Sunshine: My Favorite Light Source

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I’m a minimalist gal when it comes to most things, and photography equipment is no exception. I know that some people love equipment and gear; the more the better. But when I think about lugging lights, reflectors, and flashes around, my creativity takes a nosedive. My favorite light source, hands down, is the sun. In the words of John Denver, sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy!

I’d love to share some dos (because who likes to be told what NOT to do?) to help you harness the power of the giant lamp in the sky. Hopefully you’ll gain a new appreciation for this natural light source, whether or not you hate lugging equipment around like I do.

The sun is unique

One thing I love about the sun is that it is never the same. Although having an unpredictable light source can be a big challenge, I love that every day, every shoot, every photo, is unique and special. I couldn’t recreate any given day’s exact lighting even if I wanted to. Some days everything works together like magic, and I call that a gift.

DO pay attention to how the light falls on your subject’s face

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I see many amateur photographers take photos like the one above, with harsh light and shadows on the face. Most of the time they are paying more attention to a pretty background than the lighting. If the sunlight is very bright, such as midday, or early afternoon, this can be a big problem.

Sunlight is a beautiful light source, but you have to work with it, and position your subject in the correct place, since try as you might, you’re not going to be able to move the sun (unless you want to wait a couple of hours, and let it move itself).

DO try backlighting

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This means that the sun is behind your subject, facing you. This method of using the sun is my absolute favorite, because it makes your subject just glow. There are a few things to keep in mind as you try backlighting:

  • DO use backlighting at any time of day. You get different effects backlighting with the sun in different positions. It’s an effective tool to use even when the light is harsh, since it softens the light on your subject’s face, and helps them not to squint. It’s also an ideal tool to use when the sun is low, golden, and gorgeous.
  • DO move yourself around. Slight differences in angles can make a big difference in the look you get. I like to have the sun behind and slightly to the side of my subject (as you can see in the photo above). If the sun is directly facing your camera, you may get flare in your lens that can totally wipe out your subject. You can get beautiful lens flare effects if you find a spot somewhere in between the two. Experiment to find exactly the look you are going for.

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  • DO use poles, trunks, bushes, or whatever is there to manipulate the light to your advantage. If the sun is positioned behind leafy trees, you can create beautiful soft bokeh. The trees filter the light a bit so it isn’t so harsh, and you get beautiful warm, soft, lighting. You can position yourself where the sun is partially behind a trunk or pole off to the side, which will cut some of the harshness and glare in your lens. The trunk doesn’t need to be in your photo, it’s just working as an assistant for you.
  • DO pay attention to the clothes YOU are wearing. Try wearing light/white tops as the photographer, and avoid wearing bright colors. It may seem strange that it matters what the photographer is wearing, but when the sun is reflecting off your chest, it can cast colors onto your subject that you weren’t intending, and put odd colored highlights in their eyes.

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  • DO use your subjects and your own body to work with the sun. You can position yourself so the sun is directly behind your subject, so your subject filters the light a bit and cuts the glare in your lens. This can create a beautiful glow, or a starburst effect. Sometimes if there is just a little too much glare on my lens, I hold my hand off to the side of my lens (not in the photo) and achieve just the amount of sun flare that I want, without all the washed out glare.

DO experiment with the sun directly lighting your subject

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There are lots of great advantages to this type of lighting, including the beautiful sky captured in the photo. When you backlight, your sky is usually washed out in order to have your subjects properly exposed. You can add a sky in post-processing, but when you shoot with the sun behind you, and toward your subjects, you can expose for both at the same time. A few more tips for front lighting using the sun:

  • DO keep in mind that it is usually hard for people not to squint when they are looking into the sun. If it’s a particularly bright day, you may have to have your subjects looking away from the sun. Some people are extra sensitive to light, and you may not be able to use front lighting unless the sun is really low in the sky, almost ready to set. Squinting eyes aren’t very attractive, neither are watery eyes and scrunched up faces.

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  • DO use front lighting when you want a dark background. If you position your subject near the opening of a shed or garage, the background will fall into darkness, since you have your exposure set for the bright subject in the front.
  • DO use front lighting for drama, and for high key photography, but be careful that you don’t lose too much dimension and end up with flat images.

DO use the sun for beautiful portraits

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When the light is soft, either when it’s almost down, or with a few clouds over it, you can light your subject from the side to get dimension. You can get dramatic moody portraits, soft flattering portraits, fun happy portraits…the sky is the limit!

DO become a light watcher

I can’t talk to someone without noticing how the light falls on their face. I look at how shadows fall at different times of the day. I study the quality of the light constantly, and take photographs with my mind all day long. The more you know about how the sun works, and how you can work with the sun, the better your photos will get.

Lastly – just one little don’t

DON’T be discouraged if the sun is hiding behind clouds. If you’re lucky, they’re thin clouds, and you can still harness a bit of that magical sunny glow. If it’s overcast, just remember that you’re still using the sun as your light source, and be grateful for the ease of using the whole sky as a giant soft light. Don’t forget; in the words of Annie, the sun will come out tomorrow!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Melinda Smith was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.

  • I also love shooting in sunshine, but I don’t get as much as I would like to get here in Ireland.
    Thank you for the tips you posted here, I will certainly consider all of them.

  • Keith Starkey

    Great article.
    On the first and third images, what filtering and/or processing are you using to bring more “haze” and not so much contrast into the image?

  • Grace

    Great article πŸ™‚
    Sunshine is my favorite light also.

  • Thank you!

  • I’m not doing a lot to the photos in post processing. I think most of what you are asking about comes from the light I was shooting in that day. Here they are SOOC…if you see something in the edited images that you aren’t seeing in these, let me know, and I’ll try to figure out exactly what I did in post processing on these. πŸ™‚

  • Oh, shooting in Ireland has to be a dream!! I love photos I’ve seen there. Lucky you, even without all the sunshine!

  • Keith Starkey

    I think what I’m referring to is the soft-light look against against the harsher sun. For instance, the photo attached to this post you made; I don’t see what would be thought otherwise as harsh light, anywhere. It looks as if you were using a scrim or diffuser, which gives that soft “hazy” but still clear look.

  • Naveen Sancheti

    Hows it ???

  • Pro Photographer

    Nice article, the images are beautiful. I do admire backlit models in the sun, the images come out looking very editorial yet fresh.

  • Felix Arenas

    Good article, good pictures illustrating your thoughts. Thanks.

  • Albin

    Good informative piece, a bunch of things I’d never think of. Might have mentioned a circular polarizing filter (CPL) that can blue up a “white sky” or moderate glare on water surfaces – google is your friend – in ways even Photoshop can’t do. Use sunscreen and your CPL when necessary.

  • Roger Lambert

    Forgive me…. but whenever I see photographers touting how much they love to use natural light, I can’t help but think:

    “Here is another photographer who doesn’t know how to use their flash correctly”.

    Which is not surprising to me – learning how to use a flash correctly is not easy – there is a huge amount of bad information out there.

    An off-camera flash puts out a spectrum of light which is very close to natural light. It is, essentially, a piece of the sun in your pocket. And using your flash in conjunction with natural light, will often, if not usually, afford a better result than natural light alone.

    Finally, learning how to use your flash requires that you learn about the principles of lighting. A bit of hard work that should be on the non elective list for anyone serious about improving their photography, which is, after all, all about the light.

  • Nice photo, Naveen. Thank you for sharing!

  • Thanks for the additional tips, Albin. πŸ™‚

  • Thank you for your comment, Felix.

  • Thank you!

  • You are forgiven. πŸ™‚ We don’t all think exactly the same, and that’s okay. Thank you for your comment. πŸ™‚

  • I didn’t use a scrim or diffuser, simply my camera and lens. πŸ™‚ There was a lot of wind that day, and some haze in the air (not cloudy, but just a different quality of light than the usual). I hope that helps clear things up! I’m sorry if I’m not understanding exactly what you’re asking. πŸ™‚

  • Liz Smith

    Thank you.I agree, the best light is sunshine. One of my daughter from my mobile phone x

  • What a sweet photo! I love the light, and she’s adorable!

  • Liz Smith

    Thank you πŸ™‚

  • Keith Starkey

    Oh, no, no! You’re fine. You answered the question very satisfactorily. I know that quality of light you’re talking about; it’s like a “perfect” between-sunny-and-cloudy. I just couldn’t see how it could have been a really bright sunny day. Love it! Thanks again.

  • You’re welcome! Thank you. πŸ™‚

  • WillyPs

    One more DON’T… don’t get sunburn or let your models get sunburn.

  • LOL! Yes, good point. πŸ™‚

  • Connie

    I love the way you think! I was excited to read this and realize that I had used some of these very techniques recently! Took a gorgeous shot of my son and his fiancΓ© backlit by the setting sun. Gorgeous!! Also, we couldn’t face him toward the sun because his blue eyes are so sensitive. Lol

  • Naveen Sancheti

    Thanks milinda πŸ™‚

  • I teach a natural light portrait course and everything you say here I encourage my students to explore, my first lesson is called looking for the light, I am sure you would agree this is a photographers most important asset.

  • Absolutely!

  • Sounds like a wonderful photo! And yes, some eyes are truly sensitive to the sun. πŸ™‚

  • Michael

    Hi Roger! You are absolutely correct. Unfortunately, a lot of even professional photographers are trying to stay away from flashes and the reason is because they never try to properly understand the role of this little portable sun magic. If they read and study “Speedliter’s Handbook” by Syl Arena, they would discover a new world of outdoor photography with flash. I always use my off camera flashes when I shoot outdoor and usually I put my subjects so the sun is behind them at about 10, 11 o’clock or 1, 2 o’clock while I am standing at 6 o’clock. I use my Speedlite (Canon 580EX) at about either 0 or up to -1 FEC to just balance the background light so my background and my subjects are equally exposed. The results are the properly exposed backgrounds while the subjects are crystal clear and in 3D perception. As we all can see, without a fill up flashes, your backgrounds have been consistently blown out because you were exposing for subjects. It’s even more creative to underexposed sunny background by 1 stop while using your flash to properly fill up the light for your subject. However, I am very sorry for not being on the same page with the author but we all have our specific vision and agenda in the art and craft of digital photography. By the way, I am not a professional photographer but just a hobbyist.

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  • Greg Boutz

    I use the sun as my main source of light and will use it and shadows to bring a macro shot to life like this one of a rose. I made sure the rose was in the light and the shadow was behind it to make a dark background.

  • winterwitch

    with sun as a back light, my subjects get dull and the over all look isn’t very flattering. if i use flash, if i increase exposure it gets too bright, if i use flash then the subject’s face looks very strange, espacially if they are wearing make up… brings out the flaws. what to do?

  • Try angling yourself a little bit so the sun isn’t directly behind the subject. You could also try a reflector to bounce light back onto your subject’s face. Mostly, just experiment until you find what works! If you have a willing model, you can even move around and try many different angles until you find one that works. Good luck! πŸ™‚

  • YaNeverKnow

    What a great article! Great points on how to use the sun. Thanks!

  • Marjolein Parijs

    This is also natural light from the window. What do you think?

  • Beautiful light, Marjolein!

  • Thank you!

  • Beautiful detail, Greg!

  • Marjolein Parijs

    Thanks

  • Greg Boutz

    Thanks for the reply!

  • Rajesh Singh

    Dear Roger and and Michael,
    Melinda has said in the beginning of her article, she is a minimalist and so is the case with her equipment too. Working with lot of equipment requiring mastery over them is an art. But I feel that working with minimum equipment requires even more hard work and mastery. Working with only Sun as your object for lighting requires far more understanding of light than required by flash users. My sincere apologies if I am sounding a bit harsh.

  • Dominic Bolaa
  • Amie C

    How do you get the subject to not become a silhouette with the light source behind them? Would it
    have to be at the Golden hour? along with camera settings?

  • archana

    Beautiful tips ! I love taking pictures under the sun, sunflare and not only portraits but also otherwise . I think it also enhances the photo naturally .

  • archana

    Fantastic tips ! i love to take photos under the sun and also love the sunflare, not only for portraits but also otherwise

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