Photographers have one thing in common. We’ve all gotten up early, really early, to photograph the sweet rays of warm sunshine at dawn. Countless mornings are spent in the dark groping for lenses, warming up fingers and blinding fellow photographers with laser-beam headlamps. But everything is worth it when the crimson sun illuminates a model on a beach or a sandstone spire in the desert. Shutters blaze away for an hour while the light is good. Slowly the light gets harsher, hotter and turns the beautiful model into a squinting gunfighter and the majestic desert spire into a featureless toothpick. Time to pack up the gear and head to the hotel. Every photographer knows the light is terrible in the middle of the day.
Or is it? What if there were techniques to let you shoot right through the midday overhead harsh sunlight? I regularly shoot assignments for travel companies and magazines, and if I put my cameras away after sunrise, I wouldn’t produce many images. I just returned from teaching a photo workshop in Baja, and if we didn’t shoot during the day, we would have missed some of the best photographs of the trip. Many times photographers can’t control when they visit a location or photograph a subject, and they have a short window of time to get the shot.
Here’s the good news. There are stunning images waiting to be made in the middle of the day. Right when the sun is at its highest zenith in the sky, you can create beautiful images. In fact, some images work best when the sun is high in the sky. But, as photographers know, midday sun creates more challenges than it does solutions. No matter what type of photography you do, there are techniques to tame the midday light.
Available Light Portraits
Most photographers take portraits, whether it’s professional models or family snapshots. And often you can’t schedule your shoot for beautiful morning or evening light. Any photographer who photographs weddings or high school seniors needs to be ready to deal with midday sun. Just try telling a high school senior to get up and be ready for a sunrise shoot. But there are a number of techniques to create beautiful portraits in the harsh midday sun.
First, and easiest, is put your model in the shade. This sounds obvious, but where you put your model in the shade makes all the difference. Ideally, you can place your subject under something that blocks the light directly above them. This direct overhead shade will create even, soft lighting on your subject. If the subject is in open shade (nothing directly above them), you’ll get unflattering shadows in the eyes and hot spots on the nose.
Pay particular attention to your background. If your subject is in the shade but the background is in the sun, then your background will be overexposed in the final photograph. I try to position my subject so the background is dark when I photograph in covered shade. Use silver or soft gold reflectors to add some catchlight in the eyes.
What if you’re on a dry lake bed without a tree in sight? For some reason, I find myself in situations like these quite frequently, so I always bring along tools to create my own shade. Simple overhead diffusion scrims work great at creating softbox-quality light on bright sunny days. I use two types. For static shoots where my subject won’t be moving, I use a 6’6″ Lastolite Skylite with white diffusion fabric. This creates a large overhead diffusion scrim and eliminates nasty bright sun. It’s like putting your subject in front of a 6-foot softbox. For moving subjects, I use the California Sunbounce Sun-Swatter. This 4×6-foot overhead translucent scrim is attached to a boom arm, allowing an assistant to move the scrim easily. The Sun-Swatter also works well in the wind.
Using a large overhead diffusion scrim will create beautiful light on your subject, but what about the overexposed background? If you don’t have any shade areas to put in the background of your subject, you need to make your own. I use a Westcott Scrim Jim Cine Double Net fabric to accomplish this. This fabric will reduce the background exposure two stops, yet you can still see the background through the fabric. Place the background behind your subject, and shoot at wider apertures so the fabric isn’t obvious in the final image.
Using an independently controlled light source like a strobe or speedlight will give you a powerful tool in midday light photography. How so? Because you can control the ambient background exposure independent of your strobe-illuminated subject. I shoot in manual mode, set the background exposure to be underexposed 1 to 2 stops, and then adjust the power of my flash for the correct exposure on my subject.
The trick is that you need enough flash power to overpower the sun. If you’re using a traditional strobe pack with a highly reflective silver umbrella, you’ll need about 200 watts of power. If you shoot through a large 6-foot softbox with diffusion panels, you’ll want around 1000 watts of power to get the job done. Speedlights without any diffusion can overpower the sun, but you need to be close to your subject. Or, even better, use multiple speedlights to light your subject. You get more power, faster recycling and longer battery life.
A major advancement for overpowering midday sun is High Speed Sync and Hi-Sync technology. High Speed Sync enables photographers to use lightning-fast shutter speeds with speedlights and some studio strobes. Hi-Sync is another technique that allows Elinchrom flash users the same ability to use fast shutter speeds with strobe.
How does this help tame midday light? Imagine I’m photographing a model in a park in the middle of the day. The dreaded harsh sunlight is killing my shot. To fix this, I place my model with her back to the sun. Next, I determine an exposure that will underexpose the sunny background two stops, effectively reducing the midday light. I like to shoot wide open for many of my portraits, so my exposure might be ISO 100, ƒ/1.8 at 1/4000 of a second. The normal flash sync speed for my camera is 1/250, but Hi-Sync allows me to shoot as fast as 1/8000, so I can always underexpose midday light. If you’re using speedlights, you can also shoot at fast shutter speeds using High Speed Sync, but you lose a lot of power. I like to use at least three speedlights if I’m trying to overpower midday sun.
You can create striking portraits with one large softbox in bright sun. I place the model with the sun at my subject’s back and light them from the front using an Elinchrom ELB 400 and a 53″ Elinchrom Rotalux Octa. I place my light high and slightly off-center of my model. Using Hi-Sync, I can shoot at very fast shutter speeds, creating dark, moody backgrounds on a bright, sunny day.
If you don’t want bright rim lighting from the sun, use an overhead scrim. This will cut out the sun and allow you to position your model any direction without having to squint. You can still underexpose the background as much as you want since you’re using a strobe to illuminate your subject. Or use overhead shade. Last week I was in Baja photographing a fisherman in the middle of a sunny day. To eliminate the bright sun on my subject, I placed him under a palapa and photographed him using two speedlights shot through a 30” FourSquare softbox. The portrait looked great.
Whether you’re using available light or flash, remember one thing: Don’t fight the sun; use it to your advantage. Wait for midday sun and use a translucent overhead scrim to produce beautiful light. Place your model in overhead shade and use a reflector from a sunny area to add striking catchlights. Or how about letting the sun add rim lighting to your portrait? Midday light works well for portraits.
The one group of photographers most dedicated to early-morning wakeups and sunrise light are nature photographers. Let’s face it, most landscapes and nature subjects look amazing at sunrise and sunset. But are you really going to sit in your hotel room all day and wait for sunset and warm light? Only if you choose to. Try a few of these ideas for bright midday photography.
Sunstars are one of my favorite compositional elements and can only be produced on bright sunny days. To create a sunstar, use a small aperture opening like ƒ/16. Take off any UV filters to prevent flare. Set your exposure to slightly underexpose the scene and enhance the sunrays. I often partially clip the sun behind a solid object like a tree. This creates even better sunrays and produces dynamic images. Sunstars also look terrific in adventure sports images.
A speedlight is very handy for nature photography in midday light. Recently, I was in Bryce, Utah hiking through some canyons in the middle of a bright, sunny day. One slot canyon had beautiful reflected warm light at the entrance, but the interior red rock of the slot canyon was very dark without much detail. To solve this problem, I decided to add some fill light using my Nikon SB-5000 speedlight. I placed an orange gel on my speedlight and fired it up into the canyon walls. The resulting image had beautiful warm flash blended nicely with the bright midday light near the entrance of the canyon.
Another dramatic midday light technique, and one I use frequently with adventure sports, is silhouettes. Silhouettes work best in the bright midday light; contrast is your friend with this technique. I find caves, canyons and deep shadows to photograph my subject against a bright sunny sky, creating very graphic images.
Travel photographers have it rough. Since you’re moving constantly, it’s hard to time sweet light for all your destinations. I travel on assignments and workshops for much of the year, and it’s just not possible to photograph in warm light at sunrise and sunset all the time. More likely I’ll photograph a beautiful sunrise location and shortly after that be shooting in a market with the sun quickly rising high in the sky. Deep shadows and high-contrast scenes rule the day.
To tame the midday sun, I use fill-flash on many subjects. Hats produce shadows on faces and eyes, so I add just a small kiss of flash. I normally use my speedlight on-camera set to -1.3. You want to open up shadows but keep the flash almost imperceptible in the final image. Remember the techniques described in available light portraits; these work well for travel photography, too. For a quick portrait, I’ll place my subject in the shade and fire a speedlight through a Lastolite TriGrip Diffuser to produce soft light. Don’t limit your flash to portraits. I use my flash to reduce shadows in many situations I encounter while traveling.
Another tool I use frequently is my Singh-Ray ND filter. This filter allows me to shoot at very slow shutter speeds in the middle of a bright sunny day. I like to use both the 5-stop and 10-stop while I’m on the road. Imagine if you want to photograph a busy street scene in bright sunlight. To convey the busy nature of the scene, you want to use a slow shutter speed of around 30 seconds. The only way you can shoot at 30 seconds in bright sunlight is by using an ND filter. I also love to photograph puffy white cumulus clouds at slow shutter speeds in the middle of the day. An ND filter allows me to shoot exposures at 2 minutes and longer.
Editing software has greatly improved a photographer’s ability to tame midday light. Dark shadows and pasty blue light can be quickly neutralized using a few sliders. For tougher areas, try using the Local Adjustment brush.
First, make sure you’re shooting in RAW format. RAW images give you much more ability to open shadows with good results. Open your image in Lightroom or Photoshop, and do your basic adjustments such as exposure, white point, black point, vibrance and clarity.
To address issues with midday light, your first choice may be adjusting your white balance. Midday light is very blue, so I often move my white balance slider toward 6500 Kelvin (Cloudy preset). Next, pull the Shadow slider to the right to open up shadow areas. I try not to go much past 50 on the amount. High settings produce a white, pasty, unnatural look to shadows.
I also use the Local Adjustment brush to target specific areas the Shadow slider doesn’t adjust enough. I choose the brush, hit the O key to show the mask in Lightroom or check the Mask box in Photoshop, and brush in the areas I want to adjust. Once you have your area selected, use the Exposure slider to open up the shadows.
Final Thoughts On Midday Light Photography
One principle I love to tell my workshop participants is this: “No matter what kind of light you have, something will photograph beautifully in it. Our job as photographers is to determine that subject and use the tools of our craft to create a beautiful photograph.” In terms of harsh midday sun, we have lots of options to create stunning photographs. Don’t pack up your camera midday. Go out and try one of the techniques mentioned here and master midday light.