3 Tips for Shooting Portraits in Bright Sunshine - Digital Photography School

3 Tips for Shooting Portraits in Bright Sunshine

Fill Flash with the Sun Behind the Subject Creates Nice Backlighting but a Well Lit Face (the hat helped shade the face too) - Image by Cayusa

It’s a bright sunny day and you’re out with friends making the most of the good weather. You decide to take your camera – after all what better day to shoot some portraits of your friends than a sunny day – bright light = great shots doesn’t it?

Unfortunately lots of light doesn’t always equal great shots – in fact sometimes when you’re shooting portraits in bright sunshine you can run into real problems.

For starters shooting in bright midday sun where light is coming from directly above is going to mean that your subject can have some pretty heavy shadows cast on parts of their face.

Not only that, if you’ve ever posed for someone taking a picture in bright sunlight you’ll know just how difficult it can sometimes be to look natural and not end up looking like you’re grimacing in pain while you squint to keep the sun out of your eyes.

So what’s one to do?

Here’s three simple tips for shooting portraits in bright sun light. I’ve kept them pretty basic for those of you who are out and about and don’t want to haul an outdoor studio along with you!

1. Fill Flash

It seems a little odd switching the flash on in bright sunlight but it’s one of the best times to do it. Those heavy shadows cast on your subjects face (particularly under the eyes) by the midday sun can be a thing of the past with a little extra light from your camera’s popup flash.

Many cameras will allow you to control the intensity of the flash output with their flash compensation function so don’t be satisfied with your first shot – dial it up or back a little once you’ve taken a first test shot until you get a nice natural light.

Shot in open shade and using a reflector - Image by christianyves

The bonus of using a little fill flash is that it will often darken your background a little which can give your shot a little more punch and make your subject stand out a little from their background. Fill flash will also create a little catchlight in the eyes of your subject, giving their eyes that little extra sparkle!

Sometimes using fill flash will also allow you to shoot with the sun behind your subject – this means their face has no direct sunlight on them but that they have a little back light falling upon their hair and shoulders which can create a nice impact.

2. Shoot in the Shade

Another easy way to stop the shadows on the face of your subject is to simple move them (and yourself) into a much bigger shadow and to shoot in the shade.

The key is to find a spot where they’re not in the dark but have a nice even light falling on them. So avoid dappled light under some trees a tree or you’ll get spots on their face but go for something with a nice even coverage.

If you’re going for a tight head shot you might even be able to get away with having someone hold up an umbrella or some other object to create some shade over their face (as long as the other person is out of shot).

3. Find a Reflector

A combination of shooting in shade and using a reflector gives this portrait an even lighting - Image by JesseBarker

It’s unlikely that you’ll be hauling a proper reflector around with you (although I know some dPS readers always travel with a small foldable reflector in their camera bag) but that doesn’t mean you can’t use the same principle to bounce a little light into the face of your subject to help light up some of those shadowy areas.

Pretty much any white (or light) surface can act as a reflector of light and held at the right angle you can use it give your subject a little extra light.

One photographer we talked to a while back swore by always wearing a white t-shirt for this but you could get a similar result by positioning your subject by a white wall or positioning many white objects just out of frame to reflect light. I’ve even seen one photographer friend take aluminium foil from a picnic and using it to help make a reflector (although it did create a little ‘dappled’ light on his subject.

Bonus Tip: Get Creative

Once you’ve taken a few nice portraits with the above tips, why not try a few experiments and use the bright light to see if you can inject a little creativity into your shots. You might just take one with the WOW factor. For try creating some lens flare by shooting into the sun (just be careful not to burn your eyes looking directly into it). Alternatively you might try some silhouette shots for portraits with a little mystery and drama.

What other tips would you give someone looking to shoot portraits in bright sunlight?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category.

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • Roy

    I shoot under the sun and thanks for the tips…

  • Greg Sullivan

    Didn’t see anything mentioned about CPL filters…

  • Patricia Pope

    Wow! these suggestions make a lot of sense to me…I have learned so much from the tips posted at DPS.

  • Frank Gomez

    CPL filters don’t do anything for portraits at high noon because the light is coming straight down and not coming from the side, which is when CPLs shine.

    If doing landscape or shooting water or shiny objects at high noon then CPL may help reduce non-metallic glare.

  • Ray Gross

    How about a :tent” shade cover made with a white sheet to diffuse light? At family get togethers I set up a Portrait Area for shots.

  • Chels

    I love shooting b&w in bright light… then a blown out background almost looks like it belongs.

  • Chris Roberts

    polarised lenses are great for dark blue skys and through glass to cut reflections or peoples glasses

  • Justin B

    For landscape shots, a CPL is most effective when the sun is directly overhead. You will get the starkest contrast (dark blue skies) when the sun is 90 degrees from the object you are shooting.

  • Gogo

    Living in Greece with the bright sun, your article is very helpful.

Some older comments

  • Roy

    April 7, 2013 04:43 pm

    I shoot under the sun and thanks for the tips...

  • Bali

    October 10, 2012 04:39 am

    I like first photo (Little girl with cowboy hat) I think she "didn't like" the picture and tried to make "protest" then she wrote "ISN'T ME" with Brushes Tools in ..perhaps MS Paint. Hahaha...She's funny girl :)

  • Deborah Kalas

    August 28, 2012 05:18 am

    Thanks for such great tips. As a professional portrait photographer in the Hamptons, 90% of my shoots are out of doors (usually on the beach). If I had to wait for the perfect weather, I'd be out of business. So, I have learned to get great images even on cloudy, hazy, and foggy days. I've put a few examples on my website in case you want to take a look http://blog.deborahkalasphotography.com/portrait-photography-anticipating-adapting-to-changes-in-weather/

    Photographers: keep testing and testing until you learn to work around Mother Nature. Experience does help!

  • Phil

    August 3, 2012 08:07 pm

    Nice post Darren, shooting portraits in harsh sunlight is, if possible, best avoided. If not then your suggestions are good remedies to counter that harsh shadowed look.

    If it is not possible to find a shaded area then I tend to prefer to use fill-in flash though I would always use a flash diffuser to soften the light. I like to use this whilst the subject has their back to the sun which prevents the subject from squinting too much.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge so freely.

  • Barbara

    August 3, 2012 04:23 am

    One of the tips I read was to use a car reflector that you put in your windshield when you leave it. They are
    not very costly and can be stored in the car and easy to get out and use. Have your person hold it in front of them as you take the photo. Just experiment with it until you get the light right. Hope this helps.

  • ccting

    August 2, 2012 05:19 pm

    But shooting under a tree shade will cast green on subject.. how u guys overcome this problem?

  • Eeps

    August 1, 2012 04:40 pm

    @Lea: how big is the group? Very difficult to light a big group with a small flash. Much more difficult to overpower the sun. Fill flash is only practical when dealing with individuals or small groups and you can get them to compact for the shot. A diffuser on the flash cuts down it's power. Very difficult to overpower the sun with a diffused flash, moreso when you want to light up a big group. If lighting up a small group or individual, the best diffusers would be white umbrellas or softboxes. Those small "Gary Fong" type diffusers are best used indoors. Anyway, best to experiment and see what works for you.

  • HB

    July 30, 2012 12:14 pm

    Great tips Darren.
    I love the idea of getting a "photography assistant" to hold up an umbrella...this would probably be my 6yo- she'll love it ;)

  • steve slater

    July 30, 2012 12:57 am

    Into the sun and using shadows:
    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Southern-England-scenes/G0000.xAeTcT_pgs/I0000jbyaLpTZ_HY

  • Lea

    May 2, 2012 07:14 pm

    If I have a diffuser and am photographing a group in bright sunlight from above, should i point my flash directly at the group?

  • Phil Walker

    October 22, 2011 04:29 am

    Hi. Must compliment you on your lighting articles. Personally I like to shoot with available light as much as possible although lighting conditions indoors can present problems unles there is a good light source. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoy trying our your suggestions and find some of your tips invaluable. Please keep up your project pages. Many thanks. Phil Walker, Perth, Scotland.
    PS> Once I manage to scrape the 'bawbies' (money) together I will think about investing in your photograhpy course.......

  • Geri-Jean

    August 3, 2011 04:38 am

    Thanks Darren.

  • Darren

    August 3, 2011 02:46 am

    I wouldn't exactly call this 'shooting in bright sunshine', every one of those examples has the subject in the SHADE. That's not shooting in sunshine.

  • Sharon

    April 22, 2011 11:48 am

    My friend took a picture outside where the sun was shining through the tree leaves and it ended up with a purple cascade coming down from the sun to the tops of the people's heads. Does anyone know what caused that?

  • Nancy

    April 22, 2011 03:14 am

    This has been very helpful information. I am a beginner and need all the help I can get. I have a shoot next weekend between 9 & 12 so I will definitely use some of the ideas here. Thanks.

  • bycostello

    April 14, 2011 12:55 am

    is there anyway to tone down a reflector in midday sun?

  • spotty

    February 18, 2011 06:04 am

    While teaching at the 'point-n-shoot' level I have even had the subject hold a sheet of (A4) white paper to reflect the light coming from behind or from one side. The photographer just helps them to adjust the angle. Good relaxer too. :)

    I have also stitched thin white fabric to one side of a car window sprung shade and knitted silver fabric to the other side - it snuggles handily into my bag.

  • saichintu

    August 2, 2010 08:04 am

    Knowing thing is good (Common),but known things sharing with others for their (ours') knowledge is marvelous.....
    thank you sir.

  • Melissa

    July 13, 2010 07:42 am

    As a photographer with an ULTRA tiny budget, I do a lot of experimentation with cheap stuff made into nice equipment.
    One of my personal favorite ideas (for those of us who don't always have reflectors on hand) is to carry a white umbrella. If you brace it on your shoulder at the right angle, it diffuses harsh sunlight without casting a shadow. And, if you ever get stuck in a sudden rainstorm (which I have), you'll have come prepared.

  • Tonya

    July 7, 2010 01:42 am

    When I shoot in the bright sun my shots turn out blurred and the client has the face of a ghost. :(

  • geri-Jean

    July 1, 2010 07:26 am

    Great article !
    I am about to shoot my second wedding in August this year.
    My last wedding was a low light wedding. Now this one is outside on the beach.
    I am delighted that she understands photography enough that she has requested to have her
    portraits done early morning for the soft light.

    But ... that means the wedding may still be in bright sunlight, being on the beach.
    I am very excited to have a 70-200mm 2.8 on this shoot, but the downside is possibly being too
    far away to use fill flash to get rid of harsh shadows.

    Does anyone have any ideas on this?

    I really want to get some beautiful ceremony shots without the harsh light.

    Thanks for any advise ! I appreciate it SO much !

  • Carol Lynn Coronios

    June 28, 2010 01:38 am

    GREAT hints and suggestions. Thanks! Wish I had more time to spend here...

  • Angie

    June 27, 2010 10:53 pm

    Something that I actually like to do when it is a really bright, blue sky day, is to get lower than my subject and shoot at an upward angle to use the bright lighting for a backlighting effect.

  • Singapore Wedding Photography

    June 27, 2010 09:57 pm

    I always use a filter when shooting in midday. I find that i brings out the contrast better although that's just my personal preferance.

  • RJ

    June 21, 2010 01:27 pm

    if shooting against the light, how do you get a blue sky?

  • ad

    June 20, 2010 11:05 am

    i always use fill flash. how do you keep a blue sky. How do you meter? Spot? I have no problem with individuals, just groups.

  • Larente Hamlin

    June 19, 2010 12:37 am

    Very good advice... I have played with the concept. When I got to the end... Get Creative... Never shoot a DSLR into the sun... will fry your sensor!!! Might want to add that before you get some very angry readers. Just a thought.... Burned a sensor like that by accident a few years back...

  • Jim Neff

    June 18, 2010 10:37 pm

    I sort of almost got this, but not quite, with engagement pictures my friends asked me to do. I still terribly new and since they didn't pay me I didn't feel too bad about the quality. I used my old Sunpak 433d flash trigger vai Cactus v4. I forgot my gel filters. http://www.flickr.com/photos/neffland/4416184675/

  • Roel Arevalo

    June 18, 2010 09:56 pm

    Well let me try to post this - I always use flash fill no matter what, I have learn that I can get consistent results using my flash.[eimg url='http://digital-photography-school.com/forum/attachment.php?attachmentid=39768&d=1276861567' title='attachment.php?attachmentid=39768&d=1276861567']

  • Roel Arevalo

    June 18, 2010 09:39 pm

    I always use a flash no matter what, work hard to learn how much to flash fill, but now get consistent results.[eimg url='http://www.onetalentsource.com/portfolio_view_photo.full.cfm?ID=200507&photopage=2' title='portfolio_view_photo.full.cfm?ID=200507&photopage=2']

  • Sacramento Wedding Photographers

    June 18, 2010 02:32 pm

    Yet another fantastic post. I've had good success combining many of these effects. For example, using shade on location or make-shift shade with a transparent umbrella and using fill flash. I prefer to use spot metering and meter directly on the shadows under the subjects eyes.. Works great.

  • Mei Teng

    June 18, 2010 12:07 pm

    John, thanks for the tip on fill flash. Yes, I will keep shooting :)

  • john

    June 18, 2010 03:49 am

    re- mei tend on aiming the fill flash

    if i can't bounce my flash, i'll usually aim the flash directly at the subject, but set the flash to be about -2 stops under exposed, that way it's not so harsh, but still enough to get rid of any shadows.

    keep shooting!

  • Juan Huerta

    June 18, 2010 02:58 am

    Great article. In Houston is about the same, bright sun light, heat, humidity, torrid weather... I usually bring out screens and of course, use fill in flash. Sometimes shadows from trees are son uneven it's useless to take try to take advantage from it. Nothing like a great assistant with a huge sun screen, but that little detail adds on on the price tag I'd have to charge people to get it done that way. Unfortunately, people are more into saving money than allowing a photographer to use all his or her resources to get the shot the right way.

  • T-Fiz

    June 18, 2010 02:46 am

    I would actually suggest to NOT wear a white shirt so that you can keep the subjects' eyes from squinting in bright sunlight.

  • JThor

    June 17, 2010 07:39 am

    One question - when using fill flash, is there a problem with white balance? The subject is lit with a combination of natural light and flash, whereas background is lit with just natural light. In the past, I've taken photos indoors with flash and have found that you get some unatural results when using a combination of fill flash for subjects and existing (in my case, incandescent) light for the background. Might it help to use a gel filter on the fill flash to keep all the light at the same temp, or is this overkill?

  • Bill G

    June 17, 2010 01:59 am

    I find that those window shades with the spring edges that are so fun to fold and you might already have in your car make a pretty good reflector.

  • Viktor Koltun

    June 16, 2010 07:32 pm

    I have recently bought my first refector, a sun mover, and on the first shoot with it, I found that at times I was blinding the teenagers I was shooting. Fortunately with the sun mover you can use it either as a spot, neutral or soft focus by bending the sunbounce to overcome this problem.

    Viktor

  • Michael Shachar

    June 16, 2010 05:27 pm

    One of the best practices I use is using "spot meetering" and to meter the light on the subject's pace, try and you will get amazing photos.
    See the following example:
    [eimg url='http://picasaweb.google.com/michael.shachar/LMUqTB#5396842006421551010' title='LMUqTB#5396842006421551010']

  • johnp

    June 16, 2010 12:36 pm

    I have found with outdoor weddings getting the bride to hold a white parosol (even a small one) can help a lot with lighting on a bright day. It also gives the bride something to hold and they seem to love using them. It can also act as a reflector when not included in the shot.

  • OsmosisStudios

    June 16, 2010 12:29 pm

    One BIG one that is missing here is a Neutral Density (ND) filter. Invaluable for pairing with fill-flash (to get the shutterspeed into the Sync range at larger apertures).

  • Jason Collin Photography

    June 16, 2010 12:15 pm

    I usually put the flash above and to the left, on a light stand about 2 feet higher than the subject. Putting the flash above the subject simulates the position of natural light, i.e. the sun. If you have the light stands to do it, or an assistant, you can use a light stand or assistant to hold a reflector so you can bounce light, both natural and flash, that way. Otherwise, one can just use a diffuser cap, which works surprisingly well.

  • Mei Teng

    June 16, 2010 11:27 am

    I have questions regarding fill flash. You don't aim the flash directly at your subject isn't? Where do you aim the flash then? Also, I don't think you can bounce the flash when shooting outdoors and would there be a need to use a flash diffuser?

  • Mei Teng

    June 16, 2010 10:18 am

    JC & Scott, thank you for your tips. I like the idea of adding objects so it's not just an overblown white sky behind the person.

  • scott

    June 16, 2010 05:59 am

    MeiTeng,

    Yes, you just set your camera for "spot metering" and meter on the face. Just let the background do whatever it wants, which will probably be blown out. If this is the case, try and put varied shades of object to add interest rather than just a white blob of a sky. Give it a try and see which you prefer, as it is only wrong if you don't like it :-)

  • scott

    June 16, 2010 05:56 am

    David, since it is your art, you can do what you want. It really depends on what you like and no one can tell you one way is wrong. I sometimes am in the mood for it, and other times it just makes the image to complex.

    lightshootedit.com

  • Jason Collin Photography

    June 16, 2010 05:21 am

    If you are a photographer in Florida, you have to learn to shoot in very bright, direct (hot!) sunlight, or hope all your clients agree to have golden hours appointments. I recently had to photograph a wedding from 10am to 12pm, all out in direct sunlight with the sun already high in the sky (bottom two shots in the link):

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2010/6/10/morning-wedding-at-sunset-beach-on-treasure-island.html

    I had no diffuser, no reflector. Just a SB-600 off camera on a light stand high above for the portrait shot (middle one) and then hot shoe mounted for the wide wedding party shot (bottom).

    Fortunately, the beach faces the west so the sun was still slightly in the east so I could photograph the bride with a water background and still have her front lit by the sun a bit, but not much.

    As you can see the photographs are not fantastic or ideal, but acceptable results can be had in direct sunlight, when necessary.

  • JCPhoto

    June 16, 2010 02:21 am

    Re: Mei Teng and blown backgrounds. You can get the effect by exposing for the face and getting full sky behind the subject. It is a quick way to do it if you do not have a solid background to shoot against.

  • David Stringham

    June 16, 2010 02:17 am

    I just saw the picture at the top on Flickr yesterday. The question I have is how bad is dappled light. Should it always be avoided or can it be used creatively sometimes.

  • TheKingInYellow

    June 16, 2010 12:53 am

    I always wondered about using a white blanket. You wouldn't necessarily be able to control the angle, but doing headshots or three-quarter portraits seated or standing on a white blanket should work, right?

  • MeiTeng

    June 16, 2010 12:50 am

    I noticed quite a number of wedding photographers shoot portraits with overblown background. I suppose that's a generally accepted norm for portraiture. Is there a way of shooting portraiture with an overblown background but without fill flash?

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