Direct Sunlight Portrait Tutorial

Photographers love golden hours. And there is a reason to it. Soft light creates softer shadows and makes your subject look good. On the other hand, direct sun creates harsh shadows and accentuates flaws in the subject. Even surroundings look flat on a bright sunny day. So do you always need to wait for golden hours to take your photography game outside? Absolutely not. Photographer Jay P. Morgan explains how you can take better images in direct sun:

The best and the most convenient way to tackle photographing in direct sun is to find a shade. Shades provide uniform and soft diffused light and makes your work much more easier. But will you be willing to change your location just because it does not have a shade for you to shoot? It may not always be possible.

“Shade is great but if you’ve got a location and you want to use your location, then learn how to shoot in direct sun and control the location to get the shot that you want and not the shot that the shade makes you get.”

So what do you do?

Use the Sun as the Key Light

Instead of avoiding the sun, treat it like your key light. Position the subject in relation to the sun so the shadows will interfere the least. You can use a reflector to fill some of those harsh shadows.

The advantage of using the sun as a key light is that you will not need to have a lot of equipment. You can do away with everything but the camera and a reflector. But the con is that the harsh light can really be difficult to tackle. It can emphasize all the wrong things, like flaws in the skin. You may have to spend more time retouching. Also, since the sun is continuously moving, it may not always be in the best position for your shooting purposes.

portrait in harsh sunlight

Use the Sun as a Back/Rim Light

Ask the subject to face you with the sun behind them, and there you have it the; sun will act as your back light. This will produce a nice highlight on the hair and on the edges of the subject’s shoulders, similar to when using a back light. To have a proper exposure on the subject’s face, you will need to use a reflector and bounce some light back. As Morgan demonstrates in the video, you can even use the subject’s body to cover up the sun and then take a photo.

portrait with sun as backlight

One thing to keep in mind when using the sun as a back light is the background. Having a background that has deeper colors will allow you to create better images.

Use a Translucent Reflector

If you cannot move over to a shade, create a shade of your own. By using translucent material over the model’s head, you can diffuse the harsh light and get some soft light. Morgan uses a Sunbounce Sun-Swatter Pro to get a soft box look.

portrait in direct sun and in shade

While this technique allows you to get a smoothed out sunlight, there’s a catch. The equipment will create a shadow on the ground and so you will need to find a work around to avoid making it obvious when shooting whole body photographs.

Use a Strobe and Translucent

To have better control over the light and to expose the model in a better way, you can build on the previous tip and add a strobe to the equation. By giving you better control of light, the strobe will allow you to light the subject as bright as you want. And if you want to darken the background, you can also use high speed sync (HSS).

outdoor portrait with strobe

One major drawback of this method is that if you want to shoot wide open, you will need a compatible flash that supports HSS. Without HSS, the subject will be too bright to shoot using a wider aperture. Also, this method requires you to use more gear and have more people involved to help you. On the other hand, you will gain complete control over the light. This will allow you to craft your image according to your imagination.

Next time you’re out there taking photos in bright, sunny daylight conditions, consider any of these methods for better looking images. While shade and golden hour light is great, you have them every time, can you now?

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