Tips for Photographing in Harsh, Bright Light


One of the most intimidating aspects of photography was shooting in harsh light. The idea of midday wedding photography made my stomach turn, but over the years I’ve learned how to work with the sun, even on the brightest days. Today I’ll be sharing a few tips, but please bear in mind a few things…
-I’d much prefer shooting at sunset, when the light is soft, warm and flexible.
-I don’t shoot with fill flash or artificial reflectors, even though I have that option. Stylistically, I prefer the look of totally natural photos and, professionally, I like the empowerment of shooting with just my camera, no other gear needed.
-Yes, I realize I sometimes sacrifice technical aspects of the photo (say, like, blowing out the sky), but it’s a personal decision that adheres to my style.

Now that we have the caveats out of the way, let’s get started with a few tips for photographing in bright lighting conditions. First up, find Natural Reflectors. A natural reflector is something in the environment that reflects light onto your subjects. Ideally, a natural reflector is white/beige/light in color as it’ll help balance the light in a favorable way. Here are a few photos demonstrating what I mean…in this first photo, the natural reflector is the light-colored pavement in front of the bride and groom…

When shooting in bright light, I try to crop the natural reflector out of the frame so it’s not a distraction…in a perfect scenario, the viewer will not be able to see the reflected light source and, instead, focus on the subjects entirely.

Here’s the final product. The source of the natural reflector is omitted from the frame, the couple is exposed well, and the details of the dress and bouquet are still in tact…not to mention their skin tones look good, which is my first priority.
f/1.2 1/2500 125 ISO

So what happens when I can’t avoid cropping out the natural reflector? I own it. It helps if the natural reflector doesn’t include lots of shadows as they can be distracting. I want to take a moment and explain the conditions these photos were shot in. It was 1pm (traditionally the brightest time of day in March), it was 85-degrees, and the sun was unforgiving. As a Orange County wedding photographer, I used to avoid this scenario by shooting indoors or staying permanently in open shade, but once I understood how to leverage light with natural reflectors I became unafraid of whatever was thrown my way.

As seen in this photo, the natural reflector is pretty clear from shadows and my subjects are exposed well (in addition to looking darn pretty!)…
f/2.5 1/2000 125 ISO

Next up is working with dappled light, this is the type of light that causes spots/patches of light to appear on your subjects faces if they were facing the sun (I think of them as leopard spots, these patches appear usually from nearby trees or buildings blocking a portion of the light source). Given this type of lighting situation, I always have my clients position their back to the sun, causing them to be backlit. Normally shooting backlit in bright light can be extremely difficult, but since there are elements blocking the light (in this case, tree branches), it diffuses the light a bit.

Now, let’s couple the idea of natural reflectors and backlighting: here’s my natural reflector…

By giving my clients a fun, interactive pose, I leveraged the light and created an environment with soft light…and lots of smiles.
f/2.0 1/1600 160 ISO

Whew, this post was a doozey, but I hope it shed light into my shooting process (pun intended). If you’d like to see a 45-minute video demonstration from this shoot walking you through a step-by-step process of how I find natural reflectors, why I stay away from easy open shade, and how to shoot confidently in bright light, join me for a 30-day FREE broadcast of photography tutorials, starting next month! As part of the 30-day curriculum, I’ll be showcasing behind-the-scenes of this photo shoot (airing June 22, 2015). Register for the course HERE and I look forward to seeing you online soon!