How to Photograph in Harsh Sun

Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are now in the throes of summer, which means harsh sunshine for a larger part of the day. While midday sun is generally not ideal for photographs, it isn’t always avoidable. Luckily, there are some simple ways to work around and even with that blazing star and still end up with strong images.

We’ve all heard it many, many times: you should avoid taking photographs during the middle of the day. And it is true that generally speaking, the best time to take photographs is early in the morning or late in the evening when the sun is low and shadows are soft and long. Midday sun produces really high-contrast images with strong highlights and harsh shadows. It usually isn’t the most flattering light for portraits. Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to avoid shooting in the middle of the day. Sometimes, that is the only time clients have available, a wedding is taking place partly at that time, or maybe you can only go for a hike in the afternoon. Shooting in midday sun doesn’t have to be awful, however! There are some easy ways to work with that strong sun to still end up with great photos.

Deal With It

The first, and at times easiest, thing to do is to just deal with it. As I will go into below, there are ways to minimize the impacts of the harsh sun. But sometimes, even those things aren’t options or the best thing to do may even be to use the sun to your advantage. Simply embrace the contrast! High-contrast images can produce some cool and interesting results, so don’t be afraid to go with it! In fact, images with midday sun lend themselves really well to black and white because they are already high contrast. It can be a great way to emphasize lines and shapes, creating really bold images.

Finding backgrounds with striking shapes, lines, and/or color is another great way to lean into and play up the qualities inherent to the midday sun. For scenes that don’t involve humans, finding strong forms in a setting, like architectural lines or trees isolated in a field, can be another good way to utilize harsh sunlight. Or, try shooting low to fill your composition with lots of sky to create a powerful, minimal image.

Find Shade

The next best thing to do is to find shade. Putting your subject in a shady spot will provide soft, even light (and give them a break from the hot sun). The key to this is to find open shade, however. Open shade is a wide area of coverage that will allow you to place your subject away from whatever is providing the shade or anything else that may produce an unwanted color cast. For example, putting a person too close to green leaves will cast a green color onto their skin. It isn’t the most flattering thing and can be difficult to edit out in post.

On the flip side, you can also put your subject directly in the sun with a densely shady spot behind them. This creates a spotlight-like effect. You will still get harsh contrast on the subject itself, of course, but they will generally stand out nicely from the background, and it can create some unique images as a result.

Use a Reflector

A reflector is another great tool to have on hand when dealing with the midday sun. Because the sun will be mostly overhead, dark shadows around the eyes (or on the face in general) are a common thing; a reflector will help remedy that. While you can buy pricey photography-specific reflectors, anything white will honestly do. Posterboard is a great, easily accessible, and cheap option, but you can even use a white shirt in a pinch. Just hold the reflector so it is facing the sun and pointed towards your subject. This will send a surprising amount of light back to your subject and help fill in shadows, resulting in a more flattering portrait.

Editing

Lastly, editing is usually key with these photos. They will have dark shadows and bright highlights, so you’ll need to level those out. I generally underexpose images taken during the middle of the day to avoid highlights being too far gone to recover, so exposure then needs to be brought up in editing. Then, depending on the image, I bring down the highlights so they aren’t so bright and bring up the shadows so they aren’t so dark. The dodge and burn tool is also extremely helpful for these types of images. Dodging the face of the subject to soften the shadows even more will help, and if there are distractingly bright areas, you can burn those in. Midday photos can also be a good time to play around with your edits (provided the shoot allows for it, of course) and dive into the high-contrast realm that is already there.