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Portraits in bright sunshine

Bright light directly on your subjects can be disastrous.


Whoever suggested that people should be photographed facing into bright sun couldn't have taken many good photographs.
Whoever suggested that people should be photographed facing into bright sun couldn't have taken many good photographs.

There is an old, outdated guideline that advises photographers to pose a person in bright sunlight with the sun behind the photographer and over his or her shoulder.

This advice was all right in the days when simple box cameras required direct, bright sunlight in order to properly expose a snapshot. But, it is no longer the best advice for good portraits.

Nowadays, most good photographers shoot almost all their outdoors portraits with the sun behind the subject, or in open shade where the light is more diffused and has less harsh contrast.


WHAT’S WRONG WITH HAVING A SUBJECT FACE THE SUN?

Contrast is problem #1
- Direct, bright sunlight produces contrasty lighting, resulting in bright highlights and harsh shadows areas. If the sun is angled off to the side or high in the sky, dark shadows appear on the subject’s face and figure. The amount of contrast between highlights and shadows is too strong for a pleasing portrait.

Squinting is problem #2
- Most people can’t look directly or indirectly towards the sun without squinting their eyes, making their portraits look uncomfortable and unnatural. Even on a brightly-overcast day, the sun can cause eyelids to squint and faces to distort.

Direct, bright sunlight on the front of a subject results in too much contrast, and causes your subjects to squint.
Direct, bright sunlight on the front of a subject results in too much contrast, and causes your subjects to squint.

Placing this subject so the sun is behind her and off to the side allows her to open her eyes without squinting and to look more relaxed.
Placing this subject so the sun is behind her and off to the side allows her to open her eyes without squinting and to look more relaxed.

Flat lighting is problem #3
- If the subject is placed so that he or she is directly facing the sun (i.e. in full frontal sunlight so that the shadows fall directly behind the person), the illumination is too flat, meaning that it is even across the subject and makes the person look two-dimensional, like a comic book character, without any shading to reveal form. A certain amount of gradual shadowing is required to properly show the three-dimensionality that is essential in a portrait.

BUT IF THE SUN IS BEHIND THE SUBJECT, WON’T THE FRONT BE IN SHADOW?

You are right; it will. But, it's not necessarily a bad thing. You have two choices to deal with this problem, and use it to your advantage for a better picture.

  • You can take an exposure reading of the light in the shadow area on the front of the subject, and use that exposure reading to take the picture. This may cause the background to be over-exposed, and that can be a good thing, resulting in a very-pleasing picture, especially if the background is colorful and brightly-lit. Some cameras have a “backlight button” or switch that automatically increases exposure for backlit subjects. This is the time to use it. You will probably be amazed with the pleasant look of your picture.
  • Or, you can provide “fill” light to brighten the illumination on the shadowy front of the subject, either with a reflector, fill flash or another light source. If you use a reflector, ensure it is not one that is colored and will cause an unwanted color cast to fall on your subject. A white or silver reflector is ideal, although a gold or yellow reflector will often nicely "warm" up skin tones.


Fill flash was used to bring light to the shadow area on the front of the subject caused by the sun on her back.
Fill flash was used to bring light to the shadow area on the front of the subject caused by the sun on her back.


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