Photography tips – shooting in full sun

First off, sorry I missed last week.  It was just crazy busy so I didn’t have time to think! 

Now that the weather is warming up and we are all running around outside after our little rugrats, we are presented with new challenges.  Most people think that a sunny day with nary a cloud in the sky is a great day for taking pictures, but really…it’s not.  I’ll take a lovely overcast day, thank you very much. 

Now if you are taking pictures of landscapes, that wonderful blue sky is absolutely fabulous to have.  However, if you have people in those pictures, most especially if those people are wearing white shirts, then you will encounter some problems.

Here are some problems with sunlight:

    • The bright sun will reflect off of clothing (such as white clothing) and cause blowouts.
    • The bright sun will reflect off of angelic little blondie’s hair and cause blowouts.
    • The bright sun, if it is high in the sky especially, will cause harsh shadows on the face and can completely shadow the eyes which become dark pits.
    • Getting your exposure correct in bright sun is a pain since the sky is so bright your camera may underexpose your subject.
    • People squinting due to the bright sunlight.

Here are just some hints to try to get your pictures to turn out better.

#1.  Look for shade.  If there is a building in the shade that can be a great place to take photos, or if you can find a tree with thick foliage.  If the tree has sparse foliage it can look crappy since then you have speckled lighting.

#2.  With a DSLR, use spot metering on your camera so it uses the light on the subject instead of the light in the whole frame.  This will help you set your exposure correctly.

#3.  Do not have light hit your subject from the side, since then you have bright sun on one side and harsh shadow on the other.  Not a good look.

#4.  Option – put your subject facing the sun.  With this you can be prone to getting squinty eyes, but if you work it so you just get quick glances then that can help.  For your exposure, you can use the sunny 16 rule.  Another option is if you have a reflector that has a diffuser piece, you can place that over them to diffuse the harsh sun.  That is if they will actually sit still for you, so you know, this won’t work with children…unless they are immobile infants.

#5.  Option – put your subject facing away from the sun.  This is a perfect time to use your brand spankin’ new reflector to add some lighting to their face.  You would place it below them and it will help to fill in the dark shadows in their eyes.  You can also use fill flash (*gasp* yes I said use the flash!) to make sure that the subject has light on their face without having the exposure completely blow out the background and make that too light (this will cause a lovely blue sky to be white if you expose for their face – the flash helps to expose everything correctly).

#6. Time it so the pictures are either early in the day or late in the afternoon. When the sun is lower in the sky you get more of a diffused light and it can come from the side and not directly above.  The higher the sun is in the sky, the harsher the shadows will be.

Okay, so let’s see some examples, huh?

Direct sun giving blowouts.  See the side facing the sun…it is glowing and her eyes are dark.  Darn harsh sunlight.

harsh sunlight

Here is Kailan facing partially away from the sun with it at his back…again, dark eyes.  Now, I should have exposed it better, but you would still have half of the face in the sunlight and half in the shadow.  I should have tried to get him fully with his back to the sun so I wouldn’t have partial shadow and then exposed for his face.

dark sockets

Here are some examples of how to use the sunlight.

Shade – This one is under a shade tree when the sun was high in the sky, but it does have that speckled lighting.  I think it works for this photo, but it doesn’t always work.  Look at the lighting when you are taking the pictures to see what it looks like and if it is causing too many harsh sun spots.  This is an old processing I did last summer, so I would probably have tried to darken some of the areas on her white shirt that have hot spots.  Oh, well, but here it is with the flaws.

Speckled lighting

Fill flash – same day, this was using a fill flash.  Yes, it does give pinpoints in the eyes still, of which I’m not a big fan.  However, sometimes it is needed.  Notice how her face and the sky are both properly exposed?  If the flash hadn’t fired her face would have been too dark.

Fill Flash 

Reflector – Here we have one of my favorites of late.  We were in the shade and I used a reflector to get those lovely catchlights in his eyes and light on his face.  His back was to the light source and he was facing a dark garage.  Love my reflector!


Back to the sun – Unfortunately baby girl is really hard to not get her hair to get all glowy.  I think it is still cute, though, but I’m her mom.  Anyways, her she is completely facing away from the sunlight which was low in the sky.  No harsh shadows on her face from inconsistent lighting.

light from behind

Facing the sun – Here she is facing the sun which is low in the sky.  Love the golden glow and no blowouts or harsh shadows.

facing the sun

So, you thought shooting in the sun was easy, huh?  Yeah, so did I!  I was waiting all winter to be able to have some light for taking pictures and now I realize that there is such a thing as too much light.  Have fun practicing!

13 Replies to “Photography tips – shooting in full sun”

  1. Hope it was helpful! Alissa, the sun isn’t out here either, so I know what you mean!

  2. I’m not sure the brand name, but mine is a 5 in 1 reflector that is round. It is something like this one at B&H:

    If you have a local camera store, see if you can pick their brains for the best reflectors. This one is nice because of all the options. Mine was around $55, I think. As a cheap option, I have heard that the sun reflectors that you can buy for car windows work in a pinch!

  3. I knew there was a reason I avoid white clothing. Oh wait, no it’s the thought of washing anything light that my dirt and food magnet wears! At least the lack of white helps with the photography!

    All of my shots are candids. It doesn’t look in these photos that you’re exactly setting up portrait shots, so how do you incorporate a reflector into your daily life? I could easily see remembering at least to bring it along when we went to someplace sure to be full sun, but breaking it out without attracting attention and distracting seems unlikely and close to down right impossible.

  4. Christie, it is hard to get the reflector to work when your subjects are going all over the place. I try to make it a game and they love to make the reflector “pop” open, so I get a little bit of cooperation from letting them do that. 🙂 Most of the time, though, when doing just candids, it is hard to use a reflector.

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