Ahh, shooting in direct, harsh and/or unflattering sunlight. One of everyone’s least favorite situations. I’ll be the first to admit that if I have a choice between putting a couple in harsh light, or putting them in open shade, 99% of the time I will avoid the harsh light. That being said, sometimes you just can’t get around it. Maybe the wedding venue or chosen portrait location is just devoid of things to stand behind or under; no trees, no buildings…nothing. Other times the shaded areas with somewhat-decent light are just ugly. As a professional photographer, you can’t just say “Sorry you look so bad in the photos. It wasn’t my fault, the light was just terrible.” See how many more clients want to book you after that :) So now what? Embrace it and learn to work with it.
And even when you don’t have to, put your subjects in harsh light once in a while to practice, that way when you do have to you’ll have a few tricks up your sleeve. There are a few other techniques I could mention, including the use of reflectors, using off-camera flashes or strobes to overpower the sun, etc., but the focus of this post is mainly how to deal with harsh light without those. A lot of the time I don’t have an assistant with me to use a reflector, or to hold lights, etc.
Okay, so let’s get to it!
Posing is so important and can make the difference between a great image and a terrible one. You always want to pose the subject in such a way that flatters them, and that’s never more true than when you’re in direct or harsh sunlight. Dark shadows in the wrong place, spotted light, blown-out highlights, etc. can all ruin an otherwise good image. Here are a few general posing guidelines I follow…
- Turn the subject’s body away from the direction the sunlight is hitting them.
- Turn the subject’s face back towards the sun.
- If it’s too bright to keep their eyes open, just tell them to close their eyes (shocker!). Or if you really want their eyes to be open, the trick of “on the count 3, quickly open your eyes” and taking the photo then usually works pretty well.
- Expose for the skin.
- Always photograph on the shadow side of the face, which is also known as short lighting. The shadow part of the face should always be closer to the camera than the lit part. This is much more flattering as it allows the face to appear thinner and the shadows around the nose and chin provide depth.
Here are a few examples:
Once I started getting comfortable with harsh and direct light, I actually started seeking it out. I like dramatic and contrasty photos, and bright light and dark shadows are perfect for drama. Take a look at the following photo. I noticed the sun was hitting the staircase part of the building in such a way that most of it is in the shadows, but the stairs were being brightly lit. I had the couple turn their bodies away and their faces back towards the light, and this is the result:
Now this next one was obviously later in the day and we weren’t dealing with midday sun, but it was still very bright and very direct. Instead of avoiding it, I had the couple get right up in there:
This was one of those “beautiful location, terrible light” situations. We were at an apple orchard in the middle of the day, and it was BRIGHT and it was HOT. The only shade around was tiny little patches under the trees, which wasn’t an option. Instead of trying to make a tiny patch of shade work, I embraced the sunlight and had the bride turn her body away from the sun and then turn her face back into it while keeping her eyes closed.
You’ll notice that I broke my own rules on this next one. Their bodies are facing the light and the bride is turning her face away from it. I’m still okay with it and like the result :) They’re just guidelines after all, not rules that have to be followed :)
Often times it’s okay to just have neither person looking into the light or worrying about short-lighting someone. Here the sun is hitting them straight-on:
Backlighting is always a go-to for a lot of folks, and for good reason. It’s beautiful. You don’t have to worry about unflattering shadows on the face. Posing the couple so the light is coming from behind or to the side of the couple works well in so many situations, and offers that amazing rim lighting around the hair and body that separates them from the background. Here are a few examples:
Backlighting is wonderful for group photos also….
Another great technique for bright direct light is silhouettes. Look for areas of contrast, or interesting background elements.
Try zooming out and capturing more of the surrounding scene. In the next photo, I had the couple stand right in the sunlight, even though the light wasn’t flattering them at all. A tight, close-up shot wouldn’t have worked here; if you look closely you can see parts of the face and body that are blown out. But zoomed out you get an appreciation of the location we were at, and by putting them in a bright spot surrounded by dark shadows, it created a dramatic, contrasty image that leads your eye right to the couple.
Hide the Face
Sometimes you’ve already taken a variety of photos using the above techniques and want something different. Other times the light just sucks. Don’t shy away of getting a few photos of the subjects looking away from the camera, or covering their faces, or just not having their faces in the photo at all :)
Hopefully that helps a little bit!