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How We Capture Stunning Portraits in Harsh Midday Sun

Picture of All images by Pursell Photography. 
All images by Pursell Photography. 

Quality Photography Experience That Is Different.

At Pursell Photography, we specialize in creating beautiful, timeless images for our clients, even in the most challenging lighting conditions like harsh midday sun. Through a combination of technical expertise, creative problem-solving, and years of experience, we consistently deliver stunning results that exceed expectations. In this article, we’ll share our secrets for working with direct sunlight to capture portraits you’ll value forever.

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Understanding the Challenges of Midday Sun

The first step in successfully photographing in harsh midday sun is understanding how the light behaves. Direct sunlight creates strong shadows, especially under the eyes, nose, and chin. It can also cause subjects to squint, leading to unflattering expressions. To counteract these issues, we use a variety of techniques:

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  • Finding shade: Whenever possible, we seek out areas of open shade, such as under a tree or near a building. This helps to soften the light and reduce the intensity of the shadows. Open shade provides even, diffused lighting that is much more flattering for portraits than direct sunlight. It eliminates harsh shadows and bright hot spots, creating a soft, natural look.
  • Using fill lights: By strategically placing fill lights, we can bounce light back onto our subjects, filling in shadows and creating a more even light distribution. In a worst-case scenario, we can also use fill lights to block the harsh light and provide shade for our subjects. Fill lights come in different sizes, shapes, and colours, each providing a different effect. A white fill light provides a soft, neutral fill light, while a silver fill light intensifies the light and can help to brighten shadows, and a gold fill lights add a warm, golden glow to the skin.
  • Backlighting: Positioning our subjects with the sun behind them can create a beautiful, glowing effect. We use this technique to add depth and dimension to our images and balance the scene by using our fill lights to bounce light back onto the subject’s face. Backlighting can be tricky to master, as it requires careful exposure control to avoid overexposing the background or underexposing the subject. However, when done correctly, it can create a stunning, almost ethereal look.

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Choosing the Right Locations

Another key aspect of photographing in the harsh midday sun is selecting the right locations. We scout our shooting locations in advance, looking for areas that offer a mix of open shade and interesting backgrounds. Some of our favourite spots include:

  • Tree-lined paths: The dappled light filtering through the leaves creates a beautiful, natural effect. The trees provide both shade and visually interesting background, with the light peeking through the leaves creating a lovely bokeh effect. We often use a wide aperture to blur the background and make our subjects stand out. See forest locations

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  • Urban environments: Buildings and structures can provide shade and add visual interest to the background. The clean lines and geometric shapes of urban architecture can create a modern, sophisticated look. We look for areas where the buildings cast large areas of shade, or where we can use the structures to block the direct sunlight.

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  • Gardens and parks: Lush greenery and colourful flowers can help to soften the light and create a romantic atmosphere. Gardens are especially beautiful in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky and the light is warmer. We look for areas with even shade, such as under a large tree or beside a tall hedge. See garden wedding venues.

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In addition to these specific locations, we also keep an eye out for unique features that can add interest to our images. A rustic wooden fence, a colourful mural, or a stunning vista can all make for memorable portrait backgrounds. The key is to find a balance between a visually appealing setting and one that provides good lighting for our subjects.

Balancing the Scene with Light

One of the key techniques we use to create stunning photos in the harsh midday sun is balancing the scene with light. This involves using a combination of backlighting and fill lights to even out the contrast and create a more flattering light on our subjects.

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When backlighting, we position the sun behind our subjects, which can create a beautiful rim light effect. However, this also means that the front of our subjects will be in shadow. To balance this, we use fill lights to bounce light back onto their faces, filling in the shadows and creating a more even exposure.

We also pay close attention to the angle of the light and how it falls on our subjects. By carefully positioning them in relation to the sun and using fill lights to shape the light, we can create flattering highlights and shadows that enhance their features and add depth to the image.

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For example, if we’re shooting a close-up portrait, we might position the subject so that the sun is slightly behind and to the side of them. This creates a lovely rim light on their hair and shoulders, while the fill light fills in the shadows on their face. We might also use a second fill light to add a catchlight to their eyes, making them sparkle and come alive.

If we’re shooting a full-length portrait, we might position the subject so that the sun is directly behind them, creating a strong backlight. We then use a large fill light to bounce light back onto their front, illuminating their face and clothing. This technique can create a very dramatic, high-contrast look.

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The key to balancing the scene with light is to constantly observe how the light is falling on your subject and make adjustments as needed. It’s a dance between the sun, the fill lights, and your subject’s position, and it requires a keen eye and quick reflexes. But when done correctly, it can create truly stunning images that would be impossible to achieve in direct sunlight alone.

Why to Avoid Direct Sunlight on Your Face

When shooting portraits in the harsh midday sun, it’s important to avoid having direct sunlight on your subject’s face. Here’s why:

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  • Unflattering shadows: Direct sunlight from above creates strong, harsh shadows on the face, especially under the eyes, nose, and chin. These shadows accentuate imperfections like wrinkles, blemishes and uneven skin tones, resulting in unflattering portraits. The contrast between the bright highlights and deep shadows can be very difficult to even out in post-processing, often requiring extensive retouching.
  • Squinting and discomfort: When the sun is shining directly into your subject’s eyes, it causes them to squint, which leads to an unnatural, uncomfortable expression. Squinting also creates more wrinkles around the eyes. Not only does this look unflattering, but it can also make your subject feel uncomfortable and self-conscious, which can negatively impact their mood and expressions throughout the shoot.
  • Overexposed highlights: Direct sunlight can cause overexposed bright spots on the face, like the forehead and cheeks. These blown-out highlights lack detail and can be distracting in the final image. They can also make the skin look shiny and oily, rather than smooth and matte.
  • Uneven lighting: When the sun is overhead, one side of the face may be much brighter than the other, creating a strong contrast that is difficult to even out in post-processing. This can be especially problematic for group shots, where some people may be in direct sun while others are in shade, leading to a very unbalanced and distracting image.

To avoid these issues, we always try to position our subjects so that their faces are not in direct sunlight. This might mean having them face away from the sun, or using a fill light or diffuser to soften the light. We also pay attention to the angle of the sun and try to shoot when it’s lower in the sky, such as early morning or late afternoon, when the light is more flattering. See how we use flash

Posing and Composition

In addition to managing the light and choosing the right locations, we also pay close attention to posing and composition. We work with our clients to create natural, relaxed poses that flatter their features and showcase their personalities. Some tips we keep in mind:

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  • Avoid direct sunlight on the face: As mentioned earlier, we position our subjects so that the sun is not shining directly into their eyes, which can cause squinting and harsh shadows. Instead, we have them face away from the sun or use a fill light to soften the light on their face.
  • Use the environment: We look for ways to incorporate the environment into our compositions, using leading lines, framing, and depth of field to create interest and guide the viewer’s eye. For example, we might position our subject in a doorway or archway, using the frame to draw attention to them. Or we might have them lean against a tree or sit on a bench, using the natural elements to add texture and depth to the image.
  • Interact with the subject: We engage with our subjects throughout the shoot, asking them questions, cracking jokes, and giving them prompts to elicit genuine expressions and reactions. We find that when our subjects are relaxed and having fun, it shows in their photos.
  • Capture candid moments: Some of the most beautiful and authentic images are those that capture genuine emotions and interactions. We encourage our clients to relax and enjoy the moment, and we stay ready to capture those candid shots.[1] This might mean shooting continuously as they walk and talk, or quickly snapping a shot when they burst into laughter.
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  • Experiment with different angles: We don’t just shoot everything from eye level. We get low, we get high, we shoot from the side – we experiment with different angles to create more dynamic and interesting compositions. This can also help to minimize unflattering shadows and highlight our subject’s best features.
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By combining these posing and composition techniques with our lighting strategies, we’re able to create portraits that are both flattering and visually compelling, even in the harsh midday sun. See some of our award-winning photos

To Get the Most Out of Your Portraits

To ensure that you get the most out of your midday photo session, here are some tips to keep in mind:

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  1. Trust your photographer: We have the experience and expertise to guide you through the process and create beautiful images, even in challenging lighting conditions. Trust us to choose the right locations, poses, and lighting setups to flatter you and showcase your personality.
  2. Communicate your vision: Let us know what kind of images you’re hoping to create, and share any inspirational photos we have taken or ideas you have. The more we understand your vision, the better we can bring it to life.
  3. Be open to different locations: While you may have a specific spot in mind, trust us to suggest locations that will work best for the time of day and lighting conditions. We may suggest a spot you hadn’t considered that will create a beautiful backdrop for your photos.
  4. Embrace the shade: Don’t be afraid to step into the shade for a portion of your photos. The even lighting can be very flattering. It can also provide a nice contrast to the brighter, sunlit images, giving you a variety of looks to choose from.
  5. Wear appropriate clothing: Choose clothing that is comfortable and fits well. Avoid busy patterns or neon colours, which can be distracting in photos. Solid colours and muted tones tend to photograph best, and it’s a good idea to bring a few different options to mix and match. See what to wear
  6. Be prepared for touch-ups: In harsh midday sun, you may need to touch up your makeup or hair more frequently. Bring along a powder compact, lipstick, and hairspray for quick fixes. We also recommend bringing a water bottle and snacks to stay hydrated and energized throughout the shoot.
  7. Have fun: Above all, remember to relax and have fun! Your joy and personality will shine through in your photos, so don’t be afraid to let loose and enjoy the experience.

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How We Deal with the Harsh Midday Sun

At Pursell Photography, we have developed several techniques to work with harsh midday sun and create stunning photos for our clients:

  1. Backlighting: We often position our subjects with the sun behind them. This creates a beautiful rim light effect that adds depth and dimension to the image. However, backlighting can leave the subject’s face in shadow. To balance this, we use fill lights to bounce light back onto their face, evening out the exposure and filling in unflattering shadows under the eyes, nose and chin.
  2. Finding open shade: Whenever possible, we seek out large areas of open shade, like under a big tree or the shadow of a building. The key is having an area of shade big enough to evenly light the subject without dappled light or colour casts from nearby objects. Shooting in open shade provides soft, flattering light on the face even when the sun is harsh.
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  3. Diffusers and fill lights: If we must shoot in direct sun, we’ll have an assistant hold a diffuser to soften the light hitting the subject’s face. Then we use a fill light, carefully positioned, to bounce light and fill in shadows. The colour of fill light matters – white provides soft fill, silver is stronger and has higher contrast, while gold warms up the light.
  4. Embracing the light: In some situations, we intentionally use the high contrast of the midday sun for creative effect. Placing the subject in a spot of direct sun against a deeply shaded background creates a dramatic, spotlight-like effect that makes them pop. Or we shoot in black and white to emphasize bold shapes and lines.
  5. Avoiding direct sun on the face: Most importantly, we are always mindful never to have our subjects looking up into the sun, which causes squinting and harsh shadows. We position them carefully and use backlighting, shade, and fill lights to put flattering light on their face while leveraging the sun behind or to the side for visual interest.

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By combining these techniques strategically based on the location and subject, we can create beautiful, evenly lit images in even the most challenging midday light. Our expertise allows us to embrace the harsh sun as an opportunity for creativity rather than a limitation.

Timing Your Most Important Moments

While we have the skills and techniques to capture stunning portraits at any time of day, there’s no denying that the quality of light is most beautiful when the sun is lower in the sky, such as during sunrise or sunset. This is especially true in British Columbia, where the sun’s angle can create particularly harsh shadows during midday.

If you have the flexibility, we highly recommend scheduling your most important photo sessions, such as wedding portraits or family photos, closer to sunrise or sunset. The soft, warm light during these times is incredibly flattering and can add a romantic, dreamy quality to your images.

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However, we understand that timing isn’t always flexible, especially for events like weddings. In these cases, we rely on our expertise to find the best locations and use techniques like backlighting and fill lights to create beautiful images no matter the time of day.

It’s also worth noting that during cloudy or rainy weather, the quality of light is more even throughout the day. While overcast skies may not be what you envision for your photos, the soft, diffused light can actually be quite flattering and can allow for more flexibility in scheduling your photo session.

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Trust Pursell Photography for Your Wedding and Portrait Needs

At Pursell Photography, we have the skills, experience, and creativity to capture stunning photos in any lighting situation, including the harsh midday sun. Our commitment to understanding light, selecting the perfect locations, and posing our subjects in a flattering manner ensures that you will receive beautiful, timeless images that you will treasure for years to come.

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Whether you’re planning your dream wedding or looking to update your family portraits, trust Pursell Photography to deliver exceptional results. Contact us today to schedule your consultation and experience the difference that our expertise can make.

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