Photographers are always talking about light – its direction, its quality, and how it affects your images. If you’ve been taking photos for a while, you’ll know that golden-hour lighting (just after sunrise and just before sunset) is often considered best, and diffused overcast light is also well-liked.
However, middle-of-the-day lighting is almost universally hated by photographers. Because midday sun travels through fewer miles of atmosphere, it tends to be harsh and high contrast. And because it comes down from above, it creates deeply unflattering shadows. (The photographers who do like shooting at midday are street snappers; they use midday sun to produce bold, high-contrast images, generally in black and white.)
But while working in the midday sun may not be ideal, it’s often a necessary part of being a photographer. What if you want to photograph the interior of a building, yet it’s only open from 10-2? What if you have a portraiture client who is only available during their lunch break? What if an outdoor wedding ceremony is scheduled at 12? What if you’re traveling, and you only have a few hours to stop at a stunning location?
Luckily, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to photograph at midday while still achieving beautiful images. Below, I share my favorite methods, and I include plenty of hands-on examples so you can see exactly what I mean.
Let’s dive right in!
1. Use open shade
When faced with the midday sun, the first thing you should do is look around for a shaded area: the spot beneath a large tree, an open garage, the side of a building, the space below an awning, or anything else that casts a big enough shadow to cover your subject.
Shaded light isn’t incredibly flattering, and it certainly isn’t very flexible (what do you do if you’re photographing a moving subject, like a dog in action, that won’t stay put?), but it works decently well for portraits, flowers, products, and still-life setups. The benefit is that it creates a softer, lower-contrast effect where no direct light is hitting your subject.
The key is to place your subject at the very edge of the shade; that way, while they’ll be evenly illuminated, there will still be enough actual light for a good exposure:
If you place your subject in the darkest part of the shade, the light will be even, but you may struggle to get a sufficiently fast shutter speed for sharp shots.
Also, be careful to avoid patchy shade, which is especially common under trees. It’ll create a dappled effect with uneven spots of light on the subject:
One more quick tip: Bring out a reflector! By reflecting light toward your subject, you can add a bit of extra pop to your images, and you can even make your subject appear more three-dimensional.
If you don’t already own a reflector, they’re pretty cheap, or you can make your own using white foam core or even a standard poster board:
2. Work with backlight
Sometimes, absolutely no shade will be available or it’ll simply be impossible to get your subject to cooperate and go under the shade.
When you have no choice but to photograph your subject in full sun, my recommendation is to position yourself so that you’re dealing with backlighting. In other words, walk around your subject until the sun is at its back (and pointing toward the camera lens).
If you’re photographing at high noon, finding a backlight angle will be impossible – but at every other time of the day, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Backlighting will prevent high-contrast lighting from hitting the front of your subject. Take a look at these two images, one shot with front light (on the left) and one shot with backlight (on the right):
Backlighting can also be a big help when shooting portraits since it’ll prevent your subjects from squinting.
Now, backlighting generally results in two types of photos:
- Silhouettes, where the subject is dark while the background is well-exposed
- Higher-key shots, where the subject is well exposed but the background is blown out
Either of these approaches can work, but it’s important that you think carefully about the effect you want to achieve before shooting. If you prefer a silhouetted look, you’ll need to expose for the bright area behind your subject, and if you prefer a higher-key look, you’ll need to expose for your subject while letting the background turn overly bright. You can do this by carefully metering off the relevant areas of the frame, or you can use different manual exposure settings to get the result you’re after.
If you like the idea of using backlighting but you want to keep both the foreground and background well-exposed, you do have another option:
3. Use a flash or a reflector (plus backlight)
This tip works great for portrait and product photoshoots. The best part is that you don’t need an especially strong flash; you simply need to get some light on the front of your subject.
First, make sure your subject is backlit (i.e., the sun is hitting them from behind, as discussed in the previous tip). Then mount a speedlight to your camera’s hot shoe or a nearby light stand. Make sure the flash points toward the front of the subject.
Carefully expose for the bright area behind your subject. When you take an unflashed shot, the resulting file should show a dark subject – but when you add in the flash, both the subject and the background should look great. The combination of the backlight and the flash will take care of any harsh shadows, plus it’ll ensure a balance between foreground and background.
Note that it may take a bit of tweaking to your camera and flash settings to get the subject properly exposed, but it will certainly be worth it!
If you’d prefer not to use a flash, you can work with a reflector instead. Reflectors aren’t quite as manipulatable as flashes, but they still do a great job. Here you can see my reflector setup along with the resulting image:
4. Shoot with a diffuser
If you’re stuck working in full, harsh sunlight and constantly capturing backlit images isn’t ideal, then consider using a diffuser: a white translucent panel that sits between the subject and the light and gives wonderfully soft results:
A diffuser takes in harsh sunlight and spreads it evenly over your subjects. You will be restricted by the size of the diffuser and your ability to position it, but it’s a highly effective way to shoot products, still-life scenes, and flowers.
When working with a diffuser, it can be helpful to enlist an assistant to hold it in place. (I’ve actually solicited the help of strangers on occasion; don’t be afraid to get creative!)
Note that you can purchase diffusers online (in fact, some reflectors can be converted into diffusers!). Another option is to make your own diffuser with some translucent white fabric (like a bedsheet).
Here’s my diffused-lighting shot:
5. Accept the high-contrast look
Throughout this article, I’ve discussed the problems with photographing at midday – but sometimes, instead of trying to avoid harsh light, it’s better to steer into the skid! Embrace the high-contrast effect, and see what you can create.
One technique here is to shoot in black and white, which tends to look great in harsh lighting. Heavy shadows can create drama, and when combined with careful composition, the results can be breathtaking.
On a related note, it can be helpful to seek out interesting shadows. If you’re shooting portraits, for instance, you can position your subject so the shadow falls across their face. If you’re capturing architecture, you can allow the shadow to hide certain features while emphasizing others.
There are no clear rules here; it’s really all about experimenting and having fun!
Midday sun photography: final words
The next time you’re stuck shooting in the middle of the day, don’t hyperventilate and come up with excuses to avoid the situation. Instead, take up the challenge and try these approaches. (I do encourage you to practice with harsh lighting in advance so you’re not stuck testing different techniques during the actual session.)
With a bit of perseverance, you’ll come home with great results, and – bonus! – you’ll learn more about the light along the way.
Now over to you:
How do you plan to handle a photoshoot in harsh light? Do you have any other tips for photographing in the harsh midday sun? Share your thoughts in the comments below!