How to Take Great Portraits in Variable Lighting Conditions

Have you noticed how nearly every photography tutorial preaches “avoid shooting outdoors under the harsh, midday sun”? It’s considered one of the cardinal sins of photography by some and is so daunting to other photographers that they are too afraid to even give it a try. But, wait a second. What if I were to tell you shooting in the overhead sun wasn’t really so, you know, impossible?  Now, before you go and call me crazy at least hear me out. There are certainly truths behind the rule. Yes, the overhead sun is very harsh and is notorious for casting shadows that, well, just look plain awful. However, the reality of it is, is that you can go shoot in the sun and you can get some really great shots that way.  With a basic understanding of natural light and a little bit of forethought, the sky is really your limit. Still curious? Want to know more? Take a look at the following video tutorial. This team does a wonderful job of explaining why you should go against everything you probably ever learned and how to go about doing so:

Alright, so using natural light isn’t that bad. Now, let’s do a quick recap of what we learned from the episode.

First things first, find a north facing wall and you have found yourself some open shade! Now all you need to do is use a reflector–a board or a natural reflector such as a building– to bounce some light back onto your model and you have found yourself some natural lighting gold. The following photo was taken in this exact scenario, no strobes required:

portrait lighting conditions

You don’t need barn doors to use barn door lighting. You can get beautiful results using just about any doorway, in nearly any location. It’s great not just for super sunny days, but also for rainy days when you have to be shooting outside, but you don’t want your subjects to get drenched. Stick ’em in a door way start snapping.

reflecting natural light

Silhouette lighting is a classic look that not too difficult to pull off. The look is kind opposite of barn door lighting, instead of the light falloff fading to black, the background is blown out white and the subject is silhouetted. So, when it’s really bright outside, find an inside location with big open windows or doors and have your model stand in front of them. Use your light meter to meter your exposure to the sky–important to not meter for the model–and take a few shots. This is the effect you’re going for with this one:

silhouette light metering

One last tip before we wrap this one up, when in doubt, have your model look at the sun. To avoid blinding her, have her close her eyes, then on the count of three have her open them and simultaneously snap a picture. she can then look away. This works because you are bringing there face into the light and essentially using the sun as a reflector, like this:

harsh lighting portrait

Being a photographer automatically makes you a student of lighting. Remember that even when you are not taking photographs. Look at the lighting around you at home, at the market, in the park, driving your car. Look for it, observe it, understand how it works and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a better photographer.

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One response to “How to Take Great Portraits in Variable Lighting Conditions”

  1. Rich Fenton says:

    This is really interesting. My dad has constantly drilled it into me that I shouldn’t take pictures in the midday sun – I can’t wait to show him this!

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