6 Tips for Shooting in Harsh Light


I used to be really afraid of shooting in harsh light. I was always hoping for fog when I had mid-day shoots in San Francisco, and I tried to schedule most of my shoots for golden hour. Golden hour is magical - there's no doubt about that. But I think shooting in harsh light (direct sunlight) is magical in its own way. So much so, in fact, that I have started to intentionally schedule some shoots around 11am or 2pm.


1. Keep your subject's face in the shade. Face your subject away from the sun to keep their face tone even. This, of course, is a rule that is also super fun to break when you get comfortable with this process. Try having a shadow created by a building or some sort of structure bisect their face; this can have a really interesting effect!

2. Expose for the highlights. The look I love involves exposing for the highlights (e.g., the brightest thing in your frame isn't blown out & all the details are preserved) and raising the shadows in post. In most cases, your subject will be the shadow, so they'll look dark in camera, but you'll lift the shadows in post.

3. Find a location that has shade and sun, if possible. It's always nice to have a shady place to resort to in case the harsh light isn't working out so well. Plus, if it is super bright out, there's a good chance that you'll get some nice bounced light on their face from the bright ground in front of them. Urban settings are often better for harsh light (rather than an open field where there's no escape) because there are tons of nice lines and angles to play with, and there tends to be shade somewhere (i.e., one side of a building) at any time of day.


4. Hats and sunglasses are your friends. Hats naturally frame the face and tend to ensure that the subject is nicely shaded (as stated in tip #1). I always tell people to bring hats and sunglasses when we're going to be shooting in harsh light so that we have always some portable shade, per se. Sunglasses will help with squintiness. Or, just have your subject tilt their head and close their eyes (I call this the "daydreaming" pose).

5. Spotty clouds are the best. They add interest if you're shooting the sky and make the image less overwhelmingly full of blue. Even though they usually aren't diffusing the light unless they're directly in front of the sun (in which case, you're standing in shadow), they somehow seem to make the harsh light just a bit softer. Whenever there's a day with big, puffy white clouds, I head out with my camera to take advantage of the dimensional scenery.

6. Know when to use it. If you're being paid to make someone look their best, shooting them in harsh light is probably not the way to go. I use harsh light for more fashion-based work, but I try my best to avoid it for portrait clients. When you're trying to showcase someone's beauty, the best thing to do is find some diffused or bounced light, or stick with golden hour.

What time of day do you prefer to take photos?

If you struggle with editing in harsh light, check out Pop! Candy Presets for Lightroom presets designed to flourish in mid-day sun.