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Better Portraits In Bad Light

Five tips to help make portraits more appealing when you’re stuck with harsh, midday sun

Some photographers swear by one principle above all else: No good photographs can be made under midday sun. The sun is high and creates unattractive shadows that aren’t flattering for faces. The harsh light at midday is simply not conducive to producing attractive portraits. But some of us find ourselves in situations where we simply must take pictures at this difficult time of day—whether we’re on assignment for a client or we’ve traveled halfway across the globe and our only chance to get the shot is happening at lunch. Sometimes photographing people in harsh midday light is unavoidable. So what do you do when this situation arises? Here are five tips to help modify the light or embrace it in all its harsh glory and so you can make better portraits in bad light.

Get Out Of Direct Sun

If you’re photographing people outdoors, one of the best things you can do is try to get them out of direct sun. But sticking them in shade isn’t quite enough; you’ve got to find open shade, which is an area out of direct sunlight but still brightly illuminated by indirect light from an open sky. It’s harder to find shade at midday, but it can be had under tall trees or on the lee side of a large structure. You may have to search for it a bit, but if you can find it you’ll make much better portraits with your subject out of the bright sun and in open shade.

Soften The Light

If you can’t find open shade, or if your shot is tied to a location that puts the subject in direct sun, the next best option is to soften the harsh sun. You can do this by waiting for the perfect cloud to float by or by placing a large diffusion silk between the sun and the subject. Movie sets and TV shows do this with very large silks to accommodate all the actors in a scene—a 12×12 or even 12×20-foot silk works wonders at turning harsh sunlight into soft overhead illumination. But a 12×12 silk isn’t practical for most of us who don’t travel with a crew of assistants. Smaller silks, such as a pop-up diffuser measuring five or seven feet across, are great for situations in which diffusion is needed for a single face. But if you’re traveling light, in lieu of a silk you can block direct sun in other ways too. A traditional umbrella, for instance, can do the trick. Be aware, though, that exposing for a subject in heavy shade will necessitate overexposing for all of the surroundings that remain in bright sunlight.

Another option instead of diffusing the light is to reflect it. To do this, turn the subject so the bright sunlight is primarily falling on their back, then use a pop-up reflector, a white card or even a light t-shirt or jacket to bounce light back into the subject’s shadow side.

Add A Flash

The previous suggestion—turning the subject so the sun is at their back—is the ideal setup to add your own light instead of just working with what’s available. The easiest way to do this is by using a speedlight-style flash, either on camera or held just off, and having it become the new key light to illuminate the shaded subject.

Here’s how this process works for me. First, I choose my location and position my subject with the sun at their back. Then I determine what’s the appropriate exposure for the background. On a normal sunny day, that’s likely to be something along the lines of 1/125th at ƒ/16 at ISO 100. With the background exposed correctly, and the sun at the subject’s back, your subject is bound to be in shadow. Now it’s time to add the flash. With a TTL speedlight, you can set it on auto and adjust the flash exposure compensation to brighten it or darken it based on your tests. Or you can dial in a manual flash output and fine-tune it by adjusting it from, say, quarter power to half power depending on the results you see on your screen. As long as you don’t move the subject or the flash, once you’ve got the exposure correct you’re free to shoot without fear that your exposure will change.

This simple technique makes the flash a key light you can control, making it easier to eliminate the harsh sunlight from the subject’s face. Better still, with the sun at the subject’s back, that sunlight will act as a hair light as well and create a highlight atop their head to add to the feeling of depth and dimensionality.

Play With The Shadows

If you’ve done everything else at your disposal and you’re still forced to photograph a face under harsh, midday lighting, you might have to start thinking outside of the box of traditional portraiture techniques. Namely, you’ll want to position your subject so that you make compositional use of whatever dramatic shadows you can find. If your subject is positioned near a building or wall, for instance, can you pose them so that the structure’s shadow bisects the scene? Perhaps less dramatic but still equally effective, can you position your subject such that they’re in bright sunlight but the background is in deep, dark shadow?

Any time you use edges of light like this—dark against light or light against dark—you’re likely to make a more compelling photograph. And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself near a structure that’s producing a unique shadow pattern—dappled light through a tree’s foliage, for instance, or a dramatic pattern of lines from light shining through a pergola—you can use such big, bold shadows to your benefit. Instead of fighting the harsh sunlight, think outside the box and embrace it by including these dramatic shadows and patterns in your composition.

Remember Classic Portrait Lighting Patterns

When working with a specular light source such as direct, unfiltered sunlight, it’s best to take inspiration from the classic Hollywood portrait masters of a century ago. Clarence Sinclair Bull and George Hurrell, for instance, were masters of making beautiful portraits using hard-edged light sources that would be to harsh and unflattering in unskilled hands. But these great photographers didn’t just take their chances with harsh light and hope it worked out. They relied on a handful of classic lighting patterns—how the position of the light source creates specific shadows on the face in a flattering way.

There are four classic patterns that are most often found in those classic Hollywood portraits: Butterfly lighting, Loop lighting, Rembrandt lighting and Split lighting. In the studio, they’re created by positioning the light source above and in front of the subject for Butterfly and then continuing to move it down and to the side to create the other three patterns. But in the outdoors, the light source can’t be moved; instead, the subject must move in relation to the sun. By utilizing these lighting patterns as best you can, you’re more likely to turn light that’s less traditionally appealing for portraits into illumination that can be downright beautiful—and it’s all based on the angle at which the light falls on the subject’s face.

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