There are lots of different lighting situations that can be challenging for photographers, but there’s no doubt that hard, direct midday sun is the most difficult to work in.
The best way to avoid the strong contrast and shadows that come with shooting in hard sunlight is to shoot in the early or late hours of the day, when the light is softest because the position of the sun is lower in the sky. But often we find ourselves with no other choice but to shoot in the middle of the day, due to an event being held at that time, the needs of a client or our own busy schedules.
So when the show must go on, what can you do to make the best of what you’ve got? Below are the 4 most common solutions photographers try when forced to shoot in harsh, direct light. Some are better suited to certain shooting situations than others. Try each one to figure which method gives you the best results.
1) Move into the shade
This one seems pretty obvious, but any shade from a tree, building or awning will help to diffuse overhead light. This will make for a softer image that's more neutral in contrast. Just make sure that the shaded area is big enough to fit your subject (or subjects) so that there is even lighting throughout, like in the image below. If shooting under a tree, be careful that the light is not too dappled, as this can cast spots over your subject’s face.
Image taken by Brooke Tasovac
If you can’t find any cover, try altering your angle! Move around your subject to see where the light is looking best. Shooting from directly above or down low can change the angle of the sun hitting your subject and may stop them from squinting.
As a last resort consider taking your shoot indoors. While most of us like the ambience of an outdoor shoot, positioning your subject inside a large window or doorway will help diffuse the harsh midday light, whilst still maintaining a natural aesthetic.
You can use your light meter to measure the light in the scene using one of the camera’s metering modes. Your camera will usually be set to evaluative (or matrix) metering, which measures the entire scene for a reading. By switching to partial or spot metering, the light meter focuses on a specific area (using the camera’s AF points), and ignores the other light around it.
Spot metering is best for photos with very light or very dark backgrounds that are found in images with strong highlights and shadows, like in the photo below, and to prevent backlit subjects from becoming silhouettes. If you have a human subject as the focal point you can meter off their skin, or if you are shooting landscapes or macro you can meter off the sky or the area of the frame where the midtones are. In the photo below, the photographer has exposed well for the midtones and highlights, but not as well for the darker areas in the background.
After the photo is taken, check your histogram to see if you need to make any adjustments, and if need be, take several shots metering off different parts of the scene so that you have lots of photos to choose from afterwards.
3) Exposure compensation
By using exposure compensation when shooting in full sun and lowering the overall exposure by a few f-stops below 0 (down to -1 or -2) you give yourself the opportunity to achieve better exposure in post-production. This is because it is easier to alter underexposure in images with editing programs such as Adobe Lightroom or Camera RAW and retain detail, than it is with overexposed images with blown highlights. You can even blend multiple frames together later using HDR techniques to ensure even exposure across the foreground, background and middle of the frame, if you want to.
You can find out how your exposure compensation settings can be changed by checking your camera manual. Just be careful not to underexpose too much otherwise skin tones and colour can be affected.
4) Using fill flash
While using metering and exposure compensation can help in many situations, they can’t help with removing shadows. For example, if your subject is standing in an open field around 12pm, the strong sun will most likely cast shadows underneath their eyes, nose and chin which is very unflattering. In this instance you need to use fill flash.
The term fill flash is used to describe a small amount of light from an external flash such as a Speedlight, that fills in the shadows of an otherwise well exposed image. It’s not meant to light an entire scene. In the image below, taken on a beach in very bright light, the fill flash has allowed the photographer to expose for the sky, while illuminating the little boy's face.
Before you use fill flash, you should choose the best exposure settings including a low ISO, a narrow aperture and a fast shutter speed. This will ensure the subject and background are appropriately lit, despite the shadows. When you do fire the flash, angling it away from the subject and bouncing it off a light surface (like a wall, reflector or sheet) back in the direction of the subject can produce softer, more natural looking light to fill in shadows.
If you don’t own a flash unit, you can try bouncing light off a reflector (placed under or beside your subject) to fill the shadows, using the same principle. The only issue with this is that you need someone to hold the reflector for you.