" / > " / > Picture This: Harsh Light of Day | December 2019 | TPW magazine
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Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Bright, sunny days present photography challenges such as shadows on faces.


The Harsh Light of Day

Shooting in bright sunlight requires techniques to offset sun and shadows.

By Earl Nottingham

It was a gorgeous day! The sun was out and not a cloud in the sky! It seemed like the perfect time to get the kiddos outdoors to shoot some portraits with that brand new camera. The resulting photos, however, were a disappointment. The bright sun resulted in squinted eyes and solid black shadows that covered portions of faces under hats and caps — not the result you were expecting when you snapped the photo. You fell into the trap that even the most seasoned professional photographer falls into periodically, especially when the only opportunity to get a photo is in bright sunlit conditions.

The discrepancy lies in how our eyes see a sunlit subject and how the camera “sees” it — a result of the limitations of the camera sensor or a film’s dynamic range. Our cameras have the ability to record a wide range of light intensities, but it’s nothing compared to our remarkable human eyes, which can discriminate detail in the brightest areas (highlights) as well as the darkest shadows of a scene.

When shooting, we must make a choice of exposing the photo for the brightest/sunlit part of the subject, which will render the shadows black, or increasing the exposure to get detail in the shadows, which conversely results in rendering the brighter parts of the image overexposed (often completely white). Most auto-exposure settings on cameras will try to find a compromise between the two extremes — sometimes acceptable, other times not.

So what are some simple solutions to increase the odds of taking a pleasant portrait under harsh lighting conditions?

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

Most cameras provide a built-in flash that can add light to shadow areas.

Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD

A fill-flash can soften shadow areas of a face in bright sunlight.

Photo by Earl Nottingham / TPWD

A reflector can be used to bounce sunlight back onto a subject.

One of the simplest options is to use the built-in flash available on most cameras to provide a fill-flash. Fill-flash does exactly what its name implies — it simply fills in a little light to the shadow areas of a face or subject to add detail and bring that area’s intensity up in relation to the sunlit portion. It is not meant to overpower the sunlight but to add a little “kiss” of light to the shadows.

The next option is to turn the subject completely around so the face is in shadow. While this may seem counterintuitive, it will help eliminate squints, and the lighting will be much softer, albeit somewhat flat. The bright sunlight behind the subject will become a backlight and can provide a nice effect in highlighting the hair and shoulders. However, with this method, faces can look a little blueish since they are shaded and being lit by the blue sky. Luckily, the auto white-balance feature on many cameras will correct the color in this situation.

The last option is a variation of the previous method of facing the subject away from the sun, and is typically used by professionals. It involves using any type of reflective surface, usually silver or white, to bounce some of the sunlight back onto the face of the subject. Reflectors run the gamut of designs and prices, from foldable models that can fit into a backpack to a white sheet to a piece of foam board. A reflector can easily be repositioned to find the most pleasing lighting on the subject but usually requires an assistant to hold it or the use of a rigid, wind-resistant stand.

There are many additional methods of modifying light to shoot in harsh sunlight such as diffusion screens and supplemental flashes. However, for practical (and enjoyable) shooting at home, in the park or in the field, the methods outlined above can make a big difference in your people pictures.

For more tips on outdoor photography, visit the magazine’s photography page at www.tpwmagazine.com/photography.



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