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Embrace the Shadow: How to Take Portraits in Harsh Sunlight

Portrait of a young woman in harsh sunlight conditions

You’ve experienced this before — you head out to take portraits during the middle of a sunny day, only to be met with harsh sunlight and strong shadows.

If you don’t know how to take portraits in harsh light, it can be difficult to capture flattering portraits in such lighting conditions.

In this blog post, I’ll share 7 easy tips that will help you take beautiful portrait photos in harsh sunlight conditions.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

7 Actionable Tips on How to Capture Beautiful Portraits in Harsh Sunlight

#1. Use Harsh Shadow to Your Advantage to Capture High Contrast and Creative Portraits

Harsh midday sunlight creates a lot of harsh shadows in the surrounding environment:

  • shadows from buildings
  • shadows from trees
  • shadows from various signs, etc.

I really like to use these types of shadows to capture high contrast and creative portraits.

It is fairly easy to capture portraits like the ones shown above. Here’s what you need to do:

Find an Interesting Shadow

When you walk around, even without your camera, pay attention to the direction of the light and the shadows that this light creates.

This daily practice will quickly teach you how to spot interesting locations for portrait photography.

Here’s a quick video where I show the behind-the-scenes process of capturing my wife’s portrait that was shown above.

Play Video about youtube video thumbnail - how to take creative photos in harsh sunlight

#2. Expose for the Highlights on Your Model’s Face

To capture high-contrast portraits in harsh sunlight conditions, use your camera’s manual mode to expose for the highlights on your subject’s face.

This means that you need to set your camera’s settings (Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed) so that it would retain the details in the brightest parts (highlights) of your model’s face.

If you are using one of the automatic modes on your camera, there’s a high chance that the camera will try to expose the photo incorrectly and as a result, you will get blown-out highlights (completely white spots) on your model’s face.

My Lightroom Editing Process

A step-by-step video tutorial (25 minutes) showing how I edit my photos in Lightroom

Here’s How to Manually Expose for the Highlights During Harsh Sunlight Conditions:

  • Set your camera’s ISO to its minimum base value, i.e. ISO 100. This is because the higher ISO values will make your camera sensor more sensitive to light and will make your image overexposed (too bright).
  • Decide whether you’d like to use a higher or lower Aperture value. A lower Aperture value (lower f-stops, such as f/1.8, f/2.0) will make the background behind your subject blurry, whereas a higher Aperture value (higher f-stop value, such as f/8.0 or f/16.0) will make the background sharper and more detailed. Remember, a lower Aperture (lower f-stop value) lets more light into your camera, while a higher Aperture lets less light into your camera. When I take portrait images I like to set my Aperture wide open (f/2.0 on my Fujifilm x100v), because it creates a beautiful foreground-to-background separation in photos.
  • Finally, use your Shutter Speed to control your camera’s exposure and adjust the settings so that the photo would be slightly underexposed (just a little bit darker than it should be). This will help you keep all the details in highlights on your model’s face. Set your camera focus on your model’s face and use your camera’s exposure meter to see when the photo is properly exposed. Also, don’t be afraid to set very high Shutter Speed values such as 1/2500s to control the amount of light entering your camera during harsh sunlight conditions.

#3. Ask Your Model to Wear Sunglasses

When you shoot portraits in harsh sunlight, your model will be squinting and it will be hard for you to capture a natural-looking portrait.

To address this problem, simply ask your model to wear sunglasses.

This will help with the eye-squinting problem, plus it can also add an additional layer of interest to the photo.

portrait with sunglasses

However, if your model doesn’t have sunglasses, or maybe you’d like to capture a portrait without sunglasses, then try the following techniques:

  • Ask your model to close her/his eyes and open them on the count of 1, 2, and 3. This will allow you to capture a photo before eye squinting occurs.
  • Ask your model to look down or slightly in the opposite direction from the sunlight. In both of these scenarios, there will be fewer distracting shadows on your model’s face.
  • Ask your model to lift his/her chin and eyes toward the sunlight. This will ensure that your model’s face is evenly lit with the light from the sun. Hence, there won’t be any unflattering shadows on the face.

#4. Use Midday Bright Sunlight as a Backlight

A backlight in portrait photography refers to the key light source (in this case sunlight) that is positioned behind the subject.

Using bright sunlight as a backlight will allow you to achieve really flattering lighting on your model’s skin. This is because there won’t be any harsh light falling directly on your model’s face.

This technique is often used by wedding photographers to create portraits of couples with a dreamy look and soft lighting on their skin.

Example of harsh light vs. backlight in portrait photography
Photo from YouTube video by Julia Trotti

To utilize the backlighting technique, all you need to do is to stand in front of your model and place the sun behind them.

PRO TIP: When using bright sunlight as a backlight in your portrait photos, try to move around your model. Find the perfect angle that would create a beautiful rim light around your subject’s face and an interesting flare in the photo.

#5. Always Underexpose Your Images in Bright Sunlight

When I shoot portraits during harsh light conditions I always underexpose my photos to make sure that all of the highlights and skin details are preserved in a photo.

It’s better to have a slightly underexposed photo and adjust the settings in Lightroom than to end up with a blown-out (overexposed) photo.

You can always use Adobe Lightroom or other photography editing software to increase your highlights, exposure, and shadows in post-production. However, if your highlights are blown-out, it can be impossible to recover them back.

PRO TIP:To prevent this issue, I highly recommend you learn the basics of photography histogram. With the help of a histogram, you will be able to see when your photos are overexposed and adjust your camera settings accordingly.

#6. Watch Your Own Shadow

When taking photos in bright midday sunlight, always watch out for your own shadows in the frame.

There were countless times when after the photo shoot I noticed my own shadow on the model’s clothes.

Shadow from a photographer in the frame
Watch your own shadow when taking portrait photos

It can be really challenging to remove your shadow from the model’s clothes even if you have really good photo editing and retouching skills.

To avoid these situations, always make sure to watch out for your own shadow during a photo shoot and position yourself so that your shadow isn’t visible in the frame.

#7. Watch For Distracting Details

Direct sunlight is notorious for revealing distracting details on skin, hair, and especially on the clothes of your model.

When shooting portraits in bright sunlight, you want to make sure that your model’s clothes are ironed and smooth without any wrinkles, creases, or folds.

It can be extremely challenging and time-consuming to remove these wrinkles, creases, and folds from your model’s clothes in post-production.

It is much better to avoid these issues in the first place by asking your model to wear smooth clothes and adjust their poses and clothing accordingly during a photo shoot.

Understanding The Effects of Harsh Sunlight on Skin Tones

The key factor to keep in mind when shooting portraits in harsh sunlight is to understand how harsh light affects skin tones.

#1. Harsh Sunlight Emphasizes the Textures of The Skin

Remember, when shooting portraits in harsh sunlight, any blemishes on the skin of your model will be more visible in the photos.

This is because, during midday, the direction of the harsh sunlight comes from above.

As a rule of thumb, light that comes from above is bad for natural light portraits, and light that comes in straight-on angles is good.

This is because when the light is directly overhead, it does not illuminate every part of the face evenly, casting shadows below skin imperfections. This draws the viewer’s attention to the imperfections and makes the photo look unattractive.

You can use Photoshop’s spot-healing brush tool or Healing tool in Lightroom to remove skin blemishes and harsh shadows, but it will take you additional time and effort to do it.

#2. Harsh Sunlight Can Create Unflattering Highlights

Another problem with harsh sunlight is that it often creates blown-out highlights on your model’s face.

These highlights are caused by the intense light that comes in direct contact with the skin, creating bright spots on the face of your model which look unflattering and drag unnecessary attention.

An example of harsh blown-up highlights in a portrait of a man
An example of blown-up highlights in a portrait

To avoid this, you can use a diffuser to soften the harsh light from the sun. This will make your portraits look more natural and professional.

If you don’t have any additional lighting equipment with you, then you can also make use of the environment around you to create softer shadows on the face of your model.

For example, you can search for a large white surface such as a white wall or a doorway, to bounce the light back onto your model’s face. When the light bounces from a big white surface it becomes a large soft light source that is perfect for portrait photography.

A woman taking a photo of a model under a tree and using wall as a light reflector
Photo from Julia Trotti YouTube channel

However, It might be quite challenging to find a big white surface when you are out shooting portraits.

This is why I highly recommend you get a compact 3-in-1 reflector and light diffuser that you can take with you for a shooting day.

#3. Harsh Sunlight Washes Out Skin Tones

When shooting portraits in harsh sunlight, you’ll also notice that the skin tones often look washed out or undersaturated.

washed out skin tones portrait photo

This is because the sunlight is too bright, and it often results in overexposed photos and loss of detail and color in the skin tones.

The best way to deal with this problem is by manually adjusting your camera settings so that the photo would be slightly underexposed. This will give you more dynamic range in the photo and allow you to do a much better edit in post-production.

PRO TIP: Remember, it is always easier to bring up the shadows in post-production than it is to recover blown-out highlights on the model’s face.

#4. Harsh Sunlight Can Create Really Unflattering Shadows in the Eyes

I am sure that you’ve experienced this problem before –  after taking a portrait photo, you notice that there are really strong shadows in the eyes of your model.

Natural light portrait with a lot of harsh shadows near eyes
Notice the hard shadows around the eyes

This is because the light comes directly from above your model and as a result, it casts deep shadows in the eye sockets and makes your model look tired and exhausted.

The simplest way to address this problem is to use a compact reflector to bounce light to your subject’s face and fill in those harsh shadows in the eye sockets.

You can also use natural reflectors like a nearby white wall to bounce light onto your model’s face.

You can also ask your model to look up into the light source, this way the face of your subject will be evenly lit and there won’t be any harsh shadows in the eye socket.

However, if your model isn’t wearing sunglasses, it will be almost impossible to look in the direction of the sunlight without squinting.

Creative Techniques for Shooting Portraits in Harsh Lighting

As a portrait photographer, I often experiment with different techniques to capture unique and creative portraits.

Here are three creative ideas for you to try on your next photo shoot in harsh lighting conditions:

#1. Ask Your Model to Cover Her Eyes With Her Hand

This is a very easy technique that often looks very unique and stylish. Simply ask your model to use her hand to block the harsh light from the sun. This will create interesting shadows on your model’s face.

A model placing her hand in front of her face to block harsh sunlight
A photo from Jessica Kobeissi YouTube video

PRO TIP: You can also utilize different objects, such as tree leaves, or custom-made gobos (an object that is placed in front of the light source) to create unique and interesting shadows in your portrait photos.

#2. Try Using Photo Prisms and Mirrors

If you’ve never tried to utilize photography prisms and mirrors in your photography work, I highly recommend you give it a shot.

Just place a photography prism in front of your camera lens and see what kind of interesting effects it can create.

Portrait photo of a woman with creative effect on the right side from photography prism
Photo by Erwi

You can also use a mirror to reflect light onto your subject’s face and create unique portraits.

PRO TIP: Try to experiment with different angles and see how the reflections look in your portraits.

#3. Try Shooting Through Transparent Objects

Transparent objects, such as plastic bags, glass, or tinted plastic sheets (gel filters) can be used to create artistic portraits.

All you need to do is to find a transparent object through which you can take a portrait of your subject.

For example, try to partially wrap your camera lens in a white or transparent plastic bag to create a soft edge effect in your portrait photos.

Portrait of a woman with soft edge effect
Photo by Jessica Felicio

To Sum Up

In this blog post, I have shared seven tips on how to take portraits in harsh light conditions.

I sincerely hope that you found my tips and recommendations useful and that they will help you feel much more confident about taking portraits in harsh sunlight.

Remember, with the right techniques and camera settings, you can create beautiful portraits even in harsh light conditions.

So don’t be afraid to experiment and have some fun with it!

P.S. If you’ve liked this post, I recommend you to sign up for the OHMYCAMERA newsletter to get insightful articles about photography, post-production, and marketing for photographers.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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