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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Like the reflector, the flash will add more light to the dark areas in turn creating a smaller dynamic range.
Taking 3 (or more) exposures of your subject and using this technique in post processing could come in very handy.
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.
Table of contents
- Portrait Photography: How to Photograph People in the Harsh Midday Sun
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES