Are you struggling to capture stunning images when the sun is high in the sky? You’re not alone.
Midday lighting is a major challenge for most photographers; it creates excessive contrast, blown highlights, washed-out colors, clipped shadows, and more. The most common solution is to simply avoid shooting at midday, but that’s not always an option. What if you get hired for a portrait session and your clients are only available during lunch? What if you’re traveling and you only have a few hours at your destination?
Fortunately, if you need to take photos at midday, there are a handful of simple techniques you can use to reduce contrast, even out your exposures, and get great results. And that’s what I share in this article: My five favorite ways to create stunning midday photography!
Let’s get started.
1. Find some shade
What’s the simplest way to handle midday lighting? Get away from it.
I don’t mean that you should wait until the light is better (though that is an option). Instead, I’d encourage you to hide from the bright sun in the shadow of buildings, trees, bridges, and more. I took this next shot in the shade of a water tower:
Now, not all shade is created equal. Each type of shade will give you a slightly different photo because each shaded area features various levels of diffused light. (Remember: Shade isn’t the absence of light. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to take any shaded photos!)
So each time you find a shaded area, spend some time analyzing before shooting. Try to identify the main light source; it’s usually the closest reflective object or the object made of the thinnest material. Then position your subject accordingly, so you get the backlighting, side lighting, or front lighting that you want.
Pro tip: Turn your subject sideways – dark shade to one side, reflected light to the other – and you’ll produce a more dramatic, side-lit portrait with lots of depth.
Note that you’ll also need to pay careful attention to the area behind your shaded subject. If you want a low-key image, you can position the subject near the edge of the shade and let the background fall into shadow. If you want a high-key image, you can position your subject in the deep shade and adjust your angle until you have a brightly lit background. And if you want a more evenly toned image, make sure the subject and the background are close to one another in the same shaded area.
2. Use primes and polarizers
Prime lenses and polarizing filters are an easy way to cut down on midday photography problems.
Primes, for instance, tend to handle contrast and flare very well. Ever shoot into the sun only to find green flare and fringing in your photo? Primes will generally do a good job of minimizing flare (though a good lens hood can do wonders, too!).
And polarizers work to cut down on glare and haze, both of which can be problematic at midday. No, a polarizer won’t help you take away those unflattering under-eye shadows, but it’ll definitely add some extra clarity to your travel and landscape photos.
Bonus: A polarizing filter will also enhance image colors, especially the blues in a noontime sky.
3. Avoid front light
Much of the frustration surrounding midday portrait lighting has to do with the problems of front lighting. The sun shines down from out in front of your subject, producing harsh under-eye circles, squinting expressions, unflattering under-chin shadows, and more.
But if you backlight your subject, you can eliminate many of these problems. Sure, you’ll still end up with some contrast, but you’ll lose the squinting and the unflattering shadows on the face. (Note: As I discuss below, you can also use a reflector or a flash to add some life to a backlit portrait!)
Just know that, if you expose for your main subject, you’ll blow out the sky (see the image above!) – and if you expose for the sky, your subject will become a silhouette. Neither of these approaches is necessarily better than the other, so as an artist, you’ll need to decide which you prefer. If you’re not sure, feel free to take a couple of test shots and see what you like best.
Here, I positioned my subject so the sun was behind her and off to the left:
As you can see, by exposing for the subject, I lost a lot of detail in the background – but I think the effect works, and I was happy with the result.
4. Use a reflector or a scrim
The biggest issue with midday lighting is contrast. Fortunately, reflectors and scrim panels are designed to reduce contrast between your subject and the surrounding environment.
Reflectors, for instance, come in tons of different sizes, shapes, and colors; they can be used out in open sun or in combination with shaded areas. The idea is to simply identify unwanted shadows, then reflect light in their direction. The reflected light will minimize the shadows, and – voila! – you’ll have a better shot.
Reflectors are highly portable, so they’re ideal for the outdoor photographer. Note that you’ll need to carefully choose the color of your reflector. White reflectors will bounce back soft, neutral light, and while silver reflectors also produce neutral light, it’s stronger and higher contrast. Then there are gold reflectors, which reflect warm, golden-hour style light toward your subject. A gold reflector often works great in the late afternoon or early morning, but if you use one when the sun is too high in the sky, the result may seem unnatural.
For this next photo, I shot in the shade, but I also added a reflector at the bottom-right. See how the catchlight is in the bottom-right portion of my subject’s eye?
Then there are scrims – sheets of diffusive material that are designed to go between your subject and the sun, thus softening the light. Scrims vary in their strength, but a weak scrim may only affect the scene by a fraction of a stop (while a stronger scrim will reduce the light on the subject by several stops).
When using a scrim, simply have an assistant hold the panel above the subject so the light is diffused, then have fun taking photos!
By the way, 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 grabbed from around the home or purchased from a local craft store. For instance, you can make a white reflector with some foam core panels. I’ve often done this for low-budget or personal test shoots when I’m traveling to a location and I can’t pack a big reflector.
As for scrims, they can be made out of anything translucent, such as a bed shoot. Make sure any scrim material is solid white, though, or you’ll cast a color on your subject.
5. Light your subject
As I’ve emphasized throughout this article, midday shadows look pretty bad – and an easy way to get rid of shadows is to banish them with light of your own!
You can use any light source, from on-camera flash and mini strobes to full lighting kits. Just keep your general objectives in mind as you shoot: Getting rid of unpleasant shadows, reducing scene contrast, creating a well-exposed subject, and maintaining detail in the background and sky.
If you plan to do a photoshoot using artificial light, I’d recommend reading up on the most common lighting patterns as well as the most popular lighting modifiers. By taking the light off your camera, you can create plenty of gorgeous effects. And by softening the flash with a softbox, you’ll produce soft, flattering light that’ll look great on your subject.
I’d also encourage you to test out your lights in advance. Artificial light isn’t hard to manage, but a bit of practice can make a major difference!
Midday photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to capture beautiful photos, even at midday.
So memorize these tips. Purchase a reflector, a scrim, or a flash. And have fun in the sun!
Which of these strategies do you plan to use to handle midday lighting? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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