Home / Lighting / Wedding Day Portraits, Part 2: Quick & Dirty Solutions to a Common Challenge

Wedding Day Portraits, Part 2: Quick & Dirty Solutions to a Common Challenge

Rarely are we handed THE perfect wedding day (at least not in New England!). We’re always going to face challenges. Try as you may to help clients and advise them as they plan their wedding timeline, more often than not, wedding photography is as much about problem solving as it is about capturing moments. As in, how can I make this situation as beautiful as possible, given the conditions I’m facing?

Rather than try to think of every possible variable that could go wrong, I’ve picked a common situation that often challenges me and described ways I’ve dealt with it in the past. As with all my articles, it’s not rocket science, but hopefully you can take away one or two tidbits that will help you problem solve in a pinch!

Harsh Light & Midday Sun

No matter how hard you try to advise a client that mid-day might not necessarily be the best time for portraits, it’s simply unavoidable at times. While I used to really struggle with this, over the years I’ve learned to use the light to my advantage, preventing the usual anxiety I used to get the night before the wedding.

Some people have gorgeous skin and perfect angles that looks flawless in any light, however, we’re all human and a little kindness as a photographer goes a long way. So my number one goal with portraits is always to flatter. No matter how amazing your photo is, the client is never going to enjoy it if they think they look horrible.

That being said, I’m usually looking for two things in the harsh sun:

  1. A bit of even shade
  2. Some nice, darker backgrounds to add contrast

If I can find both of those, it’s a bonus. By keeping the sun at the subject’s back and exposing for their face (the shade) you’ll get a gorgeous glowing rim light. Without that dark background, or at least something with more contrast than the open sky, you’ll likely get a washed out feeling (which may appeal to some). I like to retain most of the dynamic range without blowing out my whites too much, so for me, the darker backgrounds are ideal. Plus, I have the added benefit of keeping my subject comfortable and cool.

(In the example above, I was dealing with a property that had about ten feet of shade on it. That’s where I settled in. Not only was the sun incredibly powerful, but the heat was oppressive and the last thing I wanted to do was to make my client sweat profusely before the ceremony. This arborvitae provided the perfect shade and a great backdrop with a beautiful rim light.)

(In each of these scenarios, I was dealing with full sun again, but was lucky enough to have some reasonably big patches of shade. I scoped out backgrounds that wouldn’t completely blow out, but rather would give more of a sunset feel, even if it wasn’t close to sunset.)

In a situation where a nice dark background isn’t readily available, or if there is simply no shade to be found, you’ve got more of a challenge. If you still want the benefit of that nice rim light, you’ve got to keep your subject’s back to the sun. Otherwise, they’ll struggle to keep their eyes open. However, your subject’s face is always going to be a few stops darker than the bright background (thus that washed out look again). To solve that, I’ll often try to elevate myself so that I can get rid of the sky and use more of the ground (for example a grass field) to add contrast.

(In this example, the location was a brand new golf course with not a single mature tree to provide shade. I found a spot where I could shoot elevated above my clients, and by using a long lens (200mm) and compressing things a bit, I reduced the impact of the sky and kept my background constrained to the trees at the edge of the course in the distance.)

(Similarly, in this image, while not as harsh as sun gets sometimes, it was still fairly bright and I knew I could control the brightness of the field in post production more easily than I could the open sky. So I found a location where I could be higher than my clients to use these gorgeous grasses as a background.)

I think for many, the more traditional and knee jerk reaction is to fill the shadows in with flash. This has never really been my style; I always wanted a more natural, glowing feel to my portraits. But there’s certainly merit to that approach. If and when I use fill-flash, it’s always off-camera, and diffused with a tri-grip or shoot-through umbrella. If you want drama, and you’re handy with a flash, you can get a wonderfully rich blue sky with a powerful flash and a nice softbox on a monopod (especially with the new Pocket Wizards that dramatically increase your flash sync speed). If you’re not comfortable with that, the simpler option is to keep a reflector with you. If you’ve got an assistant with you, or a nice bridesmaid, you can keep the sun to the subject’s back and fill in judiciously with a nice soft white reflector.

Another option is to turn into the sun and use a handheld diffuser like the tri-grip to knock the harshness off and to allow your clients to relax their eyes. The tri-grip is especially handy because you can even flatten out spotty or dappled light, and knock down the harshest sun by keeping the reflector just over the subjects head (and out of frame). *Bonus ninja points if you can hold the tri-grip in one hand and the camera in the other*

(Even though this looks like evening light – this is hardcore harsh mid-day sun. I was given a 5’x5′ working area by the venue coordinator and was forced to use the tri-grip to soften things up. My assistant held the tri-grip just out of the frame to the upper left, directly over the clients, allowing them to open their eyes and relax a bit. By shooting tight and elevating slightly again, I kept the background distraction to a minimum and stayed true to the feel I was looking to achieve.)

Hopefully these examples help you problem-solve in a pinch. Keep the conversation going by sharing your ideas in the comments. The only “right” solution is the one that works for you, and best fits your style!

About Ned Jackson

Ned Jackson is a Boston based photographer who has been photographing weddings in New England since 2003, building his business organically by focusing on strong client relationships and creating classic, clean and timeless imagery. Originally a teacher, Ned enjoys connecting with the photography community and sharing ideas with peers around the country. Ned is a featured photographer of Pinhole Pro, a member of The Best of Wedding Photography and has been a speaker at the Pictage PartnerCon and InspireBoston. He lives North of Boston with his wife Amanda, son Nate and their dog Jake.

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!