Photography in Harsh Mid-Day Light

Photography in Harsh Mid-Day Light

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Photographers have been fighting with harsh mid-day light since the birth of the camera. Excessive contrast, blown highlights, hard shadows, washed images and other generally unflattering features are common to mid-day light. We’ve actually written a couple of times here at dPS about working in mid-day light, but it’s a popular question from our readers so I thought I’d rehash the topic again from my own personal experience using a recent test shoot as an example. Here are a few tips I’ve found useful for working in mid-day light.

Find Some Shade

This shot is taken from the shade underneath a water tower on top of a roof during mid-day.

This shot is taken from the shade underneath a water tower on top of a roof during mid-day.

Perhaps the simplest way to avoid mid-day light is to get out of it. While we can’t ask the sun to speed up, we can certainly hide from it under the shade of buildings, trees, structures and any other number of items both natural and man-made. However, not all shade is created equal. There’s speckled shade and deep shade, wrap shade, side shade, overhead shade, etc.

Remember that shade isn’t the absence of light. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to take a photo of anything in it! Instead, shade is a diffusion of light that is bouncing from or through another medium to reach your subject. It’s important to determine the direction from which light is hitting your subject – often it’s more than one. Generally whatever is the closest reflective object or the thinnest diffusion of the light is your key light source.

It becomes especially important when you take the background into consideration. For instance, a subject at the edge of a shadow with a shaded building behind it will be a brighter exposure and pop out more than a dark background. This is because the sun is bouncing off another building or the ground nearby out of the shadow. Keep moving the subject back toward the darker building and the relative exposures will get closer together – lessening the scene contrast. Turn your subject sideways – dark shade to the left, sun bounce to the right (or vice versa) and you’ll have created a more dramatic side-light. Knowing the direction of the light is important to create different effects.

Primes and Polarizers

Prime lenses and polarizers are great tools to help cut down on the mid-day haze. Primes are generally much sharper lenses than their zoom counterparts and come with the added bonus of handling contrast and flare very well. Ever shoot into the sun only to find green flare and fringing in your photo? Primes do a bit better handling flare and reducing the internal light scattering on the lens element(s). I might also add a good lens hood can do wonders here as well.

Combine this with a polarizer filter and you’ll find much sharper images with stronger color and contrast. Polarizers work to filter out mixed polarization in the light (sounds a bit obvious right?) and cut down on glare and flare as well. It won’t help you take away those under eye shadows on a person in noon light, but it sure will make your landscapes and travel photos far sharper.

Take an Angle on the Light

Taking an angle to the back light on this one let’s some highlights spill on the hair and shoulders, but avoids a hot spot on the face and wraps the light around the subject more.

Taking an angle to the back light on this one let’s some highlights spill on the hair and shoulders, but avoids a hot spot on the face and wraps the light around the subject more.

Much of the angst in mid-day photos comes from turning your subject into the sun and getting those harsh under eye circles, squinty eyes and just general high contrast on the skin. If there’s no shade around you can opt to backlight the person. Just know this will usually cause the sky to blow out if you expose for your subject or your subject will be too dark if you expose for the sky. Putting the sun directly behind the person is going to create the strongest scene contrast in this regard. I’ve often found by turning my subject at a 30-45 degree angle I can get a little wrap to the light. Just be careful to watch any large and unflattering hotspots creeping in on the face. I usually like to combine this with the use of a reflector.

Use a Reflector or Scrim

Reflectors and scrim panels (diffusers) are a great way to reduce the contrast between your subject and the surrounding environment. They can be used out in open sun or even in combination with shaded areas. Reflectors come in tons of different sizes, shapes and even colors. The important part of their job is to provide more light in a concentrated area where you want to fill a bit more. White reflectors will bounce back the same color light as is around you. Silver will bounce back a stronger, higher contrast light that’s usually pretty neutral in color. It has the tendency give a strobed look depending on the scene contrast. Gold reflectors will warm the light being sent back at your subject and black ones will actually absorb it.

Scrim panels come in different stop increments – sometimes ¼, 2/3, 1 stop and 2 stops. They are placed between your subject and the sun to diffuse and soften the light. A person shaded by a good scrim panel from the front might be very close or the same exposure as the background if it’s a small stop difference. This is a particularly popular technique for magazine cover shots – often combined with the blur of a 70-200mm lens. The relative same effect can be achieved by putting the subject at a 90 angle from the sun and placing the scrim between the sun and subject. The wrap of the light is just different – in this case side light.

This photo uses a reflector from bottom camera right. See how the light wraps from that side of the face and the catch light in the right part of her eye?

This photo uses a reflector from bottom camera right. See how the light wraps from that side of the face and the catch light in the right part of her eye?

If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on high quality reflectors and scrims, there are tons of ways to make these from products around the home or at a local crafts store. They may not work quite as well, but they’ll still function just fine. You can make an easy white reflector by just picking up some foam core panels at a local craft store and taping a few together. I’ve often done this, especially on low budget or personal test shoots where I’m traveling to a location that I can’t pack a big reflector. Scrims can be made out of anything translucent – but make sure they’re solid white or you’ll cast a color on your subject. I used a bed sheet once held by a few friends when we didn’t have the budget for a scrim panel. True story.

Light It

On camera flash, mini strobes or full Profoto kits – sometimes you just got to light it. There are a million and one ways to light something, so I’m not even going to try to get into set-ups. That’s for another post. Just keep your general objectives in mind – get rid of those under eye shadows, reduce the scene contrast, create a well exposed subject and background/sky, etc. Your lighting often depends on how much of a strobist effect versus a natural look you want.

However you do it – finding shade, using reflectors/scrims, polarizers or lights – your goal is often to be lessening the scene contrast and avoiding any nasty shadows. Hopefully a few of these tips will help you even the battle against the sun.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Matt Dutile is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

Some Older Comments

  • Jean-Pierre August 16, 2011 11:28 pm

    Nothing but harsh light, a white board, and macro subject:

    http://midnightrook.blogspot.com/2011/08/abstract_16.html?m=1

  • Tatiana August 10, 2011 03:50 am

    To avoid such sun sometimes is not possibleat all. I had wedding at 11am in Cuba and it was only possible time for the ceremony, I read a lot that photographers don't like this time and I was afraid and nervous because of that. I didn't want to have ceremony in gazebo as my dream was for beach ceremony, and gazebo was quite distand from the ocean, But our photographer did fantastic job. Even without reflectors and other equipment she succeeded to make great shots we are really happy with. So I think she considered the angles, lightning and other secrets.

  • Momentspause July 29, 2011 12:47 am

    I am coming from a completly different prespective on this - Yesterday, for the first time, I used a Holga lens modified to fit on my DSLR. With a fixed aperture of F8 and the classic Holga effect, the "harsh" light around 12:30 pm was minimized and utilized to good effect. The lens itself softens the image so much that this amount of light worked out very well. Not a "standard" answer (and I'm not a professional and don't shoot people or events for a living, so YMMV).

  • Melissa July 24, 2011 09:37 am

    I had a lot of trouble photographing a family portrait session in early July. I booked the session for 10 am, thinking I would avoid the harsh overhead sun. We shot in a backyard and the only pictures I liked were ones we took in the shade in the back small corner of the yard.

    During post-processing, I noticed some "white" circles on the subjects' arms from the sun coming through the leaves of the trees that we were using for shade. We had put some umbrellas in the branches to block out most of the sun. I was able to correct it in pp, but I am mad at myself for not noticing the spots when shooting.

    The suggestions in the article are not always possible-- shooting alone, a large group, no shade.

  • NEVILLE July 23, 2011 05:46 pm

    EXCELLENT DAVE. THIS, AS SHOWN, WORKS WELL WITH CLOSE-UP PORTRAITURE. OTHERWISE DON'T USE FULL SUN, HARSH LIGHTING. THERE ARE BETTER TIMES OF THE DAY.

  • Pashminu Mansukhani July 22, 2011 01:17 pm

    Yes, very good article. One important aspect is that we should avoid shooting in hot sunny climates, as that may over heat the camera equipment and make everyone on the set uncomfortable.

  • Jim Danvers July 22, 2011 05:42 am

    I've been shooting a lot of motor cycle races this summer and have been using off cam flashes (the same as Jason above - SB-600 & 800's) and have been using them principally for fill. I've been getting some pretty good results from time to time too. :) Check this one from this past Sunday (17 July) -- http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdanvers/5952863822/

  • DenverJ July 22, 2011 02:25 am

    For shooting landscapes in the bright light of the Colorado mountains (sorry, but I just can never get up in time to hike into a spot for the sunrise shots), I've found that shooting bracketed shots and processing as HDR really can even out the shot. There's lots of artsy/overblown ways to use HDR, but 5 or 7 bracketed shots do a real nice job of evening out tones even in bright light and giving a nice not too HDR-y looking shots.

  • Madison Raine July 20, 2011 12:56 pm

    @ Jason,
    I saw the photo, very beautiful, they didn't look like the heat was bothering them or that they got heat stroke. Florida is a beautiful place for a wedding. I hate the heat here.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer July 20, 2011 12:46 pm

    @madison -- yes, we were all long-time Florida people...it was definitely hot out and we didn't spend a second longer than we had too in the sun. It was still only 1pm so not yet the hottest part of the day, so that might have helped a bit. Plus as you can see we were right on the harbour/intercoastal waterway which keeps things a few degrees cooler.

  • Madison Raine July 20, 2011 09:59 am

    @ Jason,
    Was the couple from Florida? Because when it reaches 1 PM here, you can melt just from being ten seconds in the sun.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer July 20, 2011 05:33 am

    Just two days ago I had to photograph a mid-day wedding here in Florida. At about 1pm the couple wanted to go out and do some candid portraits with just themselves. It was a full-on sunny day with the sun basically directly overhead. I used a 2-strobe setup to light the couple with results that even surprised me (see lead photo):

    http://jasoncollinphotography.com/blog/2011/7/19/holiday-inn-harbourside-indian-rocks-beach-florida-wedding.html

  • Fuzzypiggy July 19, 2011 02:13 am

    I mainly do landscapes I've often found the atmosphere to be a large factor in dealing with the mid-day light. A clear blue sky is easiest to work with as it's darker and allows the range to narrowed to something the camera can work with, especially with an ND and/or polarizer, just bring that range into balance. The worst has to be nasty white cloud ( living in the UK we get plenty of cloud! ) with hardly any defintion, the ND's won't cut it to bring down the range or give any definition back your stuck looking for complex ways to fight with bright diffuse cloudy days or taking multiple exposures and lots tedious blending in post-processing.

  • Len Moser July 18, 2011 11:00 pm

    Every year I photograph the golfers who play in the Scotiabank Charity Golf Tournament. The lighting is always challenging and I have to shoot quickly. I make sure the sun is to the left or right of the subject and slightly behind. Then I use a flash on the camera to open up the eyes. Normally I would shoot in the shade and avoid the sun altogether.

  • Peet July 18, 2011 06:45 pm

    I'm not sure that shooting in the shade is doing "Photography in harsh Mid-Day Light"

  • Johnp July 18, 2011 12:36 pm

    Great advice, thanks. A trick that has worked for me when taking outdoor wedding photos in the harsh Australian sun is to give the bride a white parasol to hold. Apart from being a handy photogenic prop it diffuses the light nicely and at a pinch can be used as a reflector for sunlight or flash. Handy also having the bride usually happy to carry an item of your equipment (the parasol) around for you!

  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com July 18, 2011 06:02 am

    I do car photography for my website http://CustomPinoyRides.com.

    Usually for reflective surfaces such as cars, it is really hard to shoot during harsh sunlight. So what I usually do are:
    1. Find a good angle where the sun isn't as obtrusive
    2. Use a circular polarizing filter

    I want to try what it would be like if I shoot strobist style on harsh sunlight?

  • scottc July 18, 2011 05:52 am

    You can also find an angle that works with the harsh light.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5669384529/

  • James Bong July 18, 2011 03:34 am

    If you're under trees, you can use a shoot through umbrella to block and soften the light without using a flash.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck July 18, 2011 01:32 am

    Hi

    Harsh light is challenging but it doesn't have to be the end of a shoot. I typically look for shade, use an off camera flash with a shoot through umbrella, carry a large diffuser and several reflectors for additional light where it may be missing. Having an additional pair of hands helps as well to hold and position all this stuff.. and it is not really that expensive!

    This shot used an off camera flash (Nikon SB600) through an umbrella off to the left....model in the shade!

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/condemned-trash-the-dress/