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Sunshine: My Favorite Light Source

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I’m a minimalist gal when it comes to most things, and photography equipment is no exception. I know that some people love equipment and gear; the more the better. But when I think about lugging lights, reflectors, and flashes around, my creativity takes a nosedive. My favorite light source, hands down, is the sun. In the words of John Denver, sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy!

I’d love to share some dos (because who likes to be told what NOT to do?) to help you harness the power of the giant lamp in the sky. Hopefully you’ll gain a new appreciation for this natural light source, whether or not you hate lugging equipment around like I do.

The sun is unique

One thing I love about the sun is that it is never the same. Although having an unpredictable light source can be a big challenge, I love that every day, every shoot, every photo, is unique and special. I couldn’t recreate any given day’s exact lighting even if I wanted to. Some days everything works together like magic, and I call that a gift.

DO pay attention to how the light falls on your subject’s face

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I see many amateur photographers take photos like the one above, with harsh light and shadows on the face. Most of the time they are paying more attention to a pretty background than the lighting. If the sunlight is very bright, such as midday, or early afternoon, this can be a big problem.

Sunlight is a beautiful light source, but you have to work with it, and position your subject in the correct place, since try as you might, you’re not going to be able to move the sun (unless you want to wait a couple of hours, and let it move itself).

DO try backlighting

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This means that the sun is behind your subject, facing you. This method of using the sun is my absolute favorite, because it makes your subject just glow. There are a few things to keep in mind as you try backlighting:

  • DO use backlighting at any time of day. You get different effects backlighting with the sun in different positions. It’s an effective tool to use even when the light is harsh, since it softens the light on your subject’s face, and helps them not to squint. It’s also an ideal tool to use when the sun is low, golden, and gorgeous.
  • DO move yourself around. Slight differences in angles can make a big difference in the look you get. I like to have the sun behind and slightly to the side of my subject (as you can see in the photo above). If the sun is directly facing your camera, you may get flare in your lens that can totally wipe out your subject. You can get beautiful lens flare effects if you find a spot somewhere in between the two. Experiment to find exactly the look you are going for.

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  • DO use poles, trunks, bushes, or whatever is there to manipulate the light to your advantage. If the sun is positioned behind leafy trees, you can create beautiful soft bokeh. The trees filter the light a bit so it isn’t so harsh, and you get beautiful warm, soft, lighting. You can position yourself where the sun is partially behind a trunk or pole off to the side, which will cut some of the harshness and glare in your lens. The trunk doesn’t need to be in your photo, it’s just working as an assistant for you.
  • DO pay attention to the clothes YOU are wearing. Try wearing light/white tops as the photographer, and avoid wearing bright colors. It may seem strange that it matters what the photographer is wearing, but when the sun is reflecting off your chest, it can cast colors onto your subject that you weren’t intending, and put odd colored highlights in their eyes.

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  • DO use your subjects and your own body to work with the sun. You can position yourself so the sun is directly behind your subject, so your subject filters the light a bit and cuts the glare in your lens. This can create a beautiful glow, or a starburst effect. Sometimes if there is just a little too much glare on my lens, I hold my hand off to the side of my lens (not in the photo) and achieve just the amount of sun flare that I want, without all the washed out glare.

DO experiment with the sun directly lighting your subject

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There are lots of great advantages to this type of lighting, including the beautiful sky captured in the photo. When you backlight, your sky is usually washed out in order to have your subjects properly exposed. You can add a sky in post-processing, but when you shoot with the sun behind you, and toward your subjects, you can expose for both at the same time. A few more tips for front lighting using the sun:

  • DO keep in mind that it is usually hard for people not to squint when they are looking into the sun. If it’s a particularly bright day, you may have to have your subjects looking away from the sun. Some people are extra sensitive to light, and you may not be able to use front lighting unless the sun is really low in the sky, almost ready to set. Squinting eyes aren’t very attractive, neither are watery eyes and scrunched up faces.

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  • DO use front lighting when you want a dark background. If you position your subject near the opening of a shed or garage, the background will fall into darkness, since you have your exposure set for the bright subject in the front.
  • DO use front lighting for drama, and for high key photography, but be careful that you don’t lose too much dimension and end up with flat images.

DO use the sun for beautiful portraits

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When the light is soft, either when it’s almost down, or with a few clouds over it, you can light your subject from the side to get dimension. You can get dramatic moody portraits, soft flattering portraits, fun happy portraits…the sky is the limit!

DO become a light watcher

I can’t talk to someone without noticing how the light falls on their face. I look at how shadows fall at different times of the day. I study the quality of the light constantly, and take photographs with my mind all day long. The more you know about how the sun works, and how you can work with the sun, the better your photos will get.

Lastly – just one little don’t

DON’T be discouraged if the sun is hiding behind clouds. If you’re lucky, they’re thin clouds, and you can still harness a bit of that magical sunny glow. If it’s overcast, just remember that you’re still using the sun as your light source, and be grateful for the ease of using the whole sky as a giant soft light. Don’t forget; in the words of Annie, the sun will come out tomorrow!

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Melinda Smith

Melinda Smith was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.