The Photographer’s Guide to Taking Portraits at Noon

Exactly how many times have you been advised to shoot in natural light? Probably too many times. And, yet, how many times have you struggled to get a good exposure while shooting in bright outdoor conditions? In this video, Lindsay Adler shows you exactly how to tackle that seemingly nightmarish midday lighting situation:

If photographers had their way, it would always be the golden hour no matter which time of the day they shoot. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and when clients must be photographed at high noon, outdoors, with no shade, you start to believe that the worst thing that can happen to you as a photographer, just did.

Here are some of the most common midday photography scenarios and their solutions.

Use a Diffuser

diffuser for shooting at high noon

7′ Westcott umbrella at high noon

It’s high noon. You are standing in the middle of a big open field with no shade around. Are you imagining black eyes, washed out skin tones, harsh shadows and too much contrast? Wait. We haven’t yet brought in our life-saver: the diffuser. A diffuser softens the intensity of the light. Adler uses a Westcott 7′ shoot through umbrella. It has an immediate impact on the quality of the light.

softening harsh mid-day light

Diffusers softe the harsh mid-day light.

The second tool that Adler introduces is a reflector. It throws some light back on to the subject’s face to balance the exposure.

using a reflector

This shot was taken with a diffuser and a reflector just at camera right.

Notice how the reflector removes the black bags under the eyes. Compare with the shot above.

Turn Your Subject’s Back to the Sun

Let’s say you don’t have your diffuser. To tackle the situation, start by having your subject stand against the sun. This way at least they will not be squinting. Next, look for a reflective surface that can work as a fill light source.

One problem will be that the subject’s hair will be overexposed. To counter this you need a reflector. If you have a reflector bring that in to throw some light back onto the subject.

using reflector in backlit mid-day sun

The model stood with the sun behind her, and a white reflector was used to feather some fill light.

Look for a Dark Background

Watch out for those over-exposed highlights in the background. If possible, move the subject so that the background has darker elements. This improves the exposure balance of the photo.

shooting under shade at high noon

Noon under shade with reflector vs. Between a bright and dark background

Sandwich the Light

Now, let’s say it’s high noon with some shade. This is a much better situation to be in as a photographer. Place the subject in the shade. Even if you shoot with no reflectors, the exposure is going to be much better compared to shooting directly under the sun. A reflector can then be used to add some light to the face.

how to create a shade and a fill light under $4

The cheap $4 foam core trick creates shade and then fills in the face.

An interesting tip that Adler shares requires two sheets of foam core: one black and the other white. These are inexpensive. The black board stops the light from above (creating shade) and the white board held just below the subject’s chin works as a fill light. It can also work as a source for catchlights.

Sure, it’s best to avoid shooting portraits in the middle of the day, but sometimes you don’t have much of a choice. Be resourceful and make use of diffusers and reflective surfaces to get quality images even in harsh sunlight.

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