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How to Create Beautiful Portraits in Harsh Sunlight (or at least deal with it)

If you think about it, wedding days are totally against us as photographers, particularly when it comes to light. I mean, who has two thumbs and ends up shooting bridal parties at high noon in July? For four weekends in a row? This girl.

One of our most frequently asked questions at The Youngrens is “How do you shoot in harsh sunlight?”

The short answer? We don’t. We find shade. Any kind of shade. Shade from a tree, a building, a cloud, a doorway, a diffuser – anything. As much as we humanly can, we try to avoid harsh sunlight.

Which brings me to our second most frequently asked question.

“Ok, but what if there’s no shade to be found? Anywhere.

Fair question. We’ll start with the basics, then throw out a few tips.

Side Note: Avoiding harsh sunlight is a part of our particular photographic style. Others may welcome harsh sunlight as a part of their artistic eye, or some may use artificial lighting to overpower the sun and create high-fashion looks. Those are both great styles, but we’ll be outlining how we stay within our particular style in harsh, mid-day situations.

Shoot in Manual
The only way you can properly expose skin tones in a harsh sunlight situation is by putting your camera in manual mode. As smart as cameras are these days, there will be a lot of light bouncing around your subject and your light meter won’t give you an accurate reading.

You will have to be smarter than the camera. So take a deep breath and make the leap into manual, if you haven’t already.

shooting in harsh sunlight

Widen Your Aperture
Harsh sunlight is undesirable because it creates hard shadows on the skin that highlight little facial details (ie blemishes, pores, imperfections, discolorations, wrinkles, etc), which is totally unflattering.

So your overall goal as the photographer in a harsh sunlight situation is to soften the light on your subject’s skin and create a more pleasing skin tone.

We typically shoot between f/2.0 and f/2.8 for most of our bride and groom portraits, because a wider aperture particularly helps in harsh sunlight situations to soften skin tones.

It’s important to note, however, that when shooting at such “wide open” apertures it’s increasingly difficult to maintain a sharp focus on your subject(s). So slow down and take the time to focus properly when shooting with these settings. Otherwise you’ll be angry at me.

So throw your camera into manual, widen your aperture, then…

Put their backs at an off-angle to the sun
High noon is the only time of day that there will be absolutely no angle to the sun, but if you’re at least 30 minutes on either side of that, you can take advantage of what sun angle exists.

Since you’re trying to soften your subjects’ skin, you don’t want harsh sunlight to directly hit your subjects’ faces. So put their backs at an angle to the sun so that their faces are completely shaded. You will get a rim light of blown-out highlights around their heads and bodies, so minimize the amount of blown highlights that you show in your frame. Recover what you can in post.

how to use sun angles to shoot in harsh sunlight

Use spot metering
In order to create a soft, pleasing skin tone, you will need to expose properly for the skin. Switch your camera to spot metering so your meter won’t lie to you – as much. With spot metering, your light meter will expose for the small area in the center of the frame instead of trying to expose for the entire photo. Here’s a great explanation of spot metering.

So you have your camera in manual, you’ve widened your aperture, you have your subjects’ faces shaded, and you’re spot metering just for their skin. Now what?

Overexpose for the skin
Your camera will try to underexpose whatever you’re focusing on because there is so much light bouncing onto the meter and it thinks it needs to make things darker. But because you’re in manual you will need to override your camera’s meter and slow down your shutter speed enough to create bright, fresh skin tones.

(In fact, we like to overexpose our images to create brighter, cleaner skin tones quite often –not just in harsh sunlight situations.)

Sometimes you will need to overexpose by just a little to get great results, but other times you’ll be overexposing by several stops. It all depends on the particular situation.

Over-expose for the skin when shooting in harsh sunlight

Those are some basic techniques to shooting in harsh sunlight, so once you master those, try these extra tips that we use quite often:

Use your couples to shade each other
Get rid of sun blotches on your bride’s forehead by having the groom shade it for you with his head. It may sound weird, but bride’s love being taken care of by their grooms.

Don’t look at the camera
Avoid those terrible under eye shadows by never having your couple look at the camera in high noon sunlight. Crop in close to their faces and have a second shooter or an assistant use a diffuser on their skin or wait until you can find some shade to get that necessary “looking at the camera” hero image.

Take advantage, grab some flare
Get artistic and use the sun to your advantage. Grab a little flare, wash out your lens, or use the lines of harsh shadows in your composition.

Disclaimer: Only do this if it reflects your style.

Grab some sun flare when shooting in harsh sunlight

Go inside
Not feeling the high noon outdoors? There will be a lot more sun coming through interior windows during this time, so go inside and take advantage of it.

use harsh sunlight to your advantage when shooting inside

Use a doorway
Use the bright and lovely fall-off light in doorways. This kind of soft, even light makes skin look GORGEOUS.

how to shoot in harsh sunlight

use doorways to your advantage when shooting in harsh sunlight
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Written by Erin Youngren

photographer erin youngren

Jeff and Erin Youngren are international wedding and lifestyle photographers running one of the fastest growing boutique studios in the competitive Southern California market. Although based in San Diego, their deeply emotional style and passionate partnership has taken them from the streets of San Francisco to the canals of Venice to the family suburbs of Chicago to photograph extraordinary weddings and incredible couples. As leaders in the photographic community, they are passionate about helping other photographers build viable, authentic businesses, while building a photography community built on integrity and honest leadership.

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!