Dog Days of Summer: Tips for Shooting in the Midday Sun
Whoever said “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” probably wasn’t aware we would be making such a liberal interpretation of the saying.
Heat comes from sun. Summer sun is bright. Bright light is tricky to photograph.
It’s no secret that bright midday sun is one of the more challenging types of light to expose properly. We’re talking blown out highlights, harsh shadows, squinty subjects… oh my!
Don’t sweat it, friends. This guide will show you how to get the best shots in the midday sun.
We can wrangle those top-down rays with quick easy fixes to soften harsh light, resolving your bright light issues before you even have time to hashtag them.
How else are you going to document that tan you’ve been working on all summer?
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Why It’s Cool
Summer is a great season for shutterbugs… between the golden mornings and evenings we’ve got, like, 2 extra hours of daylight to bask and snap in. And nothing says summer like bright, colorful, high-contrast photos! So why are you spending this extra shooting time inside?
Light is everything to photographers, so take the camera outside and stop actin’ like it’s not. It’s always high noon somewhere, so you might as well turn down those ISO settings and learn how to beat the heat.
Use these tips and tools to improve your lighting skills by shaping, bouncing, blocking, and even adding it back afterwards. You’ll perfect your sharp shootin’ so you can keep exposing when bright light is unavoidable, anytime of year.
- Any kind of camera
- Lens filters – polarized, neutral density (ND), or your own DIY
- Fill light – a reflector, foam board, or flash
- Photo editing software or app
- A friend or model
SLAP A FILTER ON IT
Think of lens filters like a sweet pair of shades for your camera. They come in all shapes and sizes (including phone sized), so no man or machine will be left squinting in the sun.
Generally – exposing for bright daylight requires some combination of small aperture setting and high shutter speed. Your camera’s sunnies… or, er… filters are one of the easiest ways to reduce the amount of light entering the lens and re-gain creative control in harsh lighting conditions.
Yep. That means shallow depth of field and slow shutter speeds are no longer out of the question! Since they’ll reduce your exposure by a few stops – neutral density (ND), polarized, or DIY filters will be your best bets for softening a case of the midday brights.
Need a FILTER hack? Try using your own sunglasses as a filter on your phone, point & shoot, or DSLR (depending on the size of your lens). Play with the composition a little and use your glasses as a frame within your photos.
ARE YOU FILL-IN’ THE HEAT YET?
There are two great ways to fill in and break up harsh shadows caused by overhead light: Bouncing light and flashing it.
Yeah… we said “flash”. Sure, the concept of fighting light with more light may sound like an idea from another galaxy, but it’s actually necessary to get the right exposure on a backlit subject. Oh, and diffusing said flash will help to produce a more flattering end result!
Similarly, a reflector or white foam board will bounce the light, filling in shadows caused by an overhead light source (like that giant one we call “the sun”.) Pretty much any flat, white object can bounce light. You could even use a pocket-sized version in your phoneography.
Need a FILL hack? Look down! Lightly colored surfaces (like sand or concrete) will bounce a nice glow on your subjects. Scout out a spot near one of these bright patches when you’re lacking the extra arms to hold a reflector in place.
When you’re getting scorched or just plain fed up, scour the area for a patch of shade. It can be manmade or au naturale, just watch out for spotty light! Buildings and trees are a good place to start your quest.
When there’s no shade to be sought, there are a couple easy ways to create your own. Keep an umbrella or a sheet on hand for such occasions. Not only will you soften that pesky light, you may even earn yourself a cool nickname like “MacGyver of the Shadows”.
Once your shade is in check, position your subject in front of an equally shaded background (near the edge of the shadow they’re under). Now when you shoot you’re getting the best of the shade AND the light. Like a boss.
Need a SHADE hack? Try using a bed sheet as a scrim. Throw it over something tall and place your subject beneath it. Or have a photoshoot while your beach towel is hanging out to dry!
It’s much easier to recover underexposed areas of a picture using photo editing software. That’s like photography SPF, dude.
To underexpose photos on your phone, tap the screen to focus on a bright area of your shot before hitting the shutter. Snapseed and VSCOcam are great apps that will help you edit your photo. You can change your exposure, adjust fill, and fix your photo’s highlights all from the comfort of your palm.
When shooting from your camera, play it safe by bracketing for exposure, underexposing back-lit subjects, and shooting RAW.
Two great ways editing software can help recover a photo taken in tricky bright light are:
1) Adjusting the levels to take back the shadows in the foreground of your photo, and
2) Using layers and masking tools to combine 2 images of a correctly exposed foreground (with an overexposed background), and vice versa.
Taking It Further
- When you salvage important details (like eyes), deliberate overexposure can give your photos a surreal, dreamy look.
- When your background is interesting and noteworthy, silhouettes are a great way to add drama and tell a story.
- Some filters can reduce your exposure enough stops to create a really long exposures… wait for it… in the DAYTIME. Check it these out and give it a go!
Jenny Sathngam is a tutorial writer/photographer for Photojojo. She is based in Austin, TX – where cloudless, triple-digit summers last most of the year and shooting in the midday sun is more practice than theory. (Model: Sanetra Stewart)