Portrait Photography: How to Photograph People in the Harsh Midday Sun

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Great tips and tricks on overcoming the harsh mid-day sun to create beautiful portraits on either side of the “golden hours”

The Golden Time

The best time to take almost any kind of picture, is in the “golden hours”: around one hour before sun down and one hour after sunrise, because that’s when the light is at its softest, lacking hard shadows, rich in colors, bathing your subject in even light, which entering from the side and that gives your subjects face definition.

-Uzbekistan-  Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8  Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@1\200 ISO 160

-Uzbekistan-
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@1\200 ISO 160

-Tajikistan- Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Fstop of 5.6, shutter speed@1\125, ISO 200.

-Tajikistan-
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Fstop of 5.6, shutter speed@1\125, ISO 200.

-China - Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@1\250 and ISO 400 Natural light (sunrise) entering the frame from the right

-China –
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@1\250 and ISO 400
Natural light (sunrise) entering the frame from the right

-Tajikistan- Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Fstop of 5.6, shutter speed@1\100 and ISO 100 Natural light (sunrise) reflecting from the mountains, which are about 45 degrees to the woman (you can see it in the window).

-Tajikistan-
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Fstop of 5.6, shutter speed@1\100 and ISO 100
Natural light (sunrise) reflecting from the mountains, which are about 45 degrees to the woman (you can see it in the window).

Once this time (golden time) has passed, we are left with harsh, unflattering light that is low in saturation and makes the images look dull and flat as you can see in this photo:

-India- Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Fstop of 8, shutter speed@1\250 and ISO 100 The harsh mid-day sun is just above him.

-India-
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Fstop of 8, shutter speed@1\250 and ISO 100
The harsh mid-day sun is just above him.

The Problem

In order to provide solutions, first let’s understand the “problem”: Your camera doesn’t see as well as your eyes. The “problem” is the camera’s dynamic range. In plain English, the dynamic range is the distance between the brightest and darkest points in the frame. Let’s say you take a shot of a man wearing a hat in the middle of the day, when the sun is at its highest and harshest. Your eyes will be able to make out his eyes even under the shadow of his hat, as well as his chin in the strong daylight. That’s because your eyes have the ability to see a large dynamic range.

Your camera however has a far more limited ability to see the dynamic range .If you we go back to our man in the hat, your camera will see his eyes, which are in shadow under his hat as black, while his chin which is in strong sunlight will be blown out and very white.

You might try to “fix it” by changing your aperture/shutter or ISO parameters but, this would only make your image lighter or darker as these actions have no bearing on the dynamic range. Even if we try to use an ND filter, again, this would only make your image darker and would not solve the problem or alter the range.

The Solutions

Move to the shade
Try moving the subject to the shade, or perhaps indoors. When I asked Steve McCurry, the creator of the “Afghan Girl” image, how he works in the mid day sun, he told me that he prefers to work indoors with the harsh light coming in through a window so that it turns to soft even light, and that’s really change my way of “seeing” the harsh light as an opportunity of creating great images by moving to the shade or indoors.

-Thailand- Canon EF 24-70 mm f/2.8L Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@1\100 and ISO 160 This woman is sitting in the shade with strong light coming from the street (to her left). A small piece of paper was held above her head to block the light (flag).

-Thailand-
Canon EF 24-70 mm f/2.8L
Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@1\100 and ISO 160
This woman is sitting in the shade with strong light coming from the street (to her left). A small piece of paper was held above her head to block the light (flag).

Try turning your subject 45 degrees to the light source (exp: window) by doing so you will be able to create a nice 3D effect.

-Uzbekistan- Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@1\100 and ISO 500 Natural light (only) coming from the window on the left side of the frame (about 45 degrees)

-Uzbekistan-
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@1\100 and ISO 500
Natural light (only) coming from the window on the left side of the frame (about 45 degrees)

-Laos- Canon EF 24-70 mm f/2.8L Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@1\1600 and ISO 1000 I used the soft light coming through a red robe which was on the right side of the frame, in order to "sculpture" the light on his face. It also gave the whole image some sort of orange glow.

-Laos-
Canon EF 24-70 mm f/2.8L
Fstop of 3.5, shutter speed@1\1600 and ISO 1000
I used the soft light coming through a red robe which was on the right side of the frame, in order to “sculpture” the light on his face. It also gave the whole image some sort of orange glow.

Create a Silhouette

Expose your image from the background, so your subject becomes a silhouette in some cases it makes for a wonderful image.

You can do so by using the manual exposure (M mode) or by changing the metering mode to spot and measure from the background.

-Thailand- Canon EF 24-70 mm f/2.8L Fstop of 5, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 100 (on spot metering) Natural light only

-Thailand-
Canon EF 24-70 mm f/2.8L
Fstop of 5, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 100 (on spot metering)
Natural light only

Burn it Down

Burning the background is not always a bad thing. On the contrary it creates a unique portrait that’s different and interesting

-India- Assistant: Hardik Pandya Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 200 Natural light only

-India-
Assistant: Hardik Pandya
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Fstop of 4.5, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 200
Natural light only

Reflector

By using a reflector, you can minimize the light range by bouncing light back onto your subject, which will add light to the dark areas. Like this image below. I used a small folding reflector, which I held in my hand while taking the photo.

-Tajikistan- Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Fstop of 8, shutter speed@1\250and ISO 100 Natural light+ Reflector (gold color) I held in my hand on the lower left side of the frame + warm natural light bouncing off the mud wall

-Tajikistan-
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Fstop of 8, shutter speed@1\250and ISO 100
Natural light+ Reflector (gold color) I held in my hand on the lower left side of the frame + warm natural light bouncing off the mud wall

-India- Assistant: Hardik Pandya Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 100 This nice lady was sitting in the shade of her house + silver color reflector, coming from the right upper side of the frame.

-India-
Assistant: Hardik Pandya
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Fstop of 2.8, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 100
This nice lady was sitting in the shade of her house + silver color reflector, coming from the right upper side of the frame.

External Flash

Like the reflector, the flash will add more light to the dark areas in turn creating a smaller dynamic range.

-India- Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Assistant: Hardik Pandya Fstop of 9, shutter speed@1\320 and ISO 100 Natural light of the background sky + fill light flash (off camera and inside a small soft box) coming from the right side of the frame, about 1 meter in front of the man's face.

-India-
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Assistant: Hardik Pandya
Fstop of 9, shutter speed@1\320 and ISO 100
Natural light of the background sky + fill light flash (off camera and inside a small soft box) coming from the right side of the frame, about 1 meter in front of the man’s face.

HDR

Taking 3 (or more) exposures of your subject and using this technique in post processing could come in very handy.

-India- Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8 Assistant: Hardik Pandya Fstop of 11, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 100 Natural light of the background sky + fill light flash (off camera and inside a small soft box, coming from the left side of the frame) + HDR effect in Photoshop.

-India-
Canon EFS 17-55mm f/2.8
Assistant: Hardik Pandya
Fstop of 11, shutter speed@1\200 and ISO 100
Natural light of the background sky + fill light flash (off camera and inside a small soft box, coming from the left side of the frame) + HDR effect in Photoshop.

I would like to thank Hardik Pandya and Linda Burnette for their help on making this article.

Do you have any interesting techniques or methods to overcome the harsh light? Please share in the comments.

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Oded Wagenstein

is a cultures photojournalist and author. His work has been published in numerous international publications, such as the National Geographic.com, BBC.com, and Time Out. He is the author of three photography books. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss travel and people photography and get more fantastic tips!

  • Working indoors is the one that may work for a lot of us! And what a beautiful collection you have shared with us.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Those are some excellent examples of portraiture. I have used the “block the sun” technique before and also moved subjects into the shade. The flash and the reflectors help too. Haven’t tried the HDR approach but it seems logical that it would also work if the subject can hold still for long enough, which shouldn’t be that much of a problem for most people.

  • john_b

    AMAZING ARTICLE AND AMAZING IMAGES
    Thank you DPS

  • Most are actually just taken out of the midday sun, which I thought was too easy to put in the article, although the photos are fantastic with great variety and instruction. The last two seem to fit more with the title. The first not really in harsh sun, but showing us how we could light it–but it looks fantastic in any case. The last one is actually in ‘harsh midday sun’ with nice lighting, with HDR being a great idea many of us never would have thought of. Thank you for the complete article, including the “bad” example. I guess I just quibble with the title a bit.
    Jeff

  • Amazing photos. End of story!

  • I really like the photos and the advice.

    HOWEVER, I have many times found myself in a position where shade was extremely patchy (making the photo worse) and there was no opportunity to go indoors. Here in Texas, often there are no clouds to diffuse the sun. And when it is midday, the sun is directly overhead, so most rocks, buildings or structures won’t be able to block the sun. I noticed you talked about the harsh midday sun yet most of your photos included tons of clouds or were indoors.

    So the answer to the real objective of how to photograph in the HARSH midday sun is get away from it altogether, or use a flash.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Oded Wagenstein

    Dear Brain.

    Yes! you should not work in the harsh midday sun. One more technique I wrote about, which you did not mention you your post is the “blocking” technique. If you MUST photograph someone out in the open, you should bring some kind of fabric or a net to put above and cover your working area in order to make wonderful shade. When I work on movie sets, we use silk. Now you have it. We discussed on some small budget or no-budget technique to the silk method, which is the best, but extremely expensive. hope that helped

    Oded

  • Marnie

    Great tips, amazing photos. Thank you for sharing

  • To be honest, I’ve learned a couple of new tricks on how to photograph people. Thanks for sharing this amazing and helpful article.

  • Carol

    Stunning images. Thank you for the advice….all which is really helpful. I’m wondering about how you might go about photographing pets under the same conditions. I usually limit my trips to city dog runs to times when the light isn’t as harsh, but even so, this is action photography. The animals don’t sit still for more than seconds at a time and certainly don’t avoid the harshest light.

  • Some camera manufacturers are starting to address the problem of high dynamic range when shooting in all of those hours between the proverbial golden ones. My new Sony NEX 6 camera has a selectable dynamic range optimization setting where I can choose five levels in increasing optimization based on the degree of contrast I am attempting to mitigate. It’s like in-camera HDR (which it also has if I choose to use it) but uses software to create a single optimized image rather than three images like the auto-HDR setting.

  • Brady White

    All this is good advice for portraits, but as a traveler you don’t always have the luxury of carrying around all this stuff. And sightseeing isn’t always limited to the golden hours.

  • Pam

    Is there an article that gives more elaboration on creating a silhouette? I am fairly new to photography. This method seems very interesting. This was also a great article. Thank you for sharing.

  • Carlos Comesanas

    Wow, awesome pictures! I loved every single one of them.
    As a matter of fact they are the very best I have seen in a long time.
    Congratulations.

  • Cherry Dunn

    This is great advice – love the photos and privileged to be able to share – thank you

  • Elena

    Great tips, thanks. I live in Southern California, where sometimes there is no shade and no opportunity to be indoors, and when it’s sunny it’s really sunny. So when indoors and shade are not available, I have started experimenting with off camera flash. Initially I tried with the flash on the camera, which can work if the fill light is subtle enough to add detail but not flatten. Off camera flash is working out much better.

  • Oded Wagenstein

    Thank you everybody
    Please join my FB travel photography page here
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Oded-wagenstein-Photography/123446574384297?ref=hl

  • Joey

    Did you use HSS on the photo with external flash? Everybody knows that Canon can barely sync a 1/200s, but that photo is marked with 1/320s exposure time.

  • Excellent advice. I would suggest that the high noon sun can, if approached properly, can be an opportunity. Rather than avoid it, take it as a challenge and look for ways to use the so called “harsh” light to advantage. You may surprise yourself and find out you are a better photographer than you think your are.

    You may want to check out: https://digital-photography-school.com/bright-ideas-for-shooting-in-midday-sun

  • Oded Wagenstein

    Dear Joey.
    You have a very sharp eye. In did in most DSLR, you cannot shot with flash on a shutter speed which is higher then 1/250. Because this will create a strip of light in your frame – and that’s acutely what I wanted for this image 🙂

    Oded

  • Nirali

    well done Hardik Pandya.. I m also from Gujarat, India… I am really happy to see that photos of India

Some Older Comments

  • Oded Wagenstein August 26, 2013 04:06 am

    Dear Joey.
    You have a very sharp eye. In did in most DSLR, you cannot shot with flash on a shutter speed which is higher then 1/250. Because this will create a strip of light in your frame - and that's acutely what I wanted for this image :)

    Oded

  • Bill August 23, 2013 10:34 am

    Excellent advice. I would suggest that the high noon sun can, if approached properly, can be an opportunity. Rather than avoid it, take it as a challenge and look for ways to use the so called "harsh" light to advantage. You may surprise yourself and find out you are a better photographer than you think your are.

    You may want to check out: https://digital-photography-school.com/bright-ideas-for-shooting-in-midday-sun

  • Joey August 21, 2013 07:36 pm

    Did you use HSS on the photo with external flash? Everybody knows that Canon can barely sync a 1/200s, but that photo is marked with 1/320s exposure time.

  • Oded Wagenstein August 17, 2013 09:17 pm

    Thank you everybody
    Please join my FB travel photography page here
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Oded-wagenstein-Photography/123446574384297?ref=hl

  • Elena August 17, 2013 12:29 am

    Great tips, thanks. I live in Southern California, where sometimes there is no shade and no opportunity to be indoors, and when it's sunny it's really sunny. So when indoors and shade are not available, I have started experimenting with off camera flash. Initially I tried with the flash on the camera, which can work if the fill light is subtle enough to add detail but not flatten. Off camera flash is working out much better.

  • Cherry Dunn August 16, 2013 10:31 pm

    This is great advice - love the photos and privileged to be able to share - thank you

  • Carlos Comesanas August 16, 2013 03:33 pm

    Wow, awesome pictures! I loved every single one of them.
    As a matter of fact they are the very best I have seen in a long time.
    Congratulations.

  • Pam August 16, 2013 02:00 pm

    Is there an article that gives more elaboration on creating a silhouette? I am fairly new to photography. This method seems very interesting. This was also a great article. Thank you for sharing.

  • Brady White August 16, 2013 02:21 am

    All this is good advice for portraits, but as a traveler you don't always have the luxury of carrying around all this stuff. And sightseeing isn't always limited to the golden hours.

  • Mary Harrsch August 16, 2013 02:21 am

    Some camera manufacturers are starting to address the problem of high dynamic range when shooting in all of those hours between the proverbial golden ones. My new Sony NEX 6 camera has a selectable dynamic range optimization setting where I can choose five levels in increasing optimization based on the degree of contrast I am attempting to mitigate. It's like in-camera HDR (which it also has if I choose to use it) but uses software to create a single optimized image rather than three images like the auto-HDR setting.

  • Carol August 16, 2013 01:34 am

    Stunning images. Thank you for the advice....all which is really helpful. I'm wondering about how you might go about photographing pets under the same conditions. I usually limit my trips to city dog runs to times when the light isn't as harsh, but even so, this is action photography. The animals don't sit still for more than seconds at a time and certainly don't avoid the harshest light.

  • Jack August 15, 2013 10:53 pm

    To be honest, I've learned a couple of new tricks on how to photograph people. Thanks for sharing this amazing and helpful article.

  • Marnie August 15, 2013 12:24 pm

    Great tips, amazing photos. Thank you for sharing

  • Oded Wagenstein August 15, 2013 05:04 am

    Dear Brain.

    Yes! you should not work in the harsh midday sun. One more technique I wrote about, which you did not mention you your post is the "blocking" technique. If you MUST photograph someone out in the open, you should bring some kind of fabric or a net to put above and cover your working area in order to make wonderful shade. When I work on movie sets, we use silk. Now you have it. We discussed on some small budget or no-budget technique to the silk method, which is the best, but extremely expensive. hope that helped

    Oded

  • Brian Fuller August 15, 2013 12:58 am

    I really like the photos and the advice.

    HOWEVER, I have many times found myself in a position where shade was extremely patchy (making the photo worse) and there was no opportunity to go indoors. Here in Texas, often there are no clouds to diffuse the sun. And when it is midday, the sun is directly overhead, so most rocks, buildings or structures won't be able to block the sun. I noticed you talked about the harsh midday sun yet most of your photos included tons of clouds or were indoors.

    So the answer to the real objective of how to photograph in the HARSH midday sun is get away from it altogether, or use a flash.

    Flickr:
    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Alexander John August 14, 2013 01:20 pm

    Amazing photos. End of story!

  • PictureZealot August 14, 2013 11:17 am

    Most are actually just taken out of the midday sun, which I thought was too easy to put in the article, although the photos are fantastic with great variety and instruction. The last two seem to fit more with the title. The first not really in harsh sun, but showing us how we could light it--but it looks fantastic in any case. The last one is actually in 'harsh midday sun' with nice lighting, with HDR being a great idea many of us never would have thought of. Thank you for the complete article, including the "bad" example. I guess I just quibble with the title a bit.
    Jeff

  • john_b August 14, 2013 08:09 am

    AMAZING ARTICLE AND AMAZING IMAGES
    Thank you DPS

  • Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging August 14, 2013 05:31 am

    Those are some excellent examples of portraiture. I have used the "block the sun" technique before and also moved subjects into the shade. The flash and the reflectors help too. Haven't tried the HDR approach but it seems logical that it would also work if the subject can hold still for long enough, which shouldn't be that much of a problem for most people.

  • Mridula August 14, 2013 03:20 am

    Working indoors is the one that may work for a lot of us! And what a beautiful collection you have shared with us.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

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