How can you take good pictures in bright sunlight? As you may be aware, shooting on sunny days – especially around noon – can often seem impossible. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with harshly lit photos that are full of unwanted contrast, blown-out highlights, lens flare, and ugly colors. So what’s a photographer to do?
Fortunately, there are simple methods for doing photography in bright sunlight. You just have to choose your approach carefully – and at times, get a bit creative.
And in this article, I’ll help you navigate the difficulties of direct sunlight and provide tips and tricks to get the best possible shots. I offer 14 practical tips that literally anyone can use to level up their sunlit images, no matter their level of experience.
Bottom line: Whether you’re into portraiture, landscape photography, close-up shooting, street photography, or some other photographic genre, there’s a way to make the sun work for you, so let’s dive right in!
Why is photography in bright sunlight so difficult?
You’ve probably heard seasoned photographers advise against shooting in direct sunlight. But why is this the case? For starters, bright sunlight is a form of hard light. It creates deep shadows and stark contrast, making it difficult to capture flattering images—whether it’s of people, landscapes, or even flowers. Think about portrait photography at midday. You’ll end up with strong shadows, often in awkward places like under your subject’s chin, thanks to the overhead angle of the sun.
Then there’s the issue of exposure. Hard light makes it challenging to find that sweet spot between too bright and too dark. You’ll often find areas of your shot that are overexposed, washed out, or underexposed and too dark. You won’t just struggle with exposure; even colors can appear less vibrant in bright sunlight. A vivid red rose, for instance, can look surprisingly dull when photographed in harsh sunlight.
Ever seen those circles of light that show up unexpectedly in your photos, like in the shot of the plane below? That’s lens flare. While it can be used intentionally for artistic effect, more often than not, it’s an unwelcome distraction that reduces the overall contrast of your image.
But fear not! As I explained above, taking good pictures in bright sunlight is very attainable. It just requires a little extra know-how, which leads us to some basic strategies you can employ to improve your sunlit shots:
5 basic strategies for dealing with bright sunlight
So you find yourself outdoors, camera in hand, and the sun is blazing. It’s clear that the light conditions aren’t ideal, but what can you do?
There are five fundamental approaches you can take, each with its own pros and cons. The effectiveness of these strategies will depend on your specific situation, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with all of them and pick different techniques as needed.
1. Diffuse the light
We’ve established that bright sunlight is a hard light source, creating those deep, dramatic shadows. One way to counteract this is to use some kind of diffusion material between the sun and your subject.
The fabric will disperse the light over a broader area, effectively reducing those problematic shadows and toning down contrast. The end result is a softer, more natural look.
2. Block the light
Diffusion isn’t always an option; maybe you don’t have the necessary equipment or simply can’t position it effectively. In such cases, blocking the light is your next best bet.
Essentially, you’re looking to shade your subject. This doesn’t mean shoving them under a tree, although that could work. But you could also use objects like a building or even a large umbrella to cast a shadow, which helps to reduce contrast and makes the lighting on your subject more even.
3. Add more light
If you find that the natural sunlight is casting harsh shadows on your subject, why not add your own source of light? This could be an off-camera flash or a reflector that bounces light back onto your subject.
Sure, it’s a bit tricky – using flash outdoors can feel intimidating, and getting the balance right takes some practice. But when done correctly, this technique can help eliminate those unflattering shadows and give your subject a more balanced, pleasing look.
4. Wait for the light to change
If you have the luxury of waiting, it can be a great strategy. Clouds can act as natural diffusers, and the setting sun offers a softer light that’s easier to work with than the harsh midday sun.
In other words, clouds are your friends here; they soften the light, making your job a whole lot easier. The atmosphere has a similar effect during sunrise and sunset, giving you a softer, more diffused light that’s generally easier to work with.
5. Embrace the light
Last but not least, why not lean into the challenge? Bright sunlight brings with it deep shadows and high contrast, but those aren’t necessarily bad things. You can use them creatively to make compelling images.
For instance, stark contrast can actually add a sense of drama to landscapes or make a portrait more intriguing. This approach is all about experimenting, about trying out high-contrast shots and simply appreciating how direct sun renders subjects in a unique way.
How to take good pictures in bright sunlight: tips and tricks
In this section, I offer plenty of detailed, practical guidelines for capturing portraits, street scenes, landscapes, and more – even in the harshest of light!
1. Use a pop-up diffuser
You may associate diffusers primarily with indoor flash photography, but they’re incredibly useful in outdoor settings as well. A diffuser is essentially a piece of translucent material that scatters light, softening those harsh shadows and reducing contrast. When working with a flash, you can use diffusers in various forms, from white umbrellas to softboxes – but when working outdoors, a standard sheet or a rounded pop-up diffuser will do the trick.
You or an assistant can simply hold the diffuser between the light and your subject, and the result will often feature a natural lighting effect. This technique is particularly useful for portrait and close-up photography, but remember that diffusers do have their limitations; you can’t exactly hold one over a building or a wide landscape!
2. Move into the shade
The simplest way to take beautiful images in direct sunlight?
Just move into the shade.
Obviously, as with diffuser techniques, this isn’t always feasible – you certainly can’t move an entire seascape! – but with some subjects, heading into the shade is quick and easy. It’s a good solution when shooting portraits, assuming you’re not tied to a particular location.
After all, sometimes the simplest solutions are best!
3. Make your own shade
For small subjects that aren’t movable – for instance, a small flower in a field – create your own shade!
You have a few different options, some more convenient than others:
- Block the light with your body
- Ask an assistant to stand between the subject and the light
- Hold a piece of cardboard or an umbrella above the subject
Note that some of these options will be more effective depending on the direction of the light (e.g., if the bright sun is directly overhead, it’ll be tough to block it with your own body).
4. Use fill flash
One of the biggest problems with shooting in direct sunlight is the harsh shadows. For instance, portrait subjects will get unwanted shadows under the chin, flowers will get heavy shadows underneath the petals, and pets will get dark shadows under their head and body.
In general, these harsh shadows look bad, but there’s an easy solution:
Simply point a flash toward the dark shadows and fire away! Make sure the flash is on a low power setting – after all, you don’t want to make the underside of your subject brighter than its top! – and experiment with different flash angles for the best results.
You also might try putting the sun behind your subject, then using the fill flash to brighten up your subject’s front. It can look really good, though watch out for lens flare.
5. Use a reflector
Want to fill in harsh shadows but don’t like using flash?
You have another easy option:
Reflectors are white or metallic items that bounce light back into darker areas, and they’re really easy to use. Simply point the reflector at the area you want to brighten up, then adjust it until you get some nice fill (by angling the reflector back and forth, you’ll see the reflected light change position, and you can use this “preview” to fine-tune the effect).
Note that you can also try the same tactic I mentioned in the previous section, where you position your subject in front of the sun and bounce light back onto their front. A reflector isn’t as powerful as a fill flash, so you’ll need to carefully angle it for maximum effect – but if you get it right, the results will be amazing.
6. Change your perspective
Sometimes, moving your subject into the shade isn’t possible – but moving around your subject can give the same effect.
For instance, if you’re shooting an interesting tree in the forest, you might move to the tree’s other side, you might find an interesting part of the tree that’s shrouded in shadow, or you might get low and shoot up.
The idea is to observe your subject carefully, looking for ways to maximize shade and minimize bright highlights and annoying contrast.
7. Use a lens hood
Suffering from lens flare?
While flare can be artistic, it can also be very annoying, especially if you’re after a clean, straightforward image.
Fortunately, many lenses come with hoods, which block flare-causing light and keep your photos flare-free.
If you don’t have a lens hood, don’t fret; it’s not that difficult to construct a hood out of cardboard or to use your hand to shield your lens from the sun.
(Just make sure you keep your makeshift lens hood and your hand out of the shot – otherwise, you’ll be doing a lot of cropping in post-production!)
8. Consider using a filter
Unfortunately, filters don’t offer a magical solution for bright sunlight – there’s no “avoid direct sunlight” filter, at least not currently – but filters can be handy for direct sunlight photography.
For instance, a polarizing filter will help cut down on reflections, plus it’ll help you achieve vibrant colors (including a beautiful blue sky).
And a neutral density filter will reduce the light hitting your camera sensor, allowing for slower shutter speeds and smaller apertures at midday.
9. Play with your white balance settings
These days, pretty much every digital camera lets you choose between different white balance settings (for instance, you can dial in a white balance preset, such as Cloudy or Daylight, or you can set a custom white balance based on your scene).
Now, you can adjust the white balance later on in post-processing, assuming you’re shooting in RAW. But if you shoot in JPEG, or you simply prefer to get things right in-camera, you’ll want to carefully set your white balance from the start.
How is this helpful for taking good pictures in bright sunlight?
Well, white balances can offer artistic effects that enhance the look of highlights and shadows. A cooler white balance, for instance, can give a neat effect to more monochrome images – while a warm white balance will make bright sunlight appear softer and more inviting.
10. Use spot metering for the best results
Harsh sunlight makes correct metering tricky. So here’s my advice:
Use spot metering. This will force your camera to expose based on a targeted portion of your scene; you can aim at your main subject, then dial in the recommended exposure settings.
Alternatively, you can spot meter off a midtone in your shot – this will ensure the entire scene is exposed relatively well (as opposed to the former technique, which will ensure you expose for your subject).
After taking an image, check the back of your camera for a preview; you may need to adjust your technique depending on the result. Here, your histogram can be very handy, especially because it’s tough to accurately evaluate an LCD preview in bright sunlight.
Also, if you have the luxury of time, try metering off different parts of the scene while taking multiple shots – that way, you can choose the best option later on.
11. Carefully choose the time of day you shoot
Most of us don’t have the luxury of sitting around all day waiting for the perfect light.
But heading out an hour or two earlier or waiting until an hour or two later might be feasible – and if that’s manageable, I highly recommend you consider it.
You see, the time of day can dramatically impact your shot. Midday offers unpleasant, harsh light, but if you go out in the early morning or late afternoon, even direct sunlight starts to look good. You’ll lose the unwanted contrast, you’ll lose the ugly shadows, and you’ll get soft, golden light that’ll flatter your subjects.
13. Shoot silhouettes
As the saying goes:
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!
And that applies when photographing subjects in bright sunlight. If the sun is causing you problems, just use it to your advantage; make your subject stand in front of the bright light, then capture stunning silhouettes all day long.
I recommend getting down low (so that you’re shooting against the bright sky). And compose so your subject is clearly defined against the background.
13. Work with the contrast
Contrast might seem like your enemy – but with a bit of creativity, it can be your ally. Consider the realm of street photography, where dynamic light and shadows can create compelling images. A well-placed shadow can add depth and interest to your compositions!
And in portraiture, a partially shaded face can give off a mysterious or moody vibe. The key is to be intentional with your use of contrast. While this approach may not be suited for every occasion, when done right, it can result in truly captivating shots.
14. Go black and white
If you find yourself struggling with too much contrast and washed-out colors, why not consider a monochrome approach? Black and white photography thrives on the play between light and shadow, making it a strong option when dealing with bright sunlight.
You don’t have to commit to black and white from the outset, especially if you’re shooting in RAW format (and you definitely should be!). Just capture your images and later convert them to monochrome during post-processing. You might discover that the highlights and shadows actually improve your compositions!
How to take good pictures in bright sunlight: final words
Navigating the challenges of bright sunlight in photography may seem daunting at first, but with the right techniques in your arsenal, you can transform your struggles into opportunities.
From utilizing diffusers and embracing contrast to even venturing into the world of black and white, there’s a range of options available to help you capture stunning images, regardless of the sun’s position.
So the next time you find yourself squinting against the glaring sun, camera in hand, don’t shy away. Instead, remember these tips and turn that harsh light into your creative playground!
Now over to you:
Do you struggle to shoot in bright sunlight? Do you have any tips or tricks for dealing with these issues? Share your thoughts (and images) in the comments below.