5 ways to get great exposures in the Summer Sun

Shooting in direct sunlight is very hip. If you know what you're doing, the Summer sun can become the only light you need to make that moody, double-denim clad, nose-ring sporting model pop off the page. Conversely if you’re not well acquainted with it, you might find that it’s too harsh, creating a wide contrast between the dark shadows and overblown highlights. This is not to say that direct sunlight is either good or bad, but that it creates a certain look. If like me, you're not entirely sold on the sharp, unforgiving nature of direct light, working outdoors with available light in Summer can be a chore.

So, if you're looking for a way to work with direct sunlight, or a way to make it’s hard light soft, or even if you just want a way to balance midday ambient with flash, well then here's my handy guide for moulding the sun into something more usable and flattering for you.

The first technique requires the most basic of lighting equipment and it is as simple as they come. 

1. Use a Scrim or Diffuser 

If you're a portrait photographer you already own one of these. It's the inside bit of your 3-in-1 reflector. It's as simple to use as placing it between your model and the sun and then remarking at how great the improvement is. It softens the harsh sun, and pours light and tone into the otherwise heavy shadows. If you're looking for a professional-looking result on a budget, this is it.  

balancing-ambient-and-summer-sun-and-flash

In the above example, you can actually see the improvement - Jade is softly lit, but if you look to the left of her at the bridge there, you can see the sharp contrast between the sunlight and the shadow from my assistant. The scrim has balanced everything out beautifully.

This a great, quick answer to a contrast problem for any on-location shoot, and on it's own it can be fantastic for a day’s shoot. It can be taken up a notch on the drama scale with this second technique:

2. Lighting with a Scrim and a Flash

Alright, so you’ve the scrim diffusing the hash rays from above. Why not take the atmosphere up a notch and throw a flash into the mix?

how-to-use-a-diffuser-with-harsh-sun
balancing-scrim-and-sunlight-with-flash

In using a Scrim / diffuser, you’re taking out harsh light on the model. The scene behind them is being hit with harsh light, which can create an interesting look. To achieve the looks above, is quite simple.

  1. Compose the scene and underexpose it slightly. Find your ‘correct’ exposure and then underexpose it until the highlights are completely under control. In the above images, I wanted no bright highlights in the sky at all.

  2. Introduce the scrim. This obviously works best if the sun is behind the camera - with the model facing into it. If done correctly, your model should look fairly dark and uninspired when the scrim is introduced. You’re on your way!

  3. Introduce your flash. To really make it effective, stick it on the same axis as the sun - up high, pointing down. A softbox is ideal here. It looks gorgeous and it creates some believable specular highlights too.

  4. Adjust the power of the flash accordingly. Hey presto, you’re onto a winner.

3. Overpower the Sun

Sometime subtlety is not needed. Just bash the bleedin’ bejaysis out of your flash. In the samples below, the flash was at almost full whack.

how-to-overpower-the-sun-with-flash
strobism-for-sunny-days

These shots were both taken on gorgeous, cloudless days. In the first, I positioned Lisa so the sun was behind her, to the right of the camera. This had two benefits - one, she wasn’t squinting into the lens and two, it' acted like a rim light. Look at her shoulder there. There’s a great little touch of light pouring over it, adding some extra dimension to it.

Similar to the method above, I took a reading of the scene and underexposed a *fraction*. I made sure the sky wasn’t blown out and that was enough. From there I stuck my flash up high, on an umbrella and just walloped the light out.

The picture on the right with Sample Answer was similar enough, thought it was taken later in the day. I exposed for the background here, and shot into the sun. It was a bright July day, so to balance this out, I needed to go fairly heavy on the flash again. As in the example before, I have it up high, pointed down.

4. Use the Shade 


I have the best Portrait taken in Crampton Court. You know that lane with the ‘I’d rather trust a dealer on a badly lit corner than a criminal in a three piece suit’ bit of Maser art? Yeah. I have the best portrait taken there. Don’t agree? Fight me.

I went during a stone-splittingly bright Summer’s day.

shooting-in-shade-with-harsh-sun

The light streamed down from in front of me, behind my model, creating a gradient of light - from a washed white middle to a more solid, colourful foreground. The light was also bouncing off the wall behind me, and flowing up the lane, illuminating the models face as elegantly as a large softbox.

I’d found a two-way direcitonal light-source in the centre of Dublin City that allowed for effortlessly cool shots. The light was controlled by this tunnel of sorts. If only it was more sunny in Dublin

5. Embrace it

Sometimes you just have to go with it.

balancing-flash-in-midday-sun

Harsh light isn’t always ideal, but there are ways to make it work. You can use a silver reflector to balance out the heavy shadows (check out the photo above - you can see the refelctor in the sunglasses). Or get the model to stick their hand up to keep the sun out of their eyes and you’re in for a contrast heavy (albeit well lit) portrait.

You wouldn’t be long looking for images on Instagram with the #naturallight tag before you find a great example of harsh light on a model.

There we have it. A simple guide to lighting up on bright days.

Do you have any other suggestions, improvements or tips for making that model shine while the sun does? Let me know in the commens below.