How to Photograph in the Harsh Midday Sun

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It’s all about the light! The golden hour when the sun is just above the horizon shining its low angle golden rays on the scene; sunrise and sunset when the clouds light up pink, orange, and red; and the blue hour when the sun is below the horizon but it is not yet totally dark. Those are the best times to photograph.

But midday? That’s when tourists make snap-shots, right?

Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t options for you too. You just have to know what to do when the sun is high in the sky shining its harshest light on a day with no clouds to soften the rays.

How to Make the Most of Harsh Midday Sun

We don’t always have the option to shoot on the edges of the day when the conditions are best. On a recent trip, I was in between two destinations and had a few spare hours to visit a small village on route. It turned out to be an amazing location, but the light was harsh and the buildings were white. I could barely look at them let alone photograph them. I had to put my harsh light tactics to the test.

Here are some midday photography tips to help you:

1. Look for shade

The first thing I did was look for shady spots under trees and on the opposite side of the bright white buildings I was facing. Shade provides a nice soft, even, light, which is perfect for colorful subjects and ones with interesting shapes. I especially like to photograph flowers under soft light because the delicate nature of the subject lends itself to soft light.

How to Make the Most of Harsh Midday Sun - lotus flower

2. Look for shadows

Subjects with really distinct shapes will also have very distinct shadows in the harsh lighting conditions of midday. So you can make your photograph all about the shadows. Look for patterns in shadows, leading lines made by shadows, and shadows that create interesting shapes in your frame. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to include the object itself, sometimes just the shadow makes your photo a bit more mysterious.

Shadow Patterns - How to Make the Most of Harsh Midday Sun

3. Look for reflections in water

Whenever there is a body of water near a subject that has harsh light on it, you’ll get a bright reflection. This works best when the subject being reflected has a lot of color. Ideally, the subject will be in direct light and the water will be in the shade. Again you don’t have to include the object with the direct light on it. Sometimes photographing just a reflection can make an interesting abstract image.

Half Dome reflects in the Merced River in Yosemite National Park - How to Make the Most of Harsh Midday Sun

4. Use the time for scouting

When all else fails, rather than photographing, you can use the time to scout out locations for the future. Walk around, find a great subject and play with different compositions. Make “sketch” images by trying different compositions and choosing which one has the most impact. Then, when you find it, make a note of the exact location and make an image so you remember your camera angle.

It’s also a good idea to take note of how long it takes you to walk to that location, what the trail or route is like, and anything you may want to make note of should you need to return in the dark, like before sunrise for example. You’ll thank yourself later when you don’t have to guess at a location and composition before you can really see what is in your frame.

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve, California - How to Make the Most of Harsh Midday Sun

5. Rest up

When you’re on a long trip, sometimes it’s best not to wear yourself out by doing three photo shoots a day. Of course, you’re going to go out for sunrise and sunset. During the day you might want to clean your gear, get out some maps and do some planning, research stuff on the internet, or even take a nap.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your photography is simply to have a rest so you have lots of energy for your next outing.

Conclusion

What tips to you have for working with the midday sun in your photography? Please share them in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • Steve Baker

    Some great tips, thank you. You didn’t mention about filters? They can help loads in the harsh sunlight of the day.

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  • Day Tooley

    Midday is a perfect time to practice infrared photography. Full sun is a rich source in infrared light. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0bbc59a17915f5b9f7637d262c5a2df4d0be5d5a2b7f3007b585cd3fee0fe402.jpg

  • Day Tooley

    Spam

  • Larry

    I like to look for backlighting situations – which includes your shadows point – but also silhouettes, and sun star opportunities. Just my 2 cents, Anne; these are some really nice tips, as always.

  • Aditya Srinivasulu

    I find long exposures of architecture (to take away the people) with extreme ND filters (I just use a bit of welding glass, that’s like 15 stops or so) works really well the brighter the ambient light is

  • Mike Sweeney

    You neglected to mention a mid shooters best friend, a package of ND filters. I have a set of three I use constantly for harsh light shooting from landscapes to sports. In a pinch, a polarizer can do the same to a large degree. You need to get control of the aperture and shutter speed and the ND allows this even in very bright light. With a .9 ND, I can easily shoot at F4 and 1/800 of second or less for example to get a nice DOF and still get some movement on my sports shots ( kids soccer), the teens need about 1/1600.. they move faster 🙂 and keeping my ISO between 200 to 800. Even though your camera SAYS it can do 1/8000 shutter speed, my experience tells me that many cameras drift at the very high shutters and are not consistent unless you are shooting high end gear. Even then I had a case where my brand new Nikon was 1 stop off at 1/4000 and got worse as I went higher. So pays to be ready 🙂

  • Albin

    One can do a lot of filter work in post, so long as highlights aren’t blown, but the one filter that can’t be replicated by software is a CPL – it handles water surfaces (for penetration or reflection) and sky colors that defy a lens or exposure modification.

  • Von Will

    Great tips. This was shot at 1300 on a cloudless sky. We used a 43 ” round diffuser to provide shade. 165mm F2.8 1/800. no post production added. https://www.flickr.com/photos/phyguy/ https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5635711ca14d9e2163dd8b76a46aa2ae6b5fe278b83855c6cd5f3bf2ab15abd8.jpg

  • Bruce Crocker

    Texture. This is an extension of the use of shadows. An overhead sun can create shadows that often form texture rather than shapes. Lap siding in construction for example. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/29f30f405731f11fbb2486f3aab7179c30ec37764ffa2c5568dead0944d53a3f.jpg

  • Brian Ayre

    as a Blond Fair skin I carrey a White Umbrella , A…. keep the Sun Off Me….. B, Soften the strong sun light, C…, it could rain & if your kit isn’t weather proof you could have a problem,, Even a Small White Defuser Brolley ( Spray the Outer with Tent water proof spray ), Carrey a Flash as a Fill-in,

  • Diane

    Cool image Bruce! I’m an oil painter and this would make a great painting!

  • Bruce Crocker

    Thanks, Diane. Several people have assumed that some of my prints are paintings. Printing on canvas helps!

  • Jack Doy

    They certainly are.

  • Kerry Sidwell Wilson

    Good tips, I live where our sun is very harsh and very directioinal so the shade can be very deep. Also i feel our golden hour is very short, I am looking into ND filters to help. I like to record my kids and you cant always choose the time of day.

  • Jayanta Adhikari

    I am currently facing an issue while shooting at mid day light. I have observed, that in bright day light, my photos are not very sharp, or getting blurred. Any idea why is this so? I am using a Sony a58 , without any tripod, ISO 100, shutter speed at 1/2000 or more, and f value is from 2.8 to 8

  • Matthias Rohde

    Orten It will be strong UV light or other invisible Lights affecting your Sensor. Use a good UV filtert.

  • Matthias Rohde

    Sorry but photos in Chapter 2,3 and 4 are not taken in the harsch midday Sun. An useless article… the conclusion is to take no photos… you are kidding. Better the tips in the comments : Use ND Filter, Flash, try infrared…

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