The complete guide on photographing in harsh sunlight

Jul 27, 2019

Dave Kai-Piper

Dave Kai Piper is a photographer and writer based in the UK. His work invites a classic form of photography with subjects ranging from celebrity musicians, new faces, wild landscapes and simple fun images.

The complete guide on photographing in harsh sunlight

Jul 27, 2019

Dave Kai-Piper

Dave Kai Piper is a photographer and writer based in the UK. His work invites a classic form of photography with subjects ranging from celebrity musicians, new faces, wild landscapes and simple fun images.

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With a heatwave rolling over America & Europe, photographers are going to be dealing with some pretty direct light. Here are some tips about dealing with harsh shadows and high contrast.

This blog is pretty good timing, as I have just come back from a shoot in the UK. 10 lucky winners in association with Sigma UK and Amateur Photography Magazine, had won the chance to come down to London and photograph two traditional Geisha (Mai Watanabe and Chiyono Watanabe.) I was asked to set up the shoot & help with the lighting as part of the day.

Photographing Geisha’s on a London Rooftop with the direct & bright sun was not ideal. But with some thinking, we worked out a set up that was pretty good. The main objective of the shot was to show the color of the face and keep the flat color tones. I wanted to show the makeup as much as possible. Getting the image as soft as possible while still showing the colors in the silk was another objective. The bright sunlight was very overpowering and creating deep shadows.

The white screen played a role in acting like a scrim to just remove enough light to give good color and saturation into the umbrella, which would have been very bright and overpowering if we didn’t do something.

This is a photograph we made in London. There was some challenging light. But I love how it turned out.

The weeks running up to the event, we had the worst rainstorm for a while, we had been worrying about and planning for rain & overcast cloudy skies. The lighting we had planned and the images we have storyboarded out all revolved about soft contrast. Literally, the day before the workshop, as I boarded my flight to London, the clouds parted, the rain stopped and the run poured over London. Bright blue skies, not a cloud in the sky. The workshop was due to be on a rooftop running from mid-day to early afternoon. We would be shooting and doing demos right as the sun was in the very worst spot, but, we had to make it work, so what did we do.

Firstly, do not panic

This is especially important if you are photographing people who are nervous or worried. If you panic, you will make them even more worried about the shoot, which is bad. Bright light is not all as bad as it seems. If you are on a client shoot and you have to get the shot, the first thing you would have to do is talk to the client. Over the years, I have learnt that you need to talk about the weather and how that might change or affect your images. This is even more important if your shoot/production is using natural light, or like us, on a rooftop. Planning for all circumstances is important. This brings me on to the second item on my list.

In the planning steps for your shoot, thinking ahead and making some plans, even very simple ones will help you not panic. This is very important to keep everyone calm and on task. In our case, we walked around the location and just found something that would work.

Knowing we had to put in a good punch of light to balance out the ambient with the flash, Simon paired up two 400w Broncolour Siros lights with the 30×180 Bronc softboxes.  We went there as they gave us the quick option to change and evolve the light the moving light from the sun. I find that a rectangle shape gives the ability to shape the light well. Both big and small modifiers have upside and downsides.

Tips & examples

Shooting in mixed light can be tricky, especially with harsh or u unexpected lighting. Below are some examples and thoughts.

Think about the time of day

Linking back to the Sigma event in London, our shoot was going to last for about 4 hours, this meant that during the shoot the Sun was going to move across the sky, moving the shadows around. In the prep phase, we looked at where the sun was, will be and found the location that would be in shade for the whole duration of the shoot.  There are some pretty good apps for this. It is worth remembering, if you can push the time of the shoot, even just a little bit, the light could change vastly.

The long summer nights & bright setting sun can look very nice.

Find shade & shadow

Trees, shrubs and buildings can provide shade and backgrounds that are interesting visually, but you can also use them as natural lighting modifiers with the Sunlight. The other great thing about shade & shadow is that your model is going to thank you for putting them in shade away from the direct sunlight. This is both a good idea for them keeping cool but also protects makeup and sweating.

Shooting when the sun is directly above the subjects can be the most tricky time. The image was taken with a really bright Sun direct overhead. We found some shade under a tree and had holly duck into away from the light as much as possible. You can see how bright the light would have been on her blonde hair by looking at her arm.

The carpark provided great shade & an interesting background for these images. There is normally always shade somewhere. It’s just about making the image work.

Shoot into the sun

Photographing subjects who are staring into bright sunshine are going to have trouble keeping a relaxed pose due to squinting. You will find that most wedding photographers will have the subjects back to the sun, unless they are using the sun some sort of creative way (like we did on this shoot). This helps put the subjects’ faces into an even shadow, which they ether expose for or use some sort of fill light to balance out.

Make the ambient lighting work for you, not against you. If you have a bright direct sun. Find a way to incorporate it into your lighting. For instance, in the image below uses a bright & harsh sun to backlight the subject. You don’t always have to add light back to make an image work.

Using fill flash

Fill flash is a term that is most used when a photographer is using a ‘main’ light too. But, it is a term you might hear when shooting in bright conditions outside or mixing lighting sources (like we did on the main image). The main light would be a good burst of light to fully cover or light a subject, normally so that the image clearly is ‘lit’.  Think of this as lighting the shadows, but not removing them. The balance is to fill in enough light to balance out the exposure without radically changing the look or style of the image.

This image technically has three lighting sources. The sun providing the main ambient light. We are adding a ‘key’ light, sometimes known as the main light and one fill light.

Levels & eye-lines

We know that it’s mostly a good idea to keep your camera about the eye level of your subject for a natural-looking photo. Shooting in super-bright & harsh lighting can present some more problems. I have found that if I have my subject looking up or even sometimes right at me, they can start to squint if the light is bright behind me. Dropping down low can help.

Setting up Lighting and the camera

Setting up the lighting for images like this can seem quite complex, but can be quite simple when broken into simple steps.

Find your ambient settings. Expose the camera for your brightest element in the picture, but not going faster than your sync-speed. For this shoot, I was using the Sigma Quattro H which gave me a sync speed of 1/250 with the Bronc lights. I then set the ISO to 100 as I wanted the best image quality and widest dynamic range. These settings gave me an f-stop of f9. Perfect. If I would have wanted a lower f-stop, (for more depth of field)  I could have used an ND filter to darken the ambient light or used an HSS (high-speed Sync) system like the Cactus speedlights.

Once you have exposed & set the camera for the ambient light, I normally darken the frame down to that when I add light, I can ‘pop’ my subject out and have some wiggle room for if the sun gets brighter.

The next element to set up would be the fill lights. Here I position and add enough light to ensure that I have good detail and contrast in the shadows for my subject. The ambient light is coming from behind, so the subjects face should be in even shadow.

Once I have this sorted, I shart to focus the main light. This is the most important element as it provides all of the main lightings for the subject. On our image, we also had to add light on the bench. Sometimes we could add lighting source just for background element, but, we had about 3 mins to arrange & shoot this image as I had a flight to catch… So, we added some extra diffusion to the softbox closest to the bench to even out the light & added a grid to the part of the light hitting our subject.

Keeping your camera on a tripod can be a good way for you to set up your lighting. This lets you keep the framing right for the area you are trying to light.

Below are two images are good examples of fill flash. Most of the image is just a simple exposure with the subject being lit by the setting sun. Used a Cactus Speedlight and small ‘pop-up’ lighting modifier called a Roundflash to just add some light to the subjects face.  Sometimes, you just need a touch of added light to finish an image.  These images have not been edited, only color toned using the Infinite Color Panel.

Using Filters or HSS

I lightly touched on this in the post above, but I wanted to cover it in more detail.

Different cameras have different max sync-speeds. Meaning that you will have to compromise your aperture settings, thus the depth of field. Shooting wide open at wide apertures can require a fast shutter speed or the use of an ND filter.

Graduation filters are also very useful, such as in the image below.

Embrace the contrast & hardlight

Working with the natural light can be tricky, but can present some really interesting lighting.

This image makes fun use of the shadows created from the buildings around. Without the shadows, the image would be a much flatter less interesting image.

Hard light creates a great contrast. Here we used the contrast to find some interesting light.

For this image, we had a strong low-setting Sun. Dropping down and using the strong contrast, we found an interesting image.

During a bright sunset, we dropped down

Use natural lens flare

It might be subjective, but nothing can be a great bit of natural lens flare. Here of a couple of sample images to show how capturing some flare in your images. Short primes do well, but pretty much any lens will provide flare with the right angles. Removing your lens hood will help.

Make the most of out the color

When you have bright blue skies, it can be a great time to find some great contrasting colors. Shoot low ISO’s, High f-stops. In the image below we used a Super Stopper to smooth out the water, and get the most out of the little clouds we had.

For this image, it was just a case of waiting until the Sun appeared from under the clouds. Summertime can give the best ‘Golden Hour’ of the year.

As a summary, here is TOP TEN list.

  1. Use your lens if you want to reduce flare & increase contrast

  2. Find shade or make some shade

  3. Try using fill flash

  4. Experiment with reflectors

  5. Use filters such as ND’s and GND’s

  6. Experiment with different metering modes. Spot is great for people.

  7. Try shooting at different times of the day, the late summer sun is awesome

  8. Take plenty of water, look after yourself & your subjects

  9. Look after your camera. Use lens covers, keep your kit in the shade

  10. Try shooting different style that you don’t get to do at other times of year

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Dave Kai-Piper

Dave Kai-Piper

Dave Kai Piper is a photographer and writer based in the UK. His work invites a classic form of photography with subjects ranging from celebrity musicians, new faces, wild landscapes and simple fun images.

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5 responses to “The complete guide on photographing in harsh sunlight”

  1. Mike Shwarts Avatar
    Mike Shwarts

    Interesting article, but you should stick to photography. Meteorology isn’t your thing. Heat waves have nothing to do with harsh light. Direct sunlight occurs in the dead of Winter too.

    1. Dave Kai Piper Avatar
      Dave Kai Piper

      Very much agree with you. You can get all types of light all though the year for sure, but in the UK & Ireland I notice different seasons do provide unique chances to shoot.

  2. Citizenofhawaii Avatar
    Citizenofhawaii

    Some of those shots aren’t in hard light and shot on cloudy days.

    1. Dave Kai Piper Avatar
      Dave Kai Piper

      For sure & that was the intention.

  3. Victoria Renard Avatar
    Victoria Renard

    Thanks. I learned photography and spent a majority of my life in Seattle. Then I moved to Texas and had to learn how to shoot in strong sunlight. Your geisha photos are wonderful btw!