Tips for mastering the sunlight in your outdoor photography

Knowing how to make the most out of sunlight in your outdoor photographs can be daunting, particularly at midday when the bright sunshine threatens your subject with hard shadows and squinty eyes! I decided to go on a little sunlight odyssey with my lovely model, Amy, from midday to sunset to show you some great tips to master the sunshine.

NB: Doesn’t Amy look amazing in her $8.00 op-shop dress! For those of you who love to budget, full outfit and props for this session came to a very tidy $60!

Midday sun tips

How to place the sun to your subject

Ignore the old Irish blessing for your midday photographs; at this time of day don’t let the sun warm your subjects face! The only exception to this rule is if your subjects chin is tilted upwards towards the sun with their eyes closed – this can be a truly spectacular pose. In all other circumstances, the best place for the sun is on your subjects back or slightly to their left or right – imagine the sun as a lovely convenient hair light.

Overexpose

With a strong hair light around your subject your camera’s auto metering will most likely underexpose your subject (depending of course on how you set up your cameras metering – I mainly use matrix metering). To give your subject’s skin tones the right exposure, dial in a few stops of overexposure and keep experimenting until you get the look you like. You could also use your cameras ‘spot metering’ setting and select your subjects skin.

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A few stops of overexposure added, with Amy’s back to the sun. As the background was mainly in shade, this created a nice detailed darker backdrop contrasting the bright hair light, helping to separate Amy.
Sun to back close up
A close up of the above lighting setup.

Use fill flash

Pop in a bit of fill flash, either on or off camera, to boost your subject. Sometimes I love the addition of a little flash, but other times I prefer the more bleached background look of a photograph.

Fill flash on camera example
Some on camera fill flash allows you to more accurately expose your backdrop, whilst still keeping your subject correctly metered. To improve the flash lighting, I could have taken the flash off camera and diffused it with an umbrella or portable soft box – even bouncing it off a reflector can be quite effective.
No flash over exposed
Personally, for this setup, I like no flash and some overexposure.

Look for natural reflectors

A white or light grey surface can help add some fill to your back lit subjects. This could be a path, building, even sand!

Make the most of the shade

Shade is your friend, even and diffused – You cannot go wrong with the shade 🙂

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Shade creates lovely even light.

Carefully place your subject in streaks of sunshine

My favourite thing to do is find patchy shade and place my subject so that their front is in shade with their back in a streak of sunshine. If the background has patches of sunlight and shadow it adds more backdrop to your photo instead of the ‘blown out background’ look.

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The sun is high in the sky slightly to Amy’s right shoulder, this creates a nice side rim light. The mottled shade helps to bring out the background. This image is slightly overexposed to achieve correctly exposed skin tones.
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I have placed Amy so the streak of sunshine falls across her back. I just keep moving her subtly until her face fell in shade and then overexposed the photo slightly.

Blow out under eye shadows with flash

It is possible to use flash to blast away your subjects pesky under eye shadows if the sun is directly overhead, but its not always practical. If it is at all possible, I would generally avoid having to do this – often the subjects expression isn’t ideal under these light conditions. The majority of the time you can just move your subject so the sun is slightly to their back, side or find a patch of shade.

Late afternoon through to sunset tips

We all love the golden hour, but the light preceding this can be pretty powerful, so knowing how to harness it is a useful art!

Fill flash like a champ

Be it remote or on camera – even flash, against this intensive light may only make a bit of a dent. But it can make a wonderful difference.

001 Photography lighting tips
Photographed using on camera fill flash just to bring Amy out a little.
Remote fill flash at full power
This is a great example of photographing against really strong afternoon light. I placed a remote flash at full power to the left of the frame and underexposed the photo very slightly to get a little more background detail. The flash enabled me to bring out a bit of detail on Amy, otherwise she would have been a silhouette, but it was still no real match for the power of the sun. If I had wanted a greater level of underexposure for a more dramatic background I would have needed the light of an additional flash or to move my flash much closer to Amy. And to avoid the lens flare and blowout, I would have needed to change my angle of shooting – personally I quite like sun spots & sun bleached look!

Overexpose

As with the midday sun, at anytime of the day you can place the sun behind your subject or slightly to the left or right and get your overexposure on!

Get your over exposure on
No flash just a few stops of overexposure.

Imagine the sun is a studio spotlight

Maybe its because I began my passion for photography in a studio, but I tend to imagine the sun as a powerful single tungsten light. While the sun is on these lovely late afternoon angles you can move your model to create some dramatic portrait lighting. You may need to slightly underexpose your cameras auto metering with this setup.

Sun as a studio light bw
This reminds me of dramatic vintage Hollywood lighting. Although there are some harsh shadows, carefully placed these are elegant and dramatic. TIP: If you are capturing open eyes, have your model keep their eyes closed until your about to hit the shutter – that way you don’t blind them with the harsh afternoon sun!
Sun as a studio light new
The sun is quite low in the sky directly shining on Amy’s face, by asking her to tilt her chin downwards we get some gorgeous cheek bone shadows.

Create your own shade

Either ask a friend to jump in with a reflector to create some shade or experiment with posing your model to create their own.

Sun as studio light 2
Even a little self created shade can look lovely.
The trials of modelling
…and just in case you wondered how tough it is to walk carefully through a field of wheat ?

Have fun with silhouettes

As the sun sets, shooting against the sun with no change to your cameras auto metering will create some lovely silhouettes.

silhouettes

Run free during the golden hour

With this soft light, its pretty hard to go wrong at any angle. The light can fall directly onto your subject, or to their side to create some lovely images. I usually over expose a little to keep them bright and airy.

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001 Soft golden hour light

After sunset

No need for explanation, this light is some of my very favourite. Don’t forget to keep checking your exposures – it gets dark super quick.

After sunset

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