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4 Tips to Shoot in Harsh Light



Aww golden hour… The most beautiful and magical time of day. But, as the saying goes, good things don’t last forever, and unfortunately, Golden Hour isn’t exempt from that rule. Golden Hour is the hour just before the sun sets and the hour after the sun rises. Harsh light or midday light is the light we get in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky (about 11-12-1-2-3 o’clock in the afternoon, depending on the season and where you live). Because we can’t only ever shoot during Golden Hour (wouldn’t that be a world, eh?), us photographers must learn to shoot with midday light too!

You might also be interested in: How to Capture the Golden Hour Glow on Camera

Yes, this harsh, midday light is far from the best lighting situation, and given the choice, I’ll avoid it altogether. That being said, there are days and circumstances where we have no choice but to shoot in it. All there is left to do in those cases is to embrace it and learn to work with it! And trust me, if you can do that, it’s actually not so SO bad.

In this post, I’m going to share my 4 best tips to shoot in harsh light, while still keeping true to your soft style (and not blinding your subjects!).



The very first thing I do on a day when I’m shooting in harsh light, is look for good light over location. In situations where the light isn’t ideal, I will always favor good, soft, diffused light, over the best location or backdrop. I do this because good light in portraits (in my opinion) is much more important than what in is the background! Our couples, or subjects are the focal points in these kinds of photos, so what is in the background definitely doesn’t matter as much as beautiful light on their faces. Also, I always shoot with a very wide aperture (f/1.8-2.2) – so my backdrop will be blurred out anyways!





Ok, here we go: My four tips for shooting in midday or harsh light

1. Look for diffused light or good shade

Diffused light is soft and not nearly as harsh as direct sunlight. By passing through something, light softens or becomes diffused. When the light is shinning through something that is diffusing it, the harsh shadows are cut out, thus making the light wrap softly around your subjects.

This soft, diffused light can happen either artificially or naturally. You could use a diffuser to transform the harsh sunlight into soft light. Simply place that diffuser between your subject and the sun to create soft light. You’ll most likely need an assistant or friend to hold this, or you could buy a diffuser arm and stand to mount it on. Just be aware that these basically become wind sails and are hard to control even with the slightest breeze! I’ll use mine only once in a blue moon, because I prefer to find naturally diffused light.

A great example of soft light occurring naturally would be on an overcast day. The clouds in the sky act as nature’s own soft box or diffuser. But this tutorial is all about how to work with the harsh lighting, so if you have clouds in the sky, you don’t have to worry about any of this!

Secondly, I mentioned looking for good shade. Everyone knows what shade is. But when you’re looking for shade for photography, you want to be careful of what kind of shade you’re in! Not all shade is created equally. You want shaded areas yes, but they still need to have some available light (see next tip!). Otherwise, you’ll just end up with a dark photo without any pop!

Watch out for shade created by a dense cover of trees. The light filtering through the leaves will have a green hue to it. That light hitting your subject’s face will leave your skin tones looking green and trust me, that’s really difficult to fix afterwards in post! In order to avoid this, what you want is shade with natural reflector abilities – and that brings me to tip #2…



2. Look for natural reflectors in your environment (or create your own!)

A natural reflector is a neutral coloured surface that you can use to reflect clean white light back up onto your couple’s faces. A sidewalk is a great natural reflector. Or even a light coloured building across the street could work as a natural reflector.

Whatever natural reflector you find, it will ensure that you always have clean, soft light shinning back up on your subject’s faces. Bonus, because this light is bounced, it will also be very soft and flattering.

If you can’t find natural reflectors, you could always use your diffuser or a bounce (they are usually build all in one) to re-create that look. Simply place the bounce bellow or beside your subject’s face and angle it to bounce light on their faces.



3. Place the sun behind your subject

Even though it’s midday and the sun is high in the sky, the sun is actually only ever directly above our heads for about 15-20 minutes in a day. This is good news for photographers! This means, that apart from those few minutes, you can always place the sun behind your subjects, in turn, creating shade on their faces.

Having the sun behind your subject is also called backlighting. I love backlighting my subjects and do so for 99% of all my photos! It creates a beautiful halo of light around their heads. It also gives me a bit of that creamy glow I love so much about Golden Hour.

You might not be able to tell where the sun is just by looking up in the sky. In order to be sure you place it behind your subjects, just look for their shadows on the ground and make sure to place that shadow in front of them.

A few great tools I use if I want to plan my shoot ahead of time are called timenanddate.com and an app called Sun & Moon. I go through these in detail in my video, so be sure to check that out! (tool demonstrations start at 08:32 if you want to skip ahead)



4. Use the tallest person to create shade for the other

Yes, this tip only works if you’re shooting with 2 (or 3) people, but for most portrait sessions, or wedding days, 2 people is a likely scenario!

This tip is great if you really can’t find shade or diffused light, or if you want to shoot with the sun at an angle to your couple (not behind them). You can in this case, use the tallest of the 2 to create shade for the other. Place the tallest person with their backs to the sun. Then, place the shortest person facing them. The tallest person will automatically have shade on their face because the sun is behind them. And now, the shortest person (facing the sun) will be shaded by the shadow of the tallest person.




If you would prefer to watch me explain all these tips, watch the video here!


There you have it! Those are the 4 things I do or look for when I’m stuck shooting in midday, harsh light. I hope you found these tips useful and I hope you’ll be able to use them on your next shoot!

Leave me your comments and questions below, I’d love to lend a hand! I’d also love to see what you create using these tips, so tag me on Facebook and Instagram!





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  • Enock Ochieng OnyangoJanuary 23, 2022 - 22:49

    Thank you Emiliesmith, for a nice lecture. I would like you to be my mentor in photographyReplyCancel

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Emilie Smith is based in Edmonton, Alberta // Edmonton Wedding Photographers, Mountain Adventure Wedding Photographers and Edmonton Elopement Photographers

Serving: Alberta // British-Columbia // Canadian Rockies // National Parks // Okanagan // West Coast // Northern Canada

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