Composition

4 Tricks to Shooting
Photos in Direct Sunlight

By Katie Day (@ohkatieday)

If there was a magic wand for sale that could make every photo-moment suddenly turn into golden hour, most of us would be all “umm…add to cart, please!”.

But sometimes you find yourself with the world’s DREAMIEST BACKGROUND and it is right smack dab in the middle of the day without a speck of shade in sight. Not even a tiny, baby cloud floating around that could help you diffuse that giant direct sun.

DON’T PANIC. Utilizing the mid-day sun can be really cool and give off high-end fashion shoot vibes. I will walk you through it, and you don’t even have to wait 2-business days for these tips to ship!

The Pros of Direct Sun

Bright, saturated colors
Bold, dynamic contrast
Adds jawline shadows and muscle shadows for flattering definition
Vibrant blue skies—see this A Color Story tutorial for more on that!

The Challenge of Direct Sun

How do you pose the subject so that their face is still flattered?
What if they are squinty?
What about harsh/unwanted shadows on the face?

Here are my four go-to approaches

To demonstrate this, I did a demo shoot with Ana in the middle of a sunny day, and we didn’t leave a 50 foot radius.

Harsh Shadows

Think of the sun as your spotlight. Think of it as your studio light that you brought in yourself and set up way high on a light-stand. Think of yourself as Mary Ellen Matthews, the SNL photographer who could set up studio lights ANY way she wants, and chooses high-contrast direct lighting. (She’s so cool. I love her.) The only difference between these two photos is I instructed her to “point her nose toward the sun.” The resulting shadows are much more flattering under the jawline. Oh and also. Sunglasses. We’ll get to that.

Shoot Wide

My favorite direct sun option is going wide! By stepping further back, I was able to create a dramatic, vibrant wide shot dripping with contrast and saturation. The sun is spotlighting her face evenly. No harsh under-eye shadows, but there is a sharp jawline shadow that flatters her.

Bounced Light

This is a great technique to bounce the direct sun with some backlight. Ana turned and faced the same white wall you just saw, using it as a giant reflector. Her skin is now evenly lit, her hair has some cool back lit halo and dimension. I’m into this lighting. She moved only 2 feet away from the first shot and the lighting is completely different.

Full Shade

If you don’t want to think too hard, find the nearest full shade, and go for it. You can’t mess this up.

Edge of Shade

Much more interesting than full shade in my opinion! You can create lens flare, backlighting and imitate golden hour vibes.

Here’s Ana showing us our shooting location for your reference. Direct sun, white wall. We found 4 very different looks in less than 4 minutes.

Now here are some examples from the wild.

After
Before

The problem: Their very favorite location in Spain, no shade, no time to come back later.
The solution: I had the subject face the sun and then I shot wide. Specifically, I instructed the subject to again “point their nose toward the sun.” Their eyes can stay on the ground, or in this photo I just told her to close them and soak in the moment in her favorite spot in Spain. No need to blind your subject! At no point do they ever need to actually stare into the sun. This spreads our “spotlight” evenly across her face. No harsh under-nose shadow, but it does create a sharp jawline shadow that actually does flatter the subject.

Choose an edit that accentuates the bold, vibrant high-contrast look like Pacific from Weekend

After
Before
Utilize Backlighting

In this photo, the sun hits the subject from about 3/4 quarters behind. To block the sun further, I had Arin’s face provide shade for Cody’s face. Then in Lightroom, I chose “Weekend”, an edit that softens the harsh contrast and used the Highlights/Shadows sliders to fill-in highlights or lighten dark shadows making the look even softer.

Bonus ideas:

Embrace Weird Shadows

You can intentionally use the high contrast shadows that direct sun provides to double-down and JUST GO FOR IT like in this photo of Logan. This session was around 2pm, a typically bummer time to have to take someone’s portrait, but it ended up getting us creative with some nearby foliage. Limitations can actually trigger more creativity!

And don’t forget: Sunglasses are always cool. Sunglasses make everyone look cool. How else would we have known who the cool kids were in 1970s sitcoms? You wouldn’t, would you? And as always, a good, dramatic preset like “Lowtide” can take an otherwise “meh” photo to a REALLY cool photo. Oh… and those you can actually “buy now with one click.” 😉

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