Whether portraits and weddings are your bread and butter, or you’re a landscape and nature photographer like me, there are probably no two words in the photography lexicon that strike terror into your heart like the words “midday sun”. The Milky Way on a summer night? Easy. Dimly lit church? No problem for your fave f1.8. Newborn with acne? Pffft – that’s what frequency separation was made for. The midday sun, though…that harsh, unforgiving light is no friend of outdoor photography.
Unfortunately, it’s often the time chosen by your clients. Like a bride who is working you into the busiest day of her life, parents who don’t want to disrupt their children’s routines, and tour operators who would like to get home in time for dinner. In other words, suck it up, buttercup. Time to learn how to shoot in the midday sun because it ain’t going anywhere. (At least, not for 5 billion years or so.)
The Secrets To Awesome Outdoor Photography In The Midday Sun
1. Keep An Eye On the Clouds
If you are fortunate enough to be shooting on one of those bright, blue sky days when there are lots of puffy white clouds in the sky, patience may be the only skill required. Wait for a cloud to float across the sun and you have the world’s biggest softbox. Shoot madly until the cloud passes by and wait for the next one. If you have cloudless skies then curse them and read on.
2. Use Shadows To Your Advantage
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, my ma always said. Sometimes shadows add depth to an image (think rolling hills). They can be excellent compostitional tools in portraits and landscapes.
- Learn to look at where the shadows are falling, and place them where they add compositional and visual interest, like leading lines and patterns.
- Try to avoid them where they are distracting from or obstructing the subject. While you can make a strong portrait where half of the person’s face is in shadow, it won’t work if the other half is a blown out highlight.
3. Use a Neutral Density Filter
If your boring, midday landscape scene has moving clouds or water, you can use a neutral density filter to slow down your shutter speed to show that movement and elevate your photo from yawn to YES!
If you’re a portrait photographer, don’t be so quick to think a neutral density filter (ND) has no place in your bag. A 3 stop ND can allow you to shoot with a wide open aperture for that dreamy, creamy, super shallow depth of field look, even in midday sun.
4. Intentional Sunflare
An ill placed sunflare can ruin an otherwise great photo. But an intentional one, factored carefully into the composition, can add some wow factor to a midday photo. Place the sun behind something and let it just peek out at the edge and you will start to see sunflare. For awesome starburst flares, make sure to stop down to f16 or higher. This tends to work best with wide angle lenses.
Avoid pointing a telephoto directly at the sun, especially when looking through the viewfinder. Remember the brat next door who burnt ants with a magnifying glass when you were a kid? Avoid doing that to your retinas. In fact, a good practice is to make sure you’re using live view mode and looking at the LCD screen instead of the viewfinder.
Tips For Outdoor Portraits With An Overhead Sun
5. Look For Open Shade
Open shade is your best friend in harsh sunlight. Open shade is a shaded area that’s open and letting light in on at least one side. This can mean a covered porch or veranda, a gazebo, a tree, the side of a building, a picnic shelter. It doesn’t really matter what’s creating the shade, ideally it won’t even be in your photo. All that matters is you now have nice even light on your subject, with no blown out highlights or hard shadows.
If open shade is available, your problems are solved, but there are lots of times when it won’t be available. Like at the beach. In that case you need to start getting creative. I’d start with lifeguard towers or oversized beach umbrellas.
6. 5 in 1 Reflector
A 5 in 1 reflector is relatively inexpensive, lightweight, and portable. It consists of a large, flexible, folding frame with a semi-opaque material stretched across the middle. There is a reversible and removable zippered covering with gold and silver reflective material on one side and black and white material on the other. There are 3 ways you can use one of these handy tools when shooting in the midday sun:
- To Create Open Shade: This is where the black side of the reflector comes in handy, hold the reflector up between your subject and the sun, with the black side towards your subject and presto! You have just created your own little spot of open shade, anywhere, anytime.
- As a Light Modifier: Take the zippered reflector cover off and hold the semi-opaque material up between your subject and the sun and now you have created a giant softbox, effectively turning that tiny, hot, pinpoint sun into a large, soft, more flattering light source.
- As a Reflector: Place the sun at your subject’s back and use the white, gold, or silver side of the reflector to bounce the light back at your subject and help fill in those harsh shadows. Most of the time you will want to stick to the white side, but you can experiment to see which you prefer.
7. Off Camera Flash
The first time I heard someone say the best time to use your flash is on a bright sunny day, I shook my head and thought they were crazy. But it turns out they were right. With a powerful enough flash, you can overpower even midday sun until it looks as though you took the photo against a black backdrop. You probably won’t use that trick often, but it can be a lifesaver if you have a cluttered or unappealing background, such as a chain link fence at the back of the yard.
More often, you’ll use your flash as a fill light. It will fill in the hard shadows that form under noses and chins with the direct, overhead sunlight. Indoors, you can usually get away with using a speed light mounted right on the camera because you can turn the head to bounce the light off a wall or ceiling. However, you won’t have that option in outdoor photography, so it will be important to get that light off camera.
A wireless flash trigger and receiver set is a relatively inexpensive purchase that can make a huge difference to your photos. If you don’t have enough scratch left over for a light stand, your friends, spouses, and children make excellent lightstands. Even holding the flash out at arms length is better than mounting it on the camera.
Of course, now you have two small, hard light sources (your flash and the sun), but if you don’t have a light modifier, you can always shoot through the naked centre of your 5 in 1 or use the reflector side to bounce the light from your speed light.
8. Avoid Squinting Subjects
If you grew up in the old school film camera days, you probably heard the “wisdom” of putting the sun at your back. This sounds reasonable enough at first, it means the light will fall on your subject, right? Yes, it sure will, and if your subject happens to be a living creature with eyes, their pupils will contract into tiny, reptilian pinpoints at best. At worst, they’ll squint or close their eyes altogether.
You can avoid this involuntary reaction by placing the sun at the subject’s back. Light them with an off camera flash, or tell your subject(s) to close their eyes between shots and open them on the count of three. This also works great for group shots to ensure you don’t get some people in the group mid blink. After you say “three”, you should have at least a couple of seconds when everyone has their eyes open.
9. Create Silhouettes
Sometimes it’s what we don’t see that makes an image compelling. If you have a relatively simple, clear, bright background and a subject with a strong and recognizable shape, you may be able to backlight your subject and intentionally allow them to fall into dark shadow, creating a silhouette. It’s extra important when practicing this technique to have your subject keep their limbs out from their body so they’re recognizable as human (or animal), rather than a black blob.
10. Shoot Action
The midday sun tends to be bright, and that means you can use a super fast shutter speed, without even needing a wide open aperture. In other words, it’s the perfect time to shoot high speed action, like airborn children jumping on a trampoline, or dogs running on the beach. You can go either way with this one, put the sun at your back for detail on the subject, or behind your subject for a silhouettes.
Tips For Shooting Landscapes In Bright Sunlight
11. Use a Circular Polarizer
One of the first accessories a new photographer will be told they need is a circular polarizer, especially if they plan on doing any outdoor photography. The selling points is cutting through haze, adding contrast to skies, and cutting reflections on water.
These are all great reasons to use a polarizing filter for your midday photos, but it will also cut down on glare and reflections on foliage, making green forests and autumn colours have much greater depth and pop. If you don’t have a circular polarizer yet, make sure to at least use your lens hood to cut down unwanted lens flares.
I know, I know, as soon as I say bracketing, you are picturing crunchy HDR photos from five years ago and gasping in horror. Exposure blending has come a long way. Unless you are a militant, straight out of camera purist, I’ll bet you are “liking” photos on your social media feeds every day that are made from bracketed photos. When you have to choose between a blown out sky or a crushed black foreground, you can always bracket your shots and choose to have both properly exposed. Tone mapping and crunchy details, totally optional.
Now that you’ve learned these tips for stunning photos, you’re a better photographer.
But the fact is, the journey doesn’t stop there. There are more tips, tricks, and secrets--all of which will help you take gorgeous photos.
And if you want to learn all of these secrets, I recommend you sign up for the PhotoBlog newsletter. We send our subscribers all sorts of great stuff--including the tips, tricks, and secrets, straight from the experts. All to help you capture world-class photographs.
Did I mention that it’s all totally FREE?
(Oh, and we’ll send you a natural lighting cheat sheet--designed to help you use light in ways you’ve never considered.)
So to start taking stunning photos, enter your email:
Download FREE Photography Lighting Cheat Sheet
Subscribe and get a free downloadable photography lighting cheat sheet