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

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

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!

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