Shooting portraits in direct sunlight: 3 tips
Many portrait photographers shy away from direct sunlight. The common wisdom is that you can’t capture beautiful portraits in harsh light but that’s simply not true. Any lighting source can be used to create either beautiful or unflattering portraits. It’s not the light; it’s what you do with it.
Sometimes, I don’t get a choice about when or where a shoot takes place. If a midday shoot is the only time my client can do, then I risk losing the job if I can’t find ways to work with midday lighting. Equally, as I live in the changeable climes of the UK, then a cloudy day can quickly turn into a clear one (and vice versa!), so I need to be able to handle both situations.
And while cloud is loved for its softness and golden hour is praised for its atmosphere, direct sunlight offers something edgier: drama. The defined gradation between light and shadow that is a characteristic of harsh light enables photographers to create beautifully simple but striking portraits.
That’s because our eyes are drawn to the brightest part of an image. Using the sun as a spotlight on your subject is therefore a great way for directing and holding the viewer’s attention when they look at the finished portrait.
All that sunlight needs careful control for a flattering portrait, though. You need to choose a suitable location (if you get a choice in the matter!), find the best patches of light and manage your exposure to preserve the highlights.
These three tips will help you get started:
1. Choose a location with options
Wide open fields and plains give you fewer choices. There’s no shade, no corridors of light, no shape to the light. In locations like that, your options are far more limited.
Structures such as buildings, archways, bridges, trees and foliage offer you control over the light. You can place your subject in their shade or you can use the way the structures block and bounce the sun to light your subject effectively.
Pale floors and walls can act as giant reflectors, helping to fill in shadows on your subject’s face, while patterns and textures add visual interest and a sense of narrative in the background or foreground. Anything you can shoot through or around (from foliage to walls and arches) can also be used to frame your subject for some compositional va-va-voom.
The structures around you become tools to create your portrait, giving you creative options to flatter your subject and create a more interesting composition. That’s why a town or city is ideal – they provide a great variety of options within a short distance, especially if you look for the opportunities (patterns, graphical elements etc.) rather than the problems (graffiti, litter, gutters and so on).
After all, if you shoot with a longer lens, as is typically used for portraits (e.g. I almost always work with my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens), then shifting position just a few inches horizontally or vertically will change what’s visible in the background of your portrait anyway.
2. Look for where the sun meets the shadows
Once you’ve picked a location that gives you options, start walking. This does two things, both important: firstly, it relaxes your subject, and secondly, it enables you to find interesting patches of light.
Moving around burns off adrenalin, so if your subject is nervous about their photoshoot with you, a walk will help to reduce their anxiety levels. It also gives you a chance to find out more about them and put them at ease using your conversational skills, provided you can still conduct your main mission at the same time: finding the light.
In a location with lots of buildings, like a town or city centre, walking around even a single block changes everything. A building that is in direct sunlight on one side will be shaded on the other, and this will change according to the time of day. You might find a building element that adds an interesting graphical component to your shot, spot a reflection that adds a unique quality to the sunlight or come across a corridor of light.
But what should you look for specifically? The edges of the shadows. Watch for how the shadows change on the floors and walls around you as move around town.
When you spot a potential patch of light, ask your subject to stand at the edge of the shadows. Then watch the light change as they slowly step deeper into the shadow, or out into the sunlight. Angle their face up towards the sun slightly, particularly when it’s directly overhead, to fill their eye sockets with light. Too bright, causing your model to squint? Ask him or her to close their eyes then open them on the count of three, when you’ve got your focus point selected and your finger hovering on the shutter release button.
3. Underexpose to preserve your highlights
The areas of extreme light and dark when shooting a scene with patches of direct light are likely to fool your camera’s in-built metering system. Use manual exposure mode and shoot in RAW format to preserve as much detail from the scene as possible.
Check the histogram on your camera’s display after taking a test shot. If the chart has pixels stacked on the left side, areas of shadow are underexposed and will be recorded as pure black. If the chart has pixels stacked on the right hand side, highlight areas are overexposed and will be recorded as pure white.
Prioritise underexposing your image to ensure detail is still recorded in all the bright areas of your scene, particularly if your subject is wearing white clothing, as ours was. Check that shadow areas aren’t clipped at the left of the histogram either, though. As long as there are still some tones recorded, you will be able to lift the shadow areas in post-production afterwards, to give the effect of a correct exposure without burning the highlights to pure white.
The sun is as hard a light source as we photographers will ever work with, but hopefully you’ve seen it can still be an option for beautiful, dramatic and flattering portraits. When summer heads your way, there’s no longer any excuse to stay indoors during midday. Just don’t forget the sunscreen!
Go behind-the-scenes and pick up some extra tips by watching the companion video.