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How to Shoot Portraits in Harsh Sunlight

By Michelle Ecker on July 10, 2019

How to Shoot Portraits in Harsh Sunlight

As a portrait photographer, it’s your responsibility to provide clients with the best possible outcomes, regardless of any external factors that might get in your way. Maybe a baby is having a meltdown during a family portrait session or it starts to rain during an outdoor shoot. Regardless, a part of your job is to think on the go and solve these problems as best your capable so that you can leave the session with a card full of images to take to post production for your clients. 

When it comes to customers who prefer outdoor photos rather than ones taken in your studio, this can get a bit tricky given the unpredictability of the weather. On one hand, we know that as photographers we can plan our shoots accordingly and consider the sunrise and sunset for taking pictures at a time when the sun isn’t beating down so harshly. However, if you’re coordinating with your client’s schedules and they’re unable to accommodate making the session work early in the morning or later in the afternoon, you will have to use your best techniques in order to adjust for any tricky sunlight situations. So if your clients insist on a 3 p.m. appointment when the sun is at its strongest, here are some techniques for shooting portraits in harsh sunlight. 

Work in Manual Mode 

While most photographers are admittedly more comfortable working in automatic, when the sunlight is at its absolute strongest casting heavy, intense glares and shadows on your subjects, working in manual mode will help you properly expose for your clients’ skin tones. 

Even though automatic mode has become more advanced over the years and your device will try as best it can to adjust on its own, what’s most likely going to happen is that your camera will overcompensate for all of the really bright light it’s reading. As a result, it will adjust by underexposing the subjects in your images. By working in manual mode and adjusting exposure yourself,  you essentially have the ability to be smarter than your camera and correct it from making that adjustment. This is the best way to make sure your subjects don’t appear underexposed with inaccurate skin tones. 

Try a Wider Aperture 

Like we mentioned above, the biggest challenge of shooting portraits in harsh sunlight is that creates harsh shadows on your subjects’ skin. As a result, this tends to emphasize small details like blemishes, makeup smudges, pores, or any imperfections- exactly the kinds of things your clients were hoping you could use your techniques to help them hide. 

There is a way to fight back against this jarring sunlight’s illumination. Try simply widening your camera’s aperture in an effort to soften the look of your subject’s face, therefore making all these tiny, too-intense details a bit harder to see so jarringly clearly. Getting started, try working somewhere between f/1.2 and f/2.6 for outdoor portraits in super strong light – since you’ll be working in manual mode as we mentioned above, you can toggle back and forth within that range until you find a setting that gives you the results you’re happy with. Keep in mind however, when you widen the aperture, the reason your subject’s face is looking softer is because you’re very subtly taking your camera a bit out of focus. Be sure to pay attention to your composition and keep that in mind, slowing down to properly refocus before you snap the shutter for your final shot. 

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