Capturing stunning portrait photos at midday, when the sun is bright and high overhead, can be very, very difficult.
(Most serious portrait photographers try to avoid midday lighting at all costs, and for good reason: the harsh light beats down on subjects and creates wildly unflattering shadows.)
However, you won’t always get to choose when and where your portrait sessions take place – so it pays to know a few tips and tricks for managing that harsh midday sun.
In this article, I share my best advice for doing midday portrait photography. And while midday light is rarely ideal, if you use the tips and techniques I share below, your images will be much improved.
Let’s do this!
1. Backlight your subjects
…but did you know that you can also use backlight in the late morning and early afternoon? As long as the sun is slightly angled, then backlighting is possible, and it’s a great way to keep your subjects looking good in harsh, bright light.
You see, by backlighting your subjects, you keep direct sun off their faces, and you also avoid those weird shadows that occur under the eyebrows, nose, and chin.
Backlighting will also help keep your subjects from squinting, which is a big problem during midday sessions.
So simply find the sun, then position your subjects so they’re facing away from the light. You may get lens flare, but I’m actually a fan of the look:
One word of warning:
When you’re working with backlighting, your choice of background may be limited. But make sure you put in extra effort to find a complementary, non-distracting backdrop; otherwise, while your subjects may look great, the background will draw the viewer’s eye.
2. Try a black-and-white conversion
Black-and-white photography seems almost nostalgic in the age of vibrant digital images – but in harsh lighting, converting your color portraits to monochrome can be a game-changer.
Why? It turns the unpleasant aspects of harsh light into something visually engaging.
The first thing to know is that a black-and-white conversion can simplify an image. It reduces visual distractions and makes the portrait more about shapes, tones, and contrasts. And guess what? Here, harsh lighting, often a hindrance, suddenly becomes an asset. It contributes to the dramatic contrast that black-and-white images thrive on.
But how do you go about it? If you’re shooting with a digital camera that has an electronic viewfinder, switch to Monochrome mode in advance. This lets you see the world in black and white through your viewfinder, so it’s a great way to anticipate what your final image will look like.
No electronic viewfinder? No problem. Try to visualize the scene in black and white as you shoot. Imagine how the bright sunlight and deep shadows will translate into whites and blacks. Then convert the image in post-processing using software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.
And remember, just because you’re working in monochrome doesn’t mean you can’t experiment. Play around with different settings in your editing software. Tweak the contrasts, adjust the brightness, and even add some film grain for a vintage feel. Sure, it might not work for every shot. But you might stumble upon a few unexpected masterpieces along the way!
3. Use reflectors
The biggest issue with midday portrait photography is the shadows, which fall under the eyes, nose, and chin and can keep subjects from looking their best.
Fortunately, we have an easy tool to dial back unflattering shadow areas: reflectors.
Reflectors are flat expanses of material – generally white, silver, or gold – that reflect light back onto the subject. They’re extremely cheap, though if you’d prefer not to spend extra money, you can always make a reflector or two with a bit of poster board.
During your photoshoot, angle the reflector so sunlight fills in the shadows; that way, you’ll get a much more flattering image.
You can get similar results using natural reflectors, such as a white wall or even white sand:
In fact, natural reflectors include big parking lots, sidewalks, windows, silver or white cars, buildings with silver or reflective paneling, light-colored cement walls/floors, and so much more!
One note: If you use a shiny reflector, make sure not to aim the reflected light directly into your subject’s eyes. It can be really bright, almost as strong as direct sunlight, and you don’t want to cause discomfort!
And don’t place your reflector on the ground in front of your client. This will cause the light to bounce upward and give you odd, unflattering shadows on the face. Instead, use a stand, or ask a friend to hold the reflector around torso height.
4. Use a scrim to diffuse the light
A scrim is a piece of translucent fabric that diffuses the light, and by positioning a scrim between the light source and your subject, you can create a soft, even effect that looks amazing in portraits.
Note that you can purchase scrims online; in fact, most 5-in-1 reflectors come with a translucent side, which can be used as a scrim.
(You can also make your own scrim using translucent fabric and a hula hoop.)
During your photoshoot, simply hold the scrim over your client’s face or body. It’ll diffuse the bright sun, and you’ll get a very nice effect.
Pay attention to the background, however. If the background is brighter than your subjects, it’ll turn out overexposed. Try to match the light on the background to the light on your client!
5. Slightly underexpose your subject
Harsh sunlight tends to wash out the scene, which makes for a colorless, boring, unpleasant background:
Fortunately, a bit of underexposure can go a long way toward maintaining beautiful background colors and tones. And underexposure will ensure you retain details that’ll otherwise get clipped.
Of course, underexposure will also result in too-dark subjects; that’s why, after a portrait session, you should tweak the exposure in post-processing. Bring up the shadows in your editing program of choice, and you’ll get a beautiful result:
6. Try going wide
A common belief in portrait photography circles is that focal lengths of 50mm or greater are the best for capturing faces. True, these lenses can produce flattering facial features and provide a pleasing background blur. But a more expansive view can also work, especially in harsh lighting situations.
Consider using a wider lens and taking a step back – literally. What does this accomplish? For starters, it makes your subject a smaller element within the composition. The beauty of this is that it diminishes the emphasis on any unflattering shadows that harsh light can cast on facial features. Instead, the viewer’s attention is directed toward how your subject fits within the surrounding environment.
A wider frame can also help mitigate the tension between bright spots and dark shadows. It essentially acts as a buffer, creating a more harmonious blend between the subject and their background. Think of a beach portrait where the subject becomes part of the larger seascape or a street portrait that incorporates elements of urban architecture. When shot from a distance, highlights and shadows that were once distracting suddenly become part of the overall scene.
The concept of “going wide” isn’t new, but it’s vastly underutilized in scenarios where photographers are dealing with challenging lighting. By opting for a wider lens and making your subject a part of a larger scene, you might find that the so-called “problems” of harsh light can be transformed into visual assets!
7. Use flash to brighten up your subjects
Many beginners are intimidated by flash photography, but it’s not that hard to do, and it’s a great way to improve your midday portrait photos.
For one, an extra pop of light can handily dispel unwanted shadows. Plus, a bit of flash will help you correctly expose for a bright background and get great detail on your main subject:
Since you’ll be competing with the bright midday sun, point your flash directly at your clients to make sure the light reaches them. And set your flash to 1/8th power or more. That way, you can light your clients without causing an imbalance with the background.
Pro tip: Once you get good at using basic fill flash, experiment with your flash’s high-speed sync mode. The light will be more directional and your background will be darker, making for unique, fashion-style portraits.
8. Work with a high-powered strobe
As I explained in the previous section, a well-placed burst of light can add a nice fill to your subject’s face. Now, let’s take it a step further. Imagine not just supplementing the existing light but actually overpowering it.
That’s where a high-powered strobe comes in. These aren’t your everyday camera flashes. We’re talking about specialized units that bring incredible intensity to the table. Granted, strobes aren’t exactly budget-friendly, and they can be quite bulky. But the level of control they offer is unparalleled.
Of course, a powerful strobe can cause the exact type of harsh-light issues that you’re trying to prevent if not managed carefully. The solution? Use a softbox. This attachment diffuses the light, avoiding that harsh, sun-like quality that can ruin your shots. Once everything is set, fire away and watch how the background falls into complete darkness, isolating your subject in a pool of perfectly controlled light.
9. Use your camera’s “Shade” white balance preset
White balance is all about creating images with accurate colors, so you may be wondering:
Why would I ever want to shoot midday portraits while using the Shade white balance option? After all, isn’t the Shade preset meant to shoot in, well, shade?
And you’re right:
The Shade white balance preset is designed to work in shady conditions. But in my experience, Shade actually helps keep skin tones looking even.
This is very important, especially when shooting at midday; the bright sun can cause all sorts of skin tone issues, and if you’re not careful, you may run into serious problems.
Note that you can always tweak the white balance when editing in a program like Lightroom or Photoshop (assuming that you’re shooting in RAW). I’d recommend using the Shade preset while out in the field. Then check the results when you’re back in front of the computer. That way, you can be sure you get the best files!
10. Experiment with interesting shadows
We often perceive shadows as unwanted elements in portrait photography. Harsh light, especially around noon, intensifies this problem. But what if we shift our perspective and see these intense shadows as opportunities?
Take a walk in your location and look for interesting objects that could cast compelling shadows. Think leaves, building edges, and trellises. These ordinary objects can be your secret weapon in combating harsh light. They cast unique shadows that can dramatically alter the mood and composition of your portraits.
Placement is crucial. Once you find the perfect object, position your subject in the path of the shadow. Then experiment with different looks, so that the shadow falls across their face, arms, or even just their legs. The idea is to introduce a different element that breaks the monotony of the harsh light while also working within the overall composition.
Remember that your approach can be quite experimental here! Try different angles, adjust your subject’s position, and vary your own viewpoint. Each change can result in a new and interesting composition. The beauty is in the unpredictability, as you never know how the shadow will work with your subject until you see it.
Take several shots with these shifting shadow placements. You’ll likely be surprised at the unique images you capture. They may not fit the standard mold of portrait photography, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing!
11. Embrace the high-contrast look
Portraits taken in bright sunlight look unpleasantly high contrast.
But what if, instead of trying to eliminate the high-contrast lighting, you embraced it?
For instance, you might position your subjects directly under shadows for a cool effect. Or you might front light your subjects to highlight interesting details. Or you might use harsh sidelight for an intense, in-your-face result.
Here are just a few examples of high-contrast midday portraits:
You can also use hats, palm leaves, water, and other interesting elements to create different effects. Experiment with your flash in different positions. And try including the sun as a clear compositional element!
Allow your backgrounds to go dark or wash out completely. Use the midday sun to highlight details that you like. Use shadows to hide details that are distracting.
There are plenty of ways to level up your portraiture with high-contrast lighting. So experiment, have fun, and see what you can create!
12. Put your clients in the shade
Sure, you might be stuck photographing at midday…
…but you’re not stuck directly in the sun, right? Instead of working in bright sunlight, look for a shaded area, then position your subject away from the harsh light.
You don’t need much shade; just enough to cover your clients. Tall buildings, large trees, and tall walls can all get the job done!
For the best results, try combining shaded light with a large reflector (either natural or artificial). Position the subject close to the reflector, and use it to fill in the shadows while also letting the shade reduce the light intensity.
Make sure you expose for your client’s face and not the background. That way, the skin tones will look nice even if the background washes out.
13. Don’t forget about editing
Now let’s talk about dealing with harsh light after the photoshoot has wrapped up. Harsh sun doesn’t forgive easily. It will accentuate every little blemish and create intense colors that may be far from flattering – so editing is especially crucial.
Start by fixing the basics. Pay attention to highlight and shadow recovery in your editing software. Harsh lighting often results in blown-out highlights and clipped shadows. Use Shadows and Highlights sliders to regain some of that lost detail.
What about those overpowering colors? In a sunny setting, colors can turn unnaturally intense, but thanks to your editing software, you have the power to tone them down. Head over to the Saturation and Vibrance sliders and adjust until the colors look more natural.
Finishing touches are often overlooked but can make a significant difference. For instance, I like adding a vignette to my portraits. This technique subtly darkens the corners of the image, pulling the viewer’s focus toward the subject. It’s a tiny change but adds a professional touch.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the value of fresh eyes. Once you’ve done your editing, take a break, then revisit the images. You’ll often spot details or adjustments you previously missed. (I know from experience that this extra step can elevate your portraits from good to stunning!)
Midday portrait photography tips: final words
Midday light certainly isn’t ideal for portrait photography, but you can use it to create different and interesting photos.
Sure, taking portraits in softer light is easier. But if photography were easy, everyone would be doing it. The tips and techniques I’ve shared don’t just help you cope with challenging lighting; they let you leverage it to create something unique. Remember, every obstacle is an opportunity in disguise. Mastering these techniques can set you apart in the saturated world of portrait photography.
So practice shooting in bright light. Bring along a reflector, a flash, and a scrim.
And capture some amazing images!
Now over to you:
Do you like to photograph in harsh sunlight? How do you plan to handle your next midday portrait session? Share your thoughts in the comments below!