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Say Yes To Noon Sun - Create Amazing Portraits With One Simple Tool

Say Yes To Noon Sun - Create Amazing Portraits With One Simple Tool

I've been there, standing in the middle of a field on a hot day with a scorching sun, mulling back and forth on how to capture a quality shot. In the back of my mind, I'm wishing for some cloud cover or an overcast sky to magically move in. A commercial client or art director doesn't care what time it is, they just want the right image. It’s up to you to capture that image with the weather Mother Nature has dealt.


Like most photographers, I love an overcast sky which can be dramatic with strobes. But, I've found with these simple tools, you can replicate the look of a super soft strobe using the hard sun. With Spring approaching and warm weather right around the corner many photographers begin crawling out of hibernation into the wild world of “on location.” I've been stuck in a "high noon" situation many times and have had to make it work. There are several techniques to "make it work" such as shooting in a shadowed area, over powering the sun with a strobe or filling in hard shadows with a silver reflector, but last year I stumbled upon an easier, softer option. This past month has been a wild ride; I’ve shot multiple editorials for multiple publications and have had a camera in my hand nearly every day. Thankfully, Westcott makes a few products at a reasonable price that have been game changer in my work. I've relied almost solely on these products for these shoots; the Westcott 40” 5-in-1 Reflector and the Westcott 42” x 72” Medium Scrim Jim. Whether I'm in the studio or on location there hasn't been a shoot where these tools have not come into play.


Last summer I was approached by creative director and stylist Chris Caswell to shoot an advertising campaign for Heyman Talent Agency. The shoot involved a group of fresh faces(models) and our location was a public park in downtown Louisville with little to no tree cover. Hair and makeup was set to begin at 9:00am and if time served me right, it would put us at the park right at 12:00pm. Turns out, that is exactly what happened. Here I was... standing in the middle of a field on a hot day with a scorching noon day sun, mulling back and forth on how to capture a quality shot. I scoured the landscape for the closest tree cover or architecture. I happened find coverage near the edge of the park, but unfortunately it was blanketed with sun spots from the light peering through branches and leaves. Frustrated, I was clearly out of options and I had to think fast before morale began its downward spiral.

We've all seen the production videos of big budget commercial shoots with giant 20' x 20' scrims covering the scene, which can be far too expensive and a logistical nightmare for a simple freelance photographer. And, most don't have access to a grip truck, 20 sandbags, steel scaffolding and heavy duty tie downs. Fortunately, Westcott manufacturers a collapsible scrim called the Westcott 42” x 72” Medium Scrim Jim which I had, by chance, purchased the previous week. I hadn't even broken it out of the box. We assembled the frame and gave it a quick evaluation, the results floored me and all my worries had been lifted. It seemed like magic or some form of sorcery, the 1/2 stop diffusion silk not only diluted the highlights, but also provided a soft fill light. Without a doubt, the scrim saved the day and I didn't even use a single strobe. The campaign went on the become a success for the company.


I also rely on a Westcott 40” 5-in-1 Reflector which contains a translucent white panel and a removable reversible zippered slipcover to reflect silver or gold light onto your subject. I remove the slipcover and use the 1 stop diffusion panel to cut a the sun. If you’re trapped in a lighting nightmare, using shadows on the ground, find the path of the sun and raise the panel directly in between that path and the subject. You’ll see the hard-shadowed “raccoon eyes” disappear, the blown highlights soften and the frame transform into a beautifully lit portrait, resembling a painting. In some cases, I've mixed and messed with double and even triple diffusion using these tools. I'm a strong advocate for experimentation, DIY rigs and I've gone as far as duct-taping two diffusion panels to the frame of the scrim and mounting it over a subjects head. The light closely mimics that of a boomed strobe with a 60" double diffused octobank.



Unfortunately, in many cases you have to be quite close to the subject because your assistant just doesn't have the reach. Therefore, compositing is usually involved when I use scrims, however, they can be easily cloned in Adobe Photoshop or masked out with a solid background shoot. That is why I always recommend shooting with a tripod when compositing. Also, it also can be tough without an assistant, but there are options such as a Westcott Illuminator Reflector Arm, which will hold a lightweight reflector in place. But, make sure you have the proper sandbags to stabilize the stand to the ground. With all the overhead front weight, a slight gust of wind will blow it over the stand with zero resistance. The last thing you want is a reflector smacking your subject's head.


Once upon a time, not that long ago, I was frightened to shoot at time between 11:00am and 3:00pm. But, armed with the proper gear, I love shooting at noon... I have even recommended it. So, the next time you’re standing in the middle of a field with a scorching sun, praying for some cloud cover, grab a Westcott Reflector or a Westcott Scrim Jim prepare for yourself for what you’ll see on the back of the camera.

Also, you'll find that these tools are extremely versatile. On a windy day, the scrim(with the silver silk) can provide a great resemblance to Han Solo frozen in carbonite.


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Graham Marley's picture

I've actually been looking into different scrim solutions for a spring-time investment. The 20x20 DOES sound like a lot of fun, but it'd end up being pretty goofy I think, and the prices are gut-punches. A Scrim Jim sounds like a good piece of kit to have for sure, and I'm also looking at the Avenger folding 12x12 butterfly frame. You can collapse it down very quickly WITH the fabric still attached, so you get killer size without burning a lot of time.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

The scrim Jims ARE ridiculously expensive and its a pain having to build them and break them down after the shoot. You also need to have heavyweight stands or an assistant to hold it during the shoot.

If you want a similar solution that costs way less and is much easier to deal with, get a 7 foot parabolic umbrella in translucent white. It folds up quick, can go on a mid range light stand and adorama sells them for like 40 bucks

Graham Marley's picture

I have a couple 86 inch parabolics from Paul C Buff, and I love them. Their biggest problem is they have a tendency to explode in moderate winds.

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for the feedback! A Parabolic can be used the cut sun, I've used them several times on location, but they tend to catch even the slightest wind more so than a Scrim Jim and aren't logistically a great option if you have an assistant on set. But they can be used!

Antonio Carrasco's picture

and thank you for the great post. Scrim jims ARE great tools. I just don't get why they cost so doggone much. It's a pretty simple device.

Surprised the chinese vendors on Amazon haven't sold any for under $100. They seem to copy just about everything else and sometimes the quality is pretty decent for a fraction of the price.

Keegan Evans's picture

Awesome post Clay! Also, your pose for taking the photo of the woman in black is pretty awesome haha I always end up standing similar to that in the middle of a shoot.

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks Keegan! :)

Lee Christiansen's picture

Also, "California Sunbounce" do something like this - but with a handy pole system that lets an assistant get the diffuser right over the top but hand held.

Clay Cook's picture

I've been eyeing the California Sunbounce line for sometime now, just haven't pulled the trigger. Thanks man!

Lee Christiansen's picture

They are a tad expensive to be sure. I've a couple of smaller ones with different diffusing cloths. I did find their lightest grade to give slight "texture" to the shadowing unless it was very taught so be sure to get those cloths tight and keep an eye out. (Mind, we were using it for video so any movement would make the issue worse than it may be for stills).

Matthew Odom's picture


A 48x72 5 in 1 reflector does a nifty job too if you can't splash for the sunbounce or scrim.

John_Skinner's picture

The solutions to this are as old as time itself... The questions are, and always will be, how much kit are you willing to haul and wrangle. And, are you one of those 'have to have a name brand something' in order to feel like you are doing the job.

There are a huge variety of solutions for scrims.. PVC and ripstop material+velcro, huge commercial frames which costs equal to 3 house payments... It's up to you as to how silly you're willing to look, how much dosh you have in your pocket...and ultimately. Are you really going to shoot smack dab in the middle of noon sun.

Zach Sutton's picture

You're not always the decider of the time of the shoot. I have two commercial jobs in a couple weeks, one at 11am, one at 1pm. If I complain that the lighting is bad at that time, they'll find someone else that'll work with the light, and I'll be out of a contract.

In terms of brand names, I don't think Clay is suggesting that you need a Westcott scrib, he was simply mentioning the tools that he's used and recommends. Not to mention, for the commercial gigs I mentioned above, I'd be scoffed at if I showed up with a homemade tool duct taped together.

John_Skinner's picture

In 30+ years of doing this.... I don't ever remember being 'scoffed'.

People just want the images. This gear envy/looking at me stuff is SO overrated.

But it's on the internet.. it must be true.

Andrew Griswold's picture

Well said Zach, in the end it should be about the images taken rather than the gear you use to get that image but when you have larger contract work or a client that is willing to pay the big bucks your image and professionalism speaks in your setup as well. If its clean, professional and well taken care of that says something about you as a business man and not just another kid trying to make it. So yes John, its possible to go on the cheap and grab pip and "rig it up" yourself but if it comes to contract work for a larger client I would even go as far as to say rent the material on the cheap as to keep that personal image clean for future endeavors with that same client. Now if its a smaller shoot with a single model or your are working on a personal project by all means use what you want, no one will be seeing this in the end from the BTS standpoint but rather the final image. I guess I am saying in some cases when it comes to larger clients or corporate atmosphere it goes a long way to show you are serious about what you do.

Graham Marley's picture

I was looking into building my own scrim frames, and then I saw the 12x12 Avenger Fold Up butterfly frame for 550. The price difference between that and a DIY kit is hinges and convenience. I'd rather pay a premium and have something that works efficiently. I also need it to be something an assistant can learn to deploy quickly instead of teaching someone to deal with my insane fabrication ideas.

Jeremy Sale's picture

Always good to have a trick up your sleeve. Love the look, too.

Clay Cook's picture

Definitely! Thanks Jeremy!

Neo Racer's picture

241$ THO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

simonj1970's picture

As I posted above, the cheapo one I got off Amazon works just as well, mine is surprisingly well made and sturdy.

Anonymous's picture

Props to the Han Solo re-enactment. LOL

Spy Black's picture

"Say Yes To Noon Sun"

I thought you were shilling some Asian religion for a moment...

Hans Klett's picture

40 x 60 inch for $35. I bought this this thing and it's perfect. Folds up quickly (2 seconds) with all material. You get Gold, Silver, Black and white satin. Save your money and put it towards a lens.

Anonymous's picture

i have also buyed one of this just now .... ;-) This is how advert needs to be done ;-)

Clay Cook's picture

That is definitely an option as well! May just order one myself. :)

S Wade's picture

That and one or two willing people to hold it.

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