One of the first things you learn when starting out in portrait photography is that the midday sun does not provide great lighting conditions.
As with all things in photography, there are plenty of exceptions. But, for the most part, this is sound advice. Because of the harsh, contrasty light, and the deep shadows that such light produces, shooting portraits in the middle of the day can be a real challenge.
Of course, you can always go and find a bit of open shade for more flattering light, but what do you do when isn’t an option? And what do you do when you have a location that you love, but the light isn’t perfect at the moment?
You could always wait. But with portraits, you can’t necessarily count on another person’s enthusiasm for waiting around for the right light. Fortunately, there are a lot of tools that will help you modify the midday sun so that the light is more flattering for portraiture.
This article will give you an overview, along with the basics, of four techniques for manipulating, or completely altering, the light from the midday sun to help you get better portraits.
1) Reflector as key
The first of these techniques only requires a reflector. Either white or silver will do, but if you opt for a 5-in-1 reflector, you will have both at your beck and call.
In strong sunlight, the white reflector should work most of the time. If the light is a bit dimmer, you may need to opt for the silver reflector.
To get started with using a reflector as your key light, place your subject so that the sun is behind (or at least to the side of) them.
Now, raise the reflector up and point it back towards your subject. It should be placed opposite the sun. You should be able to see and watch what the light bouncing off the reflector is doing. Adjust the reflector’s position until you are getting the effect that you are after.
While using a reflector in this way, there are a few things to keep in mind. Because the reflector is your main light source (or key light), it is usually best to make sure that it is above your subject. Lighting from above in this way will help to ensure more natural and flattering results. Lighting from below will result in unnatural-looking shadows that won’t be flattering to your subject.
Another thing to keep an eye on is your exposure. Because you are working with natural light, you will be able to rely on your camera’s meter. Where you might find a problem is when the light reflecting off of the reflector isn’t as strong as any sunlight in the scene.
To ensure a good exposure on your subject, meter from their skin. An easy way to do this is to use your camera’s spot metering mode and meter a place on your subject’s skin that is being lit by the reflector.
Just remember that your camera’s meter is measuring for 18% grey and a lot of skin tones do not fall anywhere near that range. Subjects with lighter skin may require a bit of overexposure, while subjects with darker skin will need you to compensate with underexposure. In most cases, 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop will be good enough.
A diffusion panel is a great option for manipulating the harsh midday sun and achieving better portraits in the middle of the day.
Diffusion panels are sheets of material that you place between the light source and the subject. The material spreads out the light, making it softer and more suitable to portraiture. If you have a 5-in-1 reflector, you probably already have one of these.
Alternatively, there are a lot of options on the market, including massive diffusion panels that cover a large area.
To use a diffusion panel for these purposes, simply place it between the sun and your subject. Because we are talking about the middle of the day, depending on where you are in the world, the sun should be pretty close to straight above your subject. In this case, the diffusion panel would go above your subject. This will have the effect of softening the light; once you’ve done this, you should be able to meter and start taking images.
There are a few things to watch out for while using a diffuser. A lot of diffusion panels are made to reduce the exposure of the light in your scene by a certain number of stops. This is important to take into account because the diffuser will only be altering the exposure of the light falling within its area of effect. If your subject is a fair distance from the background, the background will appear two stops brighter than it did in any shots you may have taken without the diffuser.
This may result in overexposed backgrounds. To minimise this, you can make sure that the diffuser is covering everything in your frame by choosing a background closer to your subject, or by using a background that’s very dark in the first place.
Also, large diffusion panels like the one I have used in this example are very light. If there’s even a slight breeze, they pretty much act like a sail. You may need a dedicated stand or extra bodies to hold them in place.
3) Flash as fill
If you have the equipment, using off-camera flash as fill light to the sun’s key light is a great way to help you take portraits in the middle of the day. The job of the fill light is to bring up the exposure of the shadows created by your key light (the sun, in this case). This will reduce the contrast in your scene and even out the exposure.
There are a lot of ways to do this, but I’ll go over a basic method that requires the least amount of extra equipment.
The first thing you need to do is obtain an exposure for the ambient light. Do this by using your camera’s meter and taking a test shot as if you weren’t going to be using flash at all. The one exception here is that you need to ensure that your final shutter speed is slower than the max sync speed on your camera. This is often around 1/250 seconds, but do check your manual just in case. Once you’ve ensured that all of the highlight tones are present in your frame and not overexposed, you should have your working settings.
Note: If the sunlight is very bright and you cannot get the shutter speed to go slower than your max sync speed, you may want to consider using High-Speed Sync.
Now, turn on (and connect) your flash. While you are getting started with fill, I suggest placing your flash in an on-axis position. This means the flash is on the same line as the lens of the camera from the subject’s position. Although if you are using a speedlight on top of the camera, I recommend getting it off for more flattering results.
You can use Manual mode of E-TTL mode on your flash. Either will work fine, but E-TTL might help to get you closer to the desired exposure in less time.
Once your flash is set up, take a test shot. Look at the shadows in your image. Are they too bright? Turn down the power on your flash and take another test shot. Repeat this until the shadows appear how you want them. Do your shadows seem unchanged, or are they still too dark? In the latter case, turn up the power.
One thing that I suggest you take into account immediately is modifiers. For fill lighting, you will generally want as soft a light source as possible. The light from a bare speedlight will never be soft. A modifier like a translucent umbrella is dirt cheap and as portable as an actual umbrella, and they work well with both small and large flashes.
Another thing to look out for with fill lighting is how much you are filling in the shadows. Remember, the goal in using a fill light is to bring up the shadows so that they aren’t as dark in high contrast situations. You want to avoid having the exposure of your fill light as bright as the exposure from your key light. Try to aim for at least one stop between the exposure for your key and fill, but don’t be afraid to extend it more. Oftentimes two, three or even four stops of difference is the right choice.
4) Flash as key
Another way to use flash for portraits in the middle of the day is to use your flash as the key light. This will require a fairly powerful flash, as you will need it to appear brighter than the sun in your exposure, as you will now effectively be using the sun as a fill light. There are two main ways to go about this. These are using your flash in Manual mode and using your flash in E-TTL mode with High-Speed Sync (HSS).
Because it is fairly easy to get started with your flash in E-TTL mode with HSS (provided that you have the right equipment), that is what this article will discuss.
High-Speed Sync allows you to use flash at shutter speeds far faster than your maximum sync speed. Since shutter speed is what governs the exposure of ambient light while using flash, this means that you can use a shutter speed that underexposes the light from the sun.
Adding the flash as key at this point will shape the main light on your subject with whatever modifier you are using, while the shadow areas will be filled in by the ambient light. This is a great technique that works in a huge variety of situations, but it does require a bit of specialist equipment.
Most speedlights have HSS functionality and more and more full-sized strobes are coming to market that have it, as well.
To get started using this technique for portraits in the middle of the day, select the aperture that you want to work with. Using the meter in your camera, meter the scene and underexpose it by the desired amount. You can evaluate the histogram to decide whether it is dark enough, or too dark.
Now, set up your flash with your chosen modifier for the lighting pattern of your choice. Rembrandt and Butterfly are two basic patterns that work great most of the time. Now, connect your flash to the camera and turn it on, making sure that it is set to both E-TTL mode and HSS mode.
Take a test shot.
Adjust the exposure compensation of your flash as required to get a good exposure of your subject. Referring to the histogram will help you figure out how much exposure compensation you need to use at a glance. If your image is too bright, dial in -1/3 to -2/3 of a stop at a time until you have the desired effect. The same applies for too dark images. Just dial in +1/3 to +2/3 of a stop instead.
Once you have a decent exposure, you should find that you have a nicely-lit portrait with all of the shadow and highlight details present in your image.
This is a very basic overview of High-Speed Sync and doesn’t even come close to covering what’s possible with the technique, but it should get you started with the basics.
While there are plenty more methods for shooting portraits in the middle of the day, the ones listed here should go a long way to get you started.
There is no reason that you should feel limited by the time of day (and the lighting it brings) when you are photographing people.
Even with a few basic tools and techniques, you can stop being at the mercy of the light and, instead, take control of it and manipulate it to your needs. If nothing else, doing so will open up countless hours in the day that you can use for your portrait photography that you would normally be advised to avoid.