I spent last week camping near the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Amazing! Even though doing a portrait shoot in the middle of a camping trip was not ideal, I really wanted to take some maternity photos of my sister, who I don’t get to see very often. We had to make it work with the sun directly overhead in a very remote location. I’m hoping you never find yourself in this situation, but if you do, hopefully my 5 tips for taking natural light portraits at high noon will help you out!
Watch the Video
In this video, we’ll cover basic tips on how to get consistent, flattering yet vibrant and dramatic portraits in almost any environment using a touch of sun for backlighting.
1. Avoid it
My number one tip for taking natural light portraits when the sun is directly overhead is to not do it. Haha. In all seriousness, if you’re relying solely on available light, the middle of the day is not the best time to photograph a person. The light will be harsh and create shadows under the eyes and accentuate every wrinkle and blemish on the face. Not to mention blown out highlights, dark shadows, etc.
The above image was shot during the “golden hour” just before sunset and without any modification to the light, I was able to capture some gorgeous shots of this engaged couple. (P.S. This engagement shoot went so smoothly, thanks to all the tips I picked up from the SLR Lounge Natural Light Couples Workshop DVD. Click here to view more details) If at all possible, I try to schedule my outdoor shoots when the light and weather will hopefully cooperate. Sometimes schedules, weather and locations let you down, though, which is why it’s a good idea to have some tricks under your belt if you find yourself stuck without artificial lighting options at high noon…
2. Find Open Shade
The first thing I look for if the ambient light is terrible, is open shade. Unfortunately, on my maternity shoot with Tyeanna, we had a very limited window of time for our mini shoot and we were stuck in a remote location in the woods (long story) without a lot of options. No problem. (FYI, I was shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III body and Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 II lens). I just found a patch of shade in a wooded area and moved my subject around until we found a spot that didn’t cast any bright spots of light on her. This is something to watch out for when photographing under the shade of trees or bushes. You don’t want your subjects to look splotchy! The only other option we had for shade was a tiny sliver of it underneath the roof of a shed. It wasn’t ideal, but we made it work.
3. Create Shade
If you can’t find any shade, and you can always create some! During my maternity shoot, I was really kicking myself for not bringing my 5-in-1 reflector, which could have been used to create some shade. An umbrella, canopy or other similar device would have been helpful. If you think you might be shooting in direct sun often, you might consider getting a scrim. You can buy one for about $100. Or, follow the instructions in our article to MAKE YOUR OWN DIY SCRIM FOR UNDER $50.
4. Expose for the Face
When shooting in bright sunlight, even if you’ve managed to find some open shade, the meter in your camera (depending on which metering mode you’re using) will probably pick up the bright background and cause you to underexpose your image. Here you can see my test image, when metering for the overall scene, was underexposed. I like to use spot metering and meter for the face of my subject. When I meter for the face and slow the shutter speed down, it’s much better!
You might end up with some blown out highlights in the background, but I have an easy fix for that in Lightroom…
5. Fix it in Post Production
Here’s a straight out of camera image from my “middle of the day” maternity shoot. When I expose for the face, the background on the right there is a little too over exposed.
To fix it, first I make my normal adjustments in Lightroom, including exposure, a little vignetting and for this image I used the Amber Neutral Punch preset from the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System to warm it up a bit.
Then I use a graduated filter to adjust the exposure on that right side. I prefer to use the graduated filter instead of a brush in this case, when I’m covering a large area, because it’s super quick!
Here’s the final image. Honestly, I would have preferred to do this shoot under better circumstances, but I was able to create some really cute portraits in spite of our limitations, because I knew what I needed to do to avoid the problems caused by the blazing noon day sun. Even if you don’t primarily photograph couples, I recommend you check out the SLR Lounge Natural Light Couples Workshop in SLR Lounge Premium.
Every portrait photographer seems to dread sunlight like it’s the devil. Why? Well, partly because it can be extremely un-flattering, but also partly because most photographers just don’t have a sure-fire method for using sunlight to get consistently acceptable results. Heck, if you can overcome the fear of harsh sunlight, sometimes a little touch of sun can make an image look even better than soft (but dull) shade! We hope this tutorial and video helped you on your natural light photography journey.