Shooting in the sun can seem daunting at first, and it can be a challenge for your outdoor client sessions if you aren’t well prepared. But once you have mastered the below tips on how to shoot in the sun, you will start to look for new opportunities to expand your artistic capability (no matter where the sun may be!) and with confidence.
1. Pay attention to the time of the day – The time of day that you shoot is one of the most important factors when planning your sessions. Unless it is an overcast day, It is best to try to not shoot mid-day (close to noon) when the sun is its highest because this can cause harsh shadows on your subjects or cause overblown highlights. If you shoot closer to sunrise or sunset (or just earlier or later in the day) you can get softer lighting and cooler temperatures and avoid some of those harsh shadows. Shooting within an hour before the sunset is called the “Golden hour” and this is a wonderful time to take portraits because of the warm lighting from the setting/rising of the sun creates a beautiful soft glow.
2. Note the sunlight direction – The direction that the sun is coming from ultimately affects how the shadows are cast on your subject and how the light is framed around them:
- Shooting with the sun behind you: With the sun behind you and facing your subject you get the most even illumination across the scene. Note that with this lighting, shadows are hidden so form, detail, and texture can be lost. Also, having the sun directly on your subject can cause them to have to squint which can be very uncomfortable, not to mention it won’t be very pretty! However, color and vibrancy of the sky and scene are usually the best with frontal lighting.
- Shooting into sun: With the sun behind your subject, you will be creating a backlight and/or rim light effect on your subject (and no more squinting yay!). This lighting does put a good part of the image in the shadows. If you expose your camera for the brightest part of the scene, you will end up with a silhouette effect. If you expose for the shadows and darker tones then you will get a softer, more brightly lit image. You can also use a flash or a reflector to fill the shadows in this light setting so that the sun will create a glow around your subject while still being evenly lit in the shadow areas.
- Shooting with sun from side: Side lighting can create unique, dramatic results while illuminating some areas and shadowing others. This gives more definition, form, and texture of the landscape and your subject. In the best lit areas, the color is crisp and vibrant. With side lighting, neither you nor your subject is forced to squint or look into the sun. You may need to, however, fill in the opposite side with a reflector to avoid harsh shadows.
3. Bring along a reflector for diffusion and light direction – If you end up having to shoot mid-day on with bright sunshine, bringing a multi-surfaced reflector along can be helpful! There are some you can purchase that have silver, gold, white, black, and transparent/diffused surfaces. You may even use just a large white board. If you place your subject with the sun behind them or to the side and then use one of the gold/silver/white surfaces of the reflector at a 45 degree angle (or play with it a little) you can fill the harsh shadows that may be coming down from the sun and create a more evenly lit image of your subject. The gold side creates more of a warm glow where the silver is cooler. The white is neutral and it isn’t as reflective and high contrast as the silver or gold. Some reflectors also have a diffusion panel which allows you to let the sunlight go through the diffuser and create a softer glow on your subject. You can place the reflector on a light stand or have an assistant hold it to get it in the ideal location to light your subject.
4. Use flash to balance shadows – I have heard time and time again “Why would I need to use lights outside if it’s light out?!” And I can tell you that it can make a HUGE difference! When you use strobes (with a generator or wall power) or speed-lights in a sunny location, you can balance the dark shadows out and use your light(s) as a key and/or fill to create balance and color vibrancy in the image. You can shoot into the sun but also use a light on your subject as a key light so that the sun creates a rim/backlighting effect around your subject and their skin tones and clothing are still all evenly lit. Using lights outdoors makes it so you can get rid of blown out backgrounds and/or overly shadowed subjects.
5. Find open shade – When you get to your location, look for any open shade your subject(s) can stand in. Open shade can be produced by trees, buildings, an umbrella, etc. and can produce the most stunning, vibrant, and sharpest images. You may even start training yourself to choose your locations based on just that if the golden hour is not doable. The best part of open shade is that you can avoid any harsh effects of the sun all together, while still getting many of it’s gorgeous benefits. Just be sure your subjects are not standing in any light spots leaking through tree’s for example, as this may create hot spots.
6. Protect yourself and your gear – We all know its common sense to wear sunscreen to protect ourselves and our skin on a sunny day. It’s also very important to stay hydrated (and remind your clients to do so too!) If you plan to be shooting in the sun for a while, try to also hydrate 24 hrs before the shoot to make sure you are up to your best! As a photographer, it is also important to protect your livelihood… YOUR GEAR! Several different cleaning kits and tools are available, and some are small and simple enough to take with you “just in in case” that water, sand, mud, or whatever other outdoor substance comes across your lens. I personally carry a little brush/pen that I use to gently wipe off any dust and dirt, and cloth in my pocket to get any moisture off. Another thing to keep in mind when caring for your camera is the condensation that can build up. One way to avoid this is to move your camera into an in-between temperature area like a garage, sun room, den, or entryway for a little while before moving it fully inside. Even setting your camera near a sunny window area (but make sure it’s safe from falls!) can cool it off a little (but not too quickly) before it goes into cooler temperatures inside.
Are there any tips you find tried and true for taking photos in the sun? We’d LOVE to hear from you!