How to Manage Hard Direct Light for Outside Portraits

Most photographers shoot outside during sunrise or sunset as these times often offer the best lighting conditions for photos. But what if you need to do a shoot during the day? Assuming there’s no cloud cover, mid-day lighting is very hard and produces heavy shadows and highlights on your subject that are difficult to control. Photographer Joe McNally has a few solutions to hard day lighting situations that work extremely well:

McNally provides three main solutions to shooting outdoors in hard light:

  1. Diffusers – These are your best friends when it comes to hard lighting. They create a much more subtle contrast by blurring the space between light and shadow into a smooth gradient. The also cut down the intensity of the light allowing you to use a wider aperture and/or slower shutter speeds.
  2. Reflectors – There are many different kinds of reflectors, but the main idea is to bounce some of the existing ambient light back towards the subject to create a brighter, yet still soft light.
  3. Flash – It may seem strange to use a flash when you’re trying to deal with an overabundance of ambient light, but when used with diffusers, you can effectively match the lighting on your subject with that of the undiffused background.
stands and grips

Large diffusers can help create a much softer look

flash diffuser

Using a flash can help resupply some of the natural light cut by the diffuser

model in diffused light

Using both flash and diffusers, you can match the ambient background light

One thing that McNally does not talk about is high-speed flash sync. He mentions that he is shooting 1/8000 of a second at f/1.8. Normally the highest shutter speed you can use with a flash is 1/250 of a second. The easiest solution, without trying to invest in and figure out how high-speed flash sync works, is to simply use an ND filter to cut down on the light entering the camera. This will allow you to use slower shutter speeds and wider apertures.

Update: Here is Part II

Join Joe in Guanajuato, Mexico as he continues his experiments with different strategies of managing hard sunlight:

For further training, Joe McNally has some in-depth courses over at Kelby Training.

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