How to Create Industrial Portraits in Harsh Sunlight

Blazing sun in the middle of the day is not the kind of light source that photographers dream of. The high, harsh light casts dark, unflattering shadows on subjects. Most photographers avoid scheduling photo shoots during these un-golden hours. But sometimes there’s no other choice, and the photographer must work with the conditions at hand.

Joe McNally is masterful at working with challenging lighting scenarios. He is an accomplished editorial and commercial photographer who contributes to high-end publications such as National Geographic, Time, and Sports Illustrated. In the following video, he deconstructs a photo from a mid-day shoot at a coal mine in Australia:

Because he did not want to subject all of his lighting and camera gear to the heat and dust of the mining area, McNally relied on just a few pieces of portable lighting equipment: a Nikon SB 910 TTL AF Show Mount Speedlight with an extra battery pack, a small, 8.6 inch Lastolite Ezybox softbox, a painter’s pole, and a Kacey Pole Adapter. Aside from his bare bones lighting kit, the key to McNally’s success in the less-than-ideal circumstances he found himself in was to utilize open shade.


Placing the foreman in the shade cast from a mining vehicle at the scene kept the glaring sunlight from hitting the subject’s face. But without adding extra light to the setup, the subject would either be lost in shadows or the sky would be completely blown out. This is where the speedlight came in.

McNally used a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 AF-S VR II Nikkor ED-IF lens to compress the machinery in the background and create an interesting pattern. He metered for the background and then used high speed sync and the flash fired through a softbox on a pole to light the subject’s profile, bringing the foreman’s face back up to an exposure level similar to the sunlit background.


The final image is crisp and professional. Through the use of shade and a very small light source, McNally demonstrates a simple way to harness “bad” light to create a polished photograph with an industrial feel.

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2 responses to “How to Create Industrial Portraits in Harsh Sunlight”

  1. Leon says:

    Very thought provoking techniques and wonderful results. I learned a lot from both. It makes a very interesting photo. Thanks.

  2. mtobin says:

    Do you really think that the small lastolite softbox change the quality of light much, as apposed to just using the speedlight alone? Thanks.

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