This is how to get gorgeous portraits despite harsh sunlight

Jul 25, 2017

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

This is how to get gorgeous portraits despite harsh sunlight

Jul 25, 2017

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

Shooting on location presents all kinds of lighting challenges. You’re at the mercy of the weather, and thus the light. And which light is “best” is a huge matter of personal preference. Some prefer the softness of a cloudy overcast day. Others like that harsh bright direct sunlight. Although the latter is not always that flattering.

There are things you can do to overcome this bright harsh sunlight, though. This video from photographer Manny Ortiz shows us his process, and how he works through these challenges. And it might surprise you to see that not all of them require the use of flash.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTTSDrllEGE

In the video, Manny is shooting the Sony A9, along with the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 GM and Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art. Manny doesn’t normally use a lens this wide for his portraits, but he wanted to be able to include more of the environment.

Most of my own locations are a little more middle-of-nowhere rather than the urban settings shown in the video. The techniques shown, though, can be adapted to work just about anywhere.

Backlight with sun and flash from the front

This is Manny’s go-to location setup (mine too, as it happens). A flash in a big round(ish) softbox creates a nice soft flatting look for your subject, and the sun gives a nice even rim light, separating the shadow side from the background.

For this type of shot, Manny typically uses the Godox AD200 with a Glow ParaPop 38″ Portable Softbox. Personally, I use a Godox AD360II with a slightly larger Godox 48″ popup octabox. This is another one of those things that comes down to personal preference, but the principle is the same regardless of what light or modifier you use.

Manny also shows the same technique from another angle, moving around to get the water in the background. You can’t move the sun, but you can move your subject and your softbox. So, remember this when you move yourself.

Backlight using the sun without the flash

The flash isn’t always essential, depending on the camera you’re using. For something like the Sony A9, you can bring up a lot of that shadow detail in post. I do this with my Nikon D800 often, too. I also do it with black & white film, where you can often overexpose the highlights 5 or 6 stops without blowing out the detail.

Use reflections as a backlight

Using the sun reflecting off a building as your backlight, rather than the direct sun can produce some fantastic effects. For a start it makes this light source much larger. No longer is it just a bright tiny ball of fire in the sky. It lets this back light wrap more around your subject, and brightens up that background while still providing a nice rimlight.

A pop of flash from the front gives a gorgeous look. Manny says this was his favourite shot from the whole day, and it’s easy to see why.

Use the sun as your sole light source

This is one thing we’re often told never to do, and it’s something I love to do. And don’t be afraid of it. You might have to get a little creative with your poses sometimes, or wait for a different time of day to get the look you’re after, but it can be a beautiful light when used well.

The two things to be careful of are that your subject isn’t squinting (I usually have them close their eyes, then I count down from three and shoot when they open) and that you may need to turn down the saturation of oranges in post.

Fill in with flash

You can also use the sun as your primarily light source with flash to fill in the shadows. You don’t get that rim light on the shadow side, so be careful that your subject still stands out from your background.

Bonus Tip – Capturing natural motion

Camera autofocus systems are notoriously bad at tracking subjects that are moving closer to, or further away from the camera. There’s been a lot of improvements made in the last couple of years, but it’s still rarely perfect. Moving with your subject while you shoot is a great way to minimise the change in distance between you and your subject. It makes it much easier for your autofocus system to keep up.

Manny made the video during a collaboration with a couple of other photographers. He shows off some of their shots from the day at the end of the video. Having an extra person or two on set can be really handy for location shoots. Sometimes you just need somebody to hold a light or reflector that might otherwise be impossible.

If you want to see more of Manny’s videos, don’t forget to swing by his YouTube channel.

Filed Under:

Tagged With:

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!

John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 responses to “This is how to get gorgeous portraits despite harsh sunlight”

  1. Paul Richards Avatar
    Paul Richards

    Great vid – very informative :)

  2. Trevor Lovecross Avatar
    Trevor Lovecross

    Harsh sunlight? Looking at all those long shadows, I’d say this is shot during the golden hours – you know, that time of day that has the best natural light, for photographers.

    1. Molon Labe! Avatar
      Molon Labe!

      Yeah the story is based on some inaccurate info…

    2. Ash Avatar
      Ash

      ‘Golden hour’ sunlight can still be very harsh, as in very high contrast. But yea, its not something to be avoided, its something to be used.

      The light to avoid is during the middle of the day on those awful blue sky days with no clouds at all. Those days are the worst.

  3. Casey Braunger Avatar
    Casey Braunger

    Diffuser

  4. Jack Avatar
    Jack

    Some great tips here! But the sunlight does look really superb for shooting in so you should point that out.

    http://www.globesnapper.com

  5. Max Faust Avatar
    Max Faust

    Gradient ND FILTER

  6. Daniel Shortt Avatar
    Daniel Shortt

    I live in Australia, if you can’t shoot hard light you’re going to have issues.