Shooting portrait photography at high noon can be an intimidating thing for many of us. The light is harsh, contrasty and unflattering. Furthermore, the light in the scene creates unsightly overexposed highlights and deep underexposed shadows. The ‘dynamic range’ of this scene is too much to capture all of the tones in a single frame.
Of course, it’s easier to just avoid high noon for portraits, but sometimes the situation is unavoidable. Don’t worry! You don’t need to bring tons of flashes or studio strobes on location or any expensive equipment to save the shot!
In fact, there are several ways you can conquer this mid-day light using 100% natural light and modifiers. Here I will discuss 5 ways to modify direct sunlight with minimal expense and beautiful results. We will look at this example using a model photographed during my “Conquering Crappy Light” class on creativeLIVE where I covered the ten worst lighting situations on how to conquer them!
Lets take a look at the original image. When the subject is standing in direct sunlight, there is nothing flattering about it. The harsh light brings out all the textures in her skin, makes her squint, and is overall unpleasing to look at.
All of the images included her were photographed with one of my favorite lenses, the Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens. When photographing in direct sunlight, often your backgrounds become very distracting. Always try to frame your image to reduce background distractions and utilize a fast lens (like the Sigma 85mm 1.4) to help blur out the background and give you a more pleasing portrait. A good lens is the first step to a good quality portrait, but we are going to cover lighting solutions.
A great lens is the first step to a good quality portrait, but let’s take a look at our 5 solutions for conquering direct sunlight.
Turn the subject’s back to the sun, and add a silver reflector.
The first thing you need to do is get the direct sunlight off of the subject’s face. In this situation, the easiest thing to do is turn her around and put the sun to the back of her head. This creates a nice hair light and helps avoid squinting.
If you just turn her around, often the light on her face is too dim compared to the light on her hair, and the hair goes overexposed. Furthermore, there is no contrast or direction of light on the face. This is why we add a reflector to the scene.
In this instance we have added a silver reflector. Notice how the silver reflector helps to bring out her cheekbones and jaw line, and brings the exposure on the face closer to the exposure on the hair.
The most important thing to keep in mind about using a reflector is to be careful of the angle of your reflector. Here we have used a Westcott 30″ silver reflector, held above the model’s head (1.5 feet above). If we hold the reflector her chin like many photographers, she will have ‘monster light’ that will create unsightly highlights under her chin and nose. If we hold the reflector equal to her face, the light will be flat and unflattering. When we raise the reflector above her head, this helps to give directionality to the light and therefore helps to flatter her features by giving them shape.
Notice that this light is crisp and defined, and could even be mistaken for studio light on location!
Turn the subject’s back to the sun, and add a white reflector.
Using the same technique as above, instead of using a silver reflector, simply flip the reflector to the white side. When you use a white reflector, the light will have much less contrast and will gather a lot less light.
Having less contrast gives a softer and more forgiving quality to the light. Notice how the light here looks similar to the light from a softbox. The shadows aren’t as dark or crisp, and the highlights aren’t as bright, but the light is very gentle.
If you have someone with bad skin or you want a more subtle look, a white reflector would be ideal. The high angle of the reflector is still required, but using a white reflector you will need to bring the reflector a lot closer to the subject. Because it doesn’t bounce light as strongly, the reflector will have to be just out of your frame (in this example) to actually bounce any light back into the subject’s face.
Use a diffuser to soften the light.
If you don’t have a reflector, or simply want a different look, diffusing the light is another great solution.
A diffuser allows you to shoot with sunlight on the subjects face, but when you put the diffuser between the subject and the sun it will soften the light and reduce contrast.
Many 5-in-1 reflectors include a diffuser. If you need more coverage or want something that is easier to hold, check out the Westcott 7ft shoot through parabolic umbrella. This umbrella is easy to hold, inexpensive (less than $100) and diffuses a large surface area.
In this image the subject was standing in direct sunlight, but we simply opened the shoot-through umbrella overhead to diffuse the light for a beautiful glow.
Move the subject in the shade.
The easiest way to handle direct sunlight is to put the subject in the shade. I always look for the nearest tree, porch or other large shady area. Once the subject is in the shade, we can use a reflector to bounce light back in to add direction of light and contrast to the face.
In this particular example, no reflectors were necessary. The subject was sitting close to a large area of white concrete. When hit by the sun, the concrete sidewalk naturally bounced light back into her face, helping to brighten it up for a pleasing effect. We call this ‘natural reflectors’, and these are often a great solution for fill-light on a sunny day.
Be aware that not all shade is good shade. At noon you are ideally looking for something called ‘covered shade’ where there is something directly above a subject’s head, blocking the light. If you simply put the subject in the shade of a building (open shade) with nothing overhead, then the open sky (not sun) often casts shadows into the eyes even. Look for some area to block off light from overhead.
Look for a doorway.
One of my favorite solutions is a covered shade solution. At high noon I look for a doorway to stand my subject in. It may be a doorway to a house, or a garage door, or other area of covered shade. Ideally once inside the door there is not light seeping in from the left or right of the subject… and the doorway should be the only source of illumination. If you stand the subject in the door a few feet back from the opening, all of the light in the scene will be coming from directly straight ahead. This often gives a flattering flat-lit situation that is great for any portrait.
Next time you have a portrait at high noon, simply analyze your scene. Which solution will work best for you? Here we’ve covered 5 different ways to handle high noon and create flattering portraits!