How to Harness the Sunlight for Portrait Photography

The sun is the largest source of natural light we have. It’s sufficient for any type of photography, does not require a source of power, and lasts the entire day. However, the sun is also an unpredictable source of light, which means you cannot control it. As natural light photographers all you can do is plan your shoot and use modifiers. RocketJump Film School explains:

The sun can be affected by a number of random factors: the weather, the time of the day, the season, etc. Planning is of key importance. You may think that predicting something like the sun is too difficult, but it’s not. It’s actually very simple once you know what tools to use.

Follow the Sun’s Path

When shooting on location, the first thing to do is to establish the path of the sun. Well, isn’t that east to west? Yes, it is, but how do you know which direction is which? Well you need two things for that: a compass and a clock—or both rolled into one. In other words, you need a smartphone.


Weather and sun apps can help you determine the sun’s location at a given time.

Smartphone apps don’t just tell you which way is north or south; they can even tell you the exact position the sun is going to be at a specific time of the day. Download Helios or Sunseeker for your smartphone for precise forecasting. You can do the same for predicting the weather. Apps that give you minute by minute updates of what the weather is going to be like are just a touch away.

Tips for Shooting in the Sun

The sun’s light changes during the course of the day. Here we’ll look at three different scenarios that deal with three different times of day.


Sunset lighting tends to create a lot more backlighting situations than at any other time of the day. This light is good for portraits, but you may have to use a trick or two to get the light right. The trick here is to use a reflector to bounce some light back onto the model’s face. A simple reflector like a piece of foam core can be purchased from the local hardware store for less than $5.

sunset portrait tips


You can use a thin white sheet to diffuse the light and remove any unwanted shadows.

A diffuser can block the sun and create a softer light

Shooting at sunset with and without a diffuser

Sunset light can also be used as a side light or a front light depending on the look you’re after and the modifiers you have with you.


Noon gives us the typical harsh lighting situation that most natural light photographers dread.

Harsh lighting

Harsh light is characterized by strong shadows.

Strong shadows under the eyes and chin and high contrast are typical of midday lighting situations. If you have to shoot in the middle of the day, use a thin white sheet and hold it over the model’s head to diffuse the light.

harnessing sunlight

For some added contrast, use a bounce and throw some light back onto the model’s face. Instead of a sheet you can also shoot in shade.

Uses of harsh light

Harsh light can be used as it is for shooting dramatic scenes.

Magic Hour

The magic hour is the 15 to 30 minute window just after sunset, when the light is really soft and can be used to produce really flattering portraits. The best thing about this light is you don’t need any additional tools to make the light amiable. It’s already at its flattering best; all you need is to set up your exposure and make photos.

Uses of magic hour light in filming

Filming during the magic hour

Rather than be intimidated by the changing light of the sun, arm yourself with tools and modifiers so you can shoot successfully at any time of day.

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