Chimera softbox held by an assistant. In both shots, the exposure of the strobe was within a half-stop of the sun's exposure. On left, one half under; on right one half over.

One of the advantages of using strobes outdoors is the ability to control, or in some cases defeat, the light of the sun on a model while working with the light from the sun on the background. Sometimes the strong contrast from unfiltered sunlight is unflattering to a model or their outfit. Working with strobes also allows a photographer to bring a light quality they are familiar with in the studio on to a location shoot. Another popular aspect is the ability to bring back density in the color of the sky which is not usually possible using reflection or diffusion.

Using strobes on location brings back color in the sky. Placing the subjects of these portraits facing away from the direct light of the sun, the strobe provides the main light on their faces. The scene on left was lit with the Profoto AcuteB while the other was lit with the Profoto 7b.

While it is true that nothing can beat the sun, the sun is not always around when you need it. Having the ability to manipulate the sun by using shade, reflection, diffusion, or strobes can open up a great range of possibilities for shooting outdoors, not just at the golden hour.

Dan Howell's picture

Dan Howell has been a New York City area photographer specializing and fashion and portraits for catalogs and magazines for the past 20 years. He began photography with photojournalistic aspirations but found a more comfortable fit in the fashion and commercial world.

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Great post!

Excellent post. Thank you.

Great info, cheers