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Time Out With Tanya

5 Tips for Taking Natural Light Portraits at High Noon

By Tanya Goodall Smith on July 10th 2014

Welcome to Time Out with Tanya, where I’ve put my fast paced graphic design career on hold in favor of adventures in motherhood. I’m capturing every moment on camera and you can come along, if you’d like. Sign up for my weekly email here so you’ll never miss a Time Out.

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!

1. Avoid it

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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

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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

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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 DVD for more tips on shooting in natural light.

Tanya Goodall Smith is the owner, brand strategist and commercial photographer at WorkStory Corporate Photography in Spokane, Washington. WorkStory creates visual communications that make your brand irresistible to your target market. Join the stock photo rebellion at workstoryphotography.com.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Aaron Cheney

    I like to bring a scrim along with me to help if I can’t find shaded areas

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  2. Rafael Steffen

    Another great wedding photographer to check out regarding natural light is Cliff Mautner. He is a true master at natural light wedding photography.

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  3. Ian Moss

    Tip No. 1, absolutely,but remember to have the camera in open shadow as well.

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  4. Asad Qayyum

    Great post Tanya. Very useful.

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  5. Tanya Smith

    Thanks for all the great comments, guys!

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  6. Phil Bautista

    Great tips for the casual tourist looking to improve photos but tied to the family sched. It’s not always easy finding the best time to shoot and tips like these help one out in making the best of a bad situation.

    p.s. If you can’t find any shade and have to shoot out under the sun because you want to capture the background, then pop the flash or use a reflector to fill in the shadows. Even the pop up flash helps a great deal if you’re close enough to your subject.

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  7. Mark Mirandilla

    thank you for sharing. great tutorial.

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  8. Anthony McFarlane

    Nice article. I own the Natural Light DVD and it is great!

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  9. Kent Gresham

    I just used used the graduate filter to fix some harsh foreground flash when I illuminated the subject at the close of the second curtain while dragging the shutter. It worked perfectly.

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  10. MARTIN MIANO

    Great article i agree with advice number 1 very much…… the rest come in handy when you have got no otherwise

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  11. Jeff Lopez

    Thanks so much for this info, my biggest fear is harsh sunlight so these tips will come in handy!

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  12. Anthony Thurston

    Great post Tanya, #1 is the best. lol

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