6 ways to keep shooting in harsh light

6 ways to keep shooting in harsh light: 01. Work with it

1. Work with it

The most obvious way to shoot in harsh light is to work with it rather than against it.

This doesn’t mean plough on regardless, but to think about what the light is doing to your subject and use it.

At midday the sun is at it’s highest point in the sky, which means that although shadows will be very strong, they may also be quite short.

If you’re shooting a portrait in full sun you can expect to see deep, unattractive shadows under the eyebrows and nose.

However, if the model tips their head back and they look towards the sun these shadows will disappear.

The obvious problem with this is that the model’s eyes will immediately screw up against the harsh light if the try to keep them open, but this is one occasion when closed eyes looks natural.

We all like to turn our faces to the sun and close our eyes once in a while.

You should also consider heading to the nearest park or woodland because delicate leaves and petals look great back-lit and harsh, directional light brings out their structure and colour.

Meanwhile in the city there’s a great mix of deep shadow and strong highlights that can look very effective in black and white.


6 ways to keep shooting in harsh light: 02. Use a diffuser

2. Use a diffuser

Holding a diffuser between your light source and subject softens harsh light dramatically and reduces contrast so that there’s detail in shadowy areas and highlights are far less harsh.

There are lots of diffusers available on the market and most pack down to make them easy to transport.

There are models that fold down small enough to fit into a camera bag, but pop-up large enough to be of use when shooting portraits.

The problem, however, is that you need to hold the diffuser somehow and not all of us have a willing assistant.

The simplest solution is to support your camera on a tripod, leaving you free to hold the diffuser.

In addition, there are clamps such as the Wimberley Plamp II available to attach a diffuser to a tripod or other support and hold it over a subject.


6 ways to keep shooting in harsh light: 03. Use a reflector

3. Use a reflector

Commercially available reflectors look very similar to diffusers, but rather than letting light pass through them they reflect it back.

A reflector is held opposite the light source to bounce light back into the shadows.

Some manufacturers make diffusers that come with covers that can be slipped on to create a reflector.

You can also use piece of white card or for extra light, a scrunched up piece of aluminium foil that’s been smoothed-out can also be used (it’s easier to handle if it’s stuck to some card).

If you don’t have a reflector with you there are plenty of reflective surfaces around you that can be used instead.

Light-coloured buildings, water and bright sand all bounce lots of light back, so it’s just a question of positioning your subject at the right angle to them.


6 ways to keep shooting in harsh light: 04. Backlighting

4. Backlighting

As mentioned earlier, some plants look fabulous when they are back-lit because their translucent structure comes to life.

But that’s not the limit to backlighting, there are many other subjects that look great when lit from behind, it’s a good option for portraits for example.

The key to shooting a back-lit subject is to set the exposure for your subject and not the background.

The easiest way to do this is to set your camera to spot-metering mode and ensure that the spot (usually the active AF point these days, but it maybe the centre of the frame) is over your subject when you set the exposure.

The end result should be a correctly exposed subject against and bright, possibly burned out background.

If you want to create a more high-key look, increase the exposure a little to brighten your subject further.


6 ways to keep shooting in harsh light: 05. Fill-in flash

5. Fill-in flash

A burst of flash, ideally from an off-camera unit, will flood shadows with light and reduce the contrast of a harshly-lit scene dramatically. It also puts you in control of light-levels and exposure.

For the best results the flash should be softened with some form of diffuser or soft box and positioned towards the opposite side of the subject to the ambient light source so that the shadows receive light.

Modern TTL (Through The Lens) flash metering systems do all the hard work for you, but you can adjust the brightness of the flash output using the flash exposure compensation controls on the gun or camera.


6 ways to keep shooting in harsh light: 06. Find shade

6. Find shade

Our final way to deal with harsh light is to get out of it and find some shade.

It’s a technique that’s favoured by many professional wedding and portrait photographers.

Positioning your subject in the shade of a tree means that they won’t be squinting into the sun and you can use a burst of flash to lift the exposure so that they look as bright as the surroundings beyond the shade.

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