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Lighting Technique: Make the best of a bright day

200603bc_alyson Why one photographer loves the sun

By Steve Bedell, M.Photog.Cr.

For years, photographers have extolled the virtues of taking portraits on overcast days or during the magic time that occurs near the beginning and end of every day. On cloudy days, the contrast range is reduced, allowing you to capture detail throughout the image, from the brightest area to the deepest shadow. Near sunset, you also get a reduced contrast range, with the added benefit of directional lighting, a wonderful bonus. And while I won't argue that the first and last light of the day offers perhaps the best lighting conditions, I can tell you that I actually prefer sunny days to cloudy ones when shooting. Let me 'splain.

Caption (above right): Sun bouncing off a yellow building across the street created my main light for this image, with trees also blocking overhead light. Open sky behind her also creates a little kicker light on her hair.  This is one of my favorite shooting situations. Model: Alyson Perreault

Like most photographers, I have to shoot all day. I can honestly tell you that I don't care if I have a session at 9:00 a.m. or noon, I can make the light work. One more thing I should tell you. I never use a flash outside in individual portrait work. NEVER. I use a reflector maybe five percent of the time, usually when it's cloudy, and I'll use a gobo to block splotchy light occasionally. But most of the time, it's just me, my camera, and a light meter. Thats right, a light meter!

THE STUDIO: First off, my outdoor shooting area. My studio is located in the middle of a small (25,0000, big for New Hampshire) town. I'm in a big old building with no place for an outdoor shooting area, so I walk out the front door and the town becomes my outdoor studio. Like anyone who's been in business more than six months, I've learned to turn a disadvantage into an advantage. When a client comes to my studio, she won't get the same background as all my other clients. Her portrait location will depend on lighting conditions and time of day. I tell clients we're going on a little adventure and find some nice spots for them. We have a great time!

THE LIGHT: Once we leave the studio, the first thing I do is check out the light. In overcast conditions, I know my strongest light is directly overhead, so I'll have to block it somehow or add some back in with a reflector. I insist on having sparkle light in the eye, but it doesn't always have to be at 10:00 and 2:00, and I won't add it with a flash. I like a natural look for my portraits, and I'd rather find the right lighting conditions than try to manipulate light with external forces. But since this article is about shooting when the sun is blazing, let's assume we've got a brilliant day with no clouds and see what we can find.

200603bc_darci BRIGHT SUN ADVANTAGES: As a self-proclaimed sun lover, let me first explain why I like it so much. When I use the sun, I harness its power and carefully shape it to create a wonderful portrait. Portraits taken using sunlight reflect a wonderful energy and color not attainable on cloudy days. You can also get a great light in the eye that makes them really shine. I call this combination of forces "sparkle light," and I love using it. Just finding it gives me great joy.

Caption (left): You can get great directional light, plus the warmth of the sun, just by observing the light direction and using natural modifiers. The tree blocked any direct sun from striking Darci and the branches blocked the overhead light, giving us a wonderful wall of light coming from camera right. Model: Darci Morrell

DISADVANTAGES: In the interest of full disclosure and for those of you who think I have a screw loose, let's look at some of the drawbacks of shooting on sunny days. I prefer to see them as simply obstacles that must be overcome to complete a successful portrait. These challenges are neither huge nor insurmountable.

You must watch the brightness range of the image carefully. Most digital cameras do not have the ability to capture the wide dynamic range of negative film. And while I can't quote you specific numbers about how great a range your camera can handle, I do know from experience how my camera reacts in different situations, and you should get to know yours, too. I shoot with a Fujifilm Finepix S2 Pro and have tested the S3 model and can tell you the dynamic range in the S3 is far better. What this means to you is that you have to be very careful about backgrounds. If there is a three stop or more difference between the background and the light on your subject, kiss the background goodbye! That goes for parts of the background too, like open areas in trees where the sky peeks through. Watch especially for splotchy light that falls through the trees onto your clients shirt, causing overexposed hot spots that will kill your image. Light colored clothing and blond hair are more susceptible to these hot spots than darker colors.

200603bc_darci4 OBJECTIVE: There are certain things that I usually look for, though I always keep an open mind and am constantly observing the light on my subject as the session progresses. My objective is to have a huge wall of light that becomes my main light source. That's nothing new. But I strive to make sure the light has energy and color, two of my favorite qualities, usually the result of a direct reflection of the sun.

Caption (right): I don't like flat light if there's no punch to it. See how the combination of open sky and a bounce light from a white sidewalk in front of Darci combine to give us a flat light with a little kick to it? Notice the white catchlight in the bottom of her eyes. As an added bonus, this image has not been retouched. I did print down the corners a bit, but this type of light really minimizes any eye lines or minor blemishes. Model: Darci Morrell

For example, if I place my subject in an area where she is out of the sun but the light source comes from the open sky, I can get a nice light, but I aim for something more. That something more is usually a natural reflector. Instead of just lighting with an open sky, I may chose to use the light bouncing off a yellow building opposite my subject. I love red brick buildings because in strong sun they cast a beautiful warm light. Or I may combine the open sky with a bounce fill from a white sidewalk for a glamorous light that creates a wonderful catchlight on the bottom of the eye.

I also like flat light. Not the kind that's just there, like in open shade, but the kind that has a little kick to it from reflected sunlight. A favorite location of mine is under the overhang of a large bush. I sometimes use a very flat light aimed right at my subject. The source of the light is the open sky plus the bounce light I get from the gray paved parking lot. The sun is behind my subject, and I usually stuff a large reflector in the branches overhead to block the dreaded splotches. Note that if the sun was in front of my subject, the bounce off the parking lot would be too strong and my main light direction would be from underneath—not a good scenario. I seek out situations where the sun is behind my subject and I get a bounce-back light from a sidewalk or building.

There are many other great opportunities available when it's sunny outside. Learn to embrace the power of the sun, and you'll truly be making hay while the sun shines!

200603bc_laci Steve Bedell has written articles for a variety of publications and is a regular contributor to Shutterbug magazine. He has just released an educational DVD about shooting in the sun called "Natural Light Portraiture." For more information about this or to sign up for Steve's free e-mail newsletter, contact

Caption (left): OK, I'll shoot if it's cloudy out.  This image was taken on a very dark day when I had to up my ISO to 400 from my preferred 200.  Light was coming from overhead, but I bounced light back into the eyes with a silver reflector below and camera right.