How to Photograph People in Harsh Midday Light :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph People in Harsh Midday Light

by David Peterson 2 comments

Everyone loves the beautiful, diffused light of the golden hour right before the sunset, but our lives exist outside of that hour. Often, it’s impossible to avoid harsh midday light. The results are blown highlights, severe shadows, and washed out images. Luckily, it is possible to outsmart the sun and the havoc it wreaks on your photography. Here are some things you can do to improve your midday photography.

Keep the light behind your subject.

We all know what happens when we stare into the sun. We squint and scrunch up our faces in unattractive ways that don’t make for a flattering portrait. Unless it is literally high noon, the light is going to be to one side of your subject or the other. Simply figure out which way the sun is moving and turn your subject or subjects away from it. This is called backlighting. It should be noted that when you use this lighting method, you will overexpose the background. The intensity of the overexposure will depend on the intensity of the light.

Meter for the Face.

If you are shooting with a camera that has the option to select the light metering mode, use spot-metering. Spot metering allows you to select a specific spot within your frame upon which to base your settings to properly expose your photo. In harsh lighting, a camera’s default metering method, usually called evaluative metering or matrix metering, takes all the light in the frame into account when measuring the exposure. In bright light, the camera is going to expose for the sky which will leave faces in the dark. Spot metering for the face helps to avoid unwanted facial shadows.

Counteract the shadows.

Bright, direct light is notorious for creating hard shadows. The only way to really get rid of those, outside of seeking out some shade or taking it inside, is to add more light. It may seem counter intuitive but it’s how we chase away the shadows. Something as simple as a reflector can bounce light onto your subject’s face. Another option would be to use a flash to fill in the shadows. If you are using the built in flash on your camera, use a diffuser as the harsh light from a direct flash will do more harm than good because it’ll add shadows of its own creation. If you don’t have a diffuser, simply holding a sheet of white paper in front of your flash as it fires should soften the light. If you are using an external flash, position it to bounce indirectly, to provide some extra light without adding to the shadow problem.

Make Shade.

When there is not natural shade, there are a couple different ways to create your own. The first is to get a helper to hold something between the sun and the subject. Just remember though, you need to beware that whatever it is that blocks or diffuses the sun might give a strange colour cast to the person’s face.

Another way to create shade is to use a handy reflector to create shade by holding it above your subjects. This method will only really work if you are doing close up portraits, as the shade created would be only slightly bigger than your reflector.

Use prime lenses.

If you have a camera that has the option to switch lenses, use a prime lens. A prime lens is one with a fixed focal length so it doesn’t zoom. Midday light is known for creating haze which can seriously goof with clarity of photos. Prime lenses tend to be sharper because they are less complicated and have less moving parts. That added clarity can be the difference between a beautiful portrait and a file headed to the recycle bin. It should be noted that using prime lenses will require you to use your feet to change angles and focal depths but what you gain in sharpness will more than compensate for any extra legwork required.

Up the shutter speed and lower the ISO.

Another issue which commonly occurs in bright light is overexposure. Overexposure happens when too much light enters the camera causing the photo to be washed out. Most cameras now have the ability to change the settings to control the light. The shutter speed controls the amount of time the shutter is open and the ISO controls the sensitivity of the internal sensor. By increasing the speed of the shutter, you decrease the amount of time light has to enter the lens. By lowering the ISO you lower the sensor’s sensitivity. I almost never shoot during the daytime with an ISO higher than 200 and I almost always have it set to 100. Both of these practices will help you to evade overexposure if you’re having trouble metering the light for the face.

Overexpose on purpose.

Slightly overexposing can decrease unwanted shadows on your subject’s face. To overexpose, simply lower your shutter speed slightly. Doing so should allow you to overexpose without changing your composition, as long as your subjects are standing relatively still. If your subjects are moving rapidly, you might want to widen your aperture or raise the ISO, but doing so will lower the quality of your photo by reducing the depth of field or adding noise.

Save the shade for last

Most locations are going to have at least one shady spot for you to utilize. Save it for last. Your subjects are probably hot and tired from being in the sun. The shade will be a relief to them. You’ll also have an opportunity to go through the shots you already have and make sure you get anything you didn’t get during the rest of your shoot. Saving the shade for last is an insurance policy. It gives you a chance to redo any flops or try anything that wouldn’t have worked in less cooperative lighting.


Using a polarizing filter will allow you to decrease the effects of overexposure. It increases vibrancy while decreasing glare caused by light hitting the lens and reduces the haze caused by bright light.

Ditch the shadows with post processing

When all else fails, you can fix the shadows in post-processing by adding fill light or bumping up the curves in the shadows, depending on the editing software available. If you don’t have access to Lightroom or Photoshop, try downloading GIMP. GIMP is an open source editing program that is free to download and often likened to Photoshop. It has the ability to isolate and lighten shadows among its many other uses.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Jerry Slonaker says:

    Your articles are great and purchasing your tutorials was worth every penny! They are the best photography tutorials available anywhere. Thank you!

  2. Mary Anne Wilmouth says:

    Thank you!!!...Your tutorials have been extremely helpful to me, a beginner. I have a canon 70 D and am trying to learn to shoot manually or in Tv or AV and raw. I am just using the canon software to process and am very confused for processing the raw and understanding the how to's.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

8 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.