Why you should start taking portraits in the mid-sun

The harshest light for the portrait photographer

I’ll keep this as simple as possible and won’t go into the advantages or disadvantages of reflectors or diffusers. During the following examples I simply used my camera, experience and different lenses. The reason for that is, that if I go on a one of those kinds of shootings, I handle them alone and don’t have any assistant holding those gadgets for me. But even with those out of the pictures (don’t worry, this is the last poor word play until the very end), this post is probably going to be a long one, since there are so many misconceptions when it comes to photography in harsh sunlight.

And when I say harsh sunlight I mean the midday sun on a cloudless day. A nightmare for many available light Photographers. Even Pro’s like Brandon Woelfel completely avoid those times of the day and prefer to work specifically during dusk or dawn, also called the golden and blue hours (more on that in a different blog post).

When it comes to portrait photography I as well avoided the harsh sunlight, until I watched and learned from videos made by other photographers like Peter McKinnon or Jamie Windsor. Since then, I tried to use and effectively see the advantages from direct sunlight in my every day life and keep an eye out for cinematic shadows and interesting compositions. But why is it, that so many photographers dislike this time of the day in the first place?

The Problem with direct sunlight in portraits
Portraits entstanden aus dem Shooting mit Carolyn tsk (instagram) und dem Schauspieler, Portrait und Sedcard Fotograf Daniel Schubert in München beim Ostbahnhof in München als Portfolio-Erweiterung.
Portrait with Carolyn at the Ostbahnhof in Munich, as you can see, the sunlight warming her back gives her silhouette a nice glow.
ISO 200, 1/640 seconds, f4 – 35 mm

First, direct sunlight is very, very bright. What that means is, without an ND filter (sunglasses for the lens so to speak) you can forget about beautiful bokeh (a depth of field, as you know it from classic portrait photography). Even with a shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second, you can’t open the lens far enough to get a decent depth of field. In my work as a portrait photographer, like most of my colleagues, I love depth of field. The only fix is either an ND filter or analogue photography with a film and an ISO value below 100.

To make matters worse, direct sunlight doesn’t illuminate the face as flattering as one might think. Anyone who was walking on the sidewalk on a warm summer’s day and thought, “I’ll take a nice selfie with the warm sun on my face” has probably given their ego a low blow: Completely cold-lit skin that reveals every impurity and the facial expression, the pinched look and highlighted dark circles under the eyes doesn’t really help either.

The fact that the direct midday sun doesn’t do the face any favors, you can forget the bokeh and have a harder time to isolate your model without an ND filter and there is relatively little atmosphere/drama (like a red sunset or a golden morning has to offer), it is reason enough for most available light photographers in the portrait area to completely avoid portrait shoots on clear summer days between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Here is one huge problem with this restriction, people who are not into photography, think this must be the best time for portraits, since it’s warm and sunny right? And they might hire you and plan their available light shooting around the midday sun, so unless you want to be an Instagram fame photographer only working with models in the evening sun or neon light (you might have a little competition there but hey stay positive), sooner or later, you’ll have to make peace with this hot glowing orange ball in the sky. Guess what, you might even get some unique portraits from it if you do.

Learn from other genres of photography when approaching harsh sunlight

But what the direct, cloudless midday sun has to offer that no other light can, are contrasts with hard shadows and bright light. There is a species of photographer who is particularly happy about this.

Portraits entstanden aus dem Shooting mit Carolyn tsk (instagram) und dem Schauspieler, Portrait und Sedcard Fotograf Daniel Schubert in München beim Ostbahnhof in München als Portfolio-Erweiterung.
You can use direct sunlight not just as a backlight but also to create dramatic contrasts in a portrait.
ISO 100, 1/500 Second, f5 – 15 mm

Architecture and street photographers love to work with hard shadows. The unique, clear shapes, the highlighted lines of buildings illuminated by the sun or light reflected in glass are fantastic for architectural photography. Street photographers also appreciate the deep shadows and clear lines of light to isolate people in the big city and as a tool to capture painterly silhouettes.

Chinese photographer Fan Ho perfected this type of black and white street photography in the last decade and even today, is still one of the most influential photographers in the entire genre. Fun side note: He used the bathtub in his apartment to develop his own film, speaking of:

Step out of the comfort of your apartment

Actually while writing this headline I looked outside at a beautiful sky realizing I haven’t even left my flat today, oh sweet Irony. But let’s get back on topic: Portrait and available light photographers, vloggers and influencers have already learned that it is precisely this harsh contrast between light and shadow of the midday sun that can be tamed in a building, room or attic in combination with a window for very contrast rich and moody shoots. But why stop there?

Definitely one of my favorites from the shooting, I just love how the shadows make this portrait dramatic give this strong contrast between the upper and lower corner of the frame.
ISO 100, 1/500 Second, f5 – 15 mm

Hard shadows from buildings, trees or subway entrances can be used to shoot atmospheric portraits. As a photographer, in my experience inspired by street and architectural photography, the most important “rules” to keep in mind are:

  • Use a wideangle lense to be able to capture as many dramatic shadows as you want
  • If you should decide on a wider composition try to avoid hard shadow contrasts on the face, if you work with a more narrow composition, work with them instead
  • Move a lot, because sometimes the portrait looks very great just from a slightly different angle than the one you are standing in
  • Prefer RAW-files over the standard JPEG-files if you have the means to process those, since they give you more freedom getting details from shadowy areas when editing them in post-production
  • And of course, keep an eye for exciting light/shadow compositions

Learn from the experience of other photographers

A last one and for a change not a digital portrait but an analogue shot with an old leica.
Cinestil 50d 35 mm

And as a last Advice: As a portrait photographer, I’m just a grain of sand in the desert. Check out what other photographers have to say on the subject. Youtube is my go-to for 90% of my photography questions. Therefore, at the end of this segment, I would like to introduce you to three great videos that deal with photography in direct sunlight.

The first video is from the photographer Jessica Kobeissi and deals, among other things, with how underexposing helps to prevent the resulting overexposed highlights on the face, how you can help your model not to go blind and why you should always wear ironed clothes in direct sunlight.

The second video is the aforementioned video by the photographer Peter MCKinnon, which motivated me to try out portraits in direct sunlight.

And Lastly not directly about portraits but for me the most important of the three videos is this one about Chiaroscuro by the English portrait and street photographer Jamie Windsor. This short, almost philosophical video is about why strong light / shadow contrasts are fantastic as a stylistic device.

That was a lot of theory now, but I hope that I could shed some light (obvious pun I know) into the dark on the subject. Obviously I wouldn’t advise you to try practice all of those advices and tricks, rather take it slow and try one after the other until you feel comfortable and move ahead from that point. If you would like to be portrayed from moi in direct sunlight: Here you can read how I prepare a shooting and what you can expect. I also coach people directly, so if you are interested, here are the details.

Have a great day and have fun taking pictures

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