I can remember it like it was yesterday. Sometimes, I still have nightmares about it. It was late September and I’d been shooting photos all summer. My knowledge of my camera, lighting, and composition was finally at a level where I could charge for my work. All of this time and money would finally translate into a profitable business, and I was ready.
I put out a message on Facebook with some sample photos and almost immediately had interest. I began booking appointments and window shopping for expensive vehicles when somebody reached out to me with an unspeakable request. She wanted me to do family portraits between 11 AM and 2 PM.
Everyone who’s ever even touched a camera knows that God invented lunchtime so we didn't have to shoot in those garbage conditions. When the sun beats down from directly overhead it creates nasty shadows, bounces light off of every surface, and creates very little usable shade. Despite my best efforts, the client insisted that this was the only time available for everyone so I had to make due.
Fortunately for me, I spent a lot of time practicing before I offered to take photos for money. I was probably ready to do so before I did, but all of that practice prepared me to take photos in conditions that were less than ideal. Now, I want to share some of the tricks that worked for me, so you can improve your photos.
Use a 5-in-1 Reflector
A 5-in-1 reflector is the swiss army knife of lighting gear. It can be used to block, diffuse, and reflect light in a number of ways. This is a fantastic way to modify the available light you have, which in midday is a lot. I mostly used it to soften the light coming from the sun and angle it in a way that made more flattering shadows. For a few other photos, I had the reflector underneath my subjects to fill in shadows on their face. Make sure you have a flattering primary light source if you do this, though, or you can make someone’s face look more round (that’s the Iowa nice way of saying more fat).
Mind Your Background
This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but when you are taking photos in harsh sunlight, this is unbelievably important. If you are diffusing the light on your subject and expose for the foreground, there’s a good chance you will blow out your background. There’s no getting that back even if you shoot RAW. If you are a good salesman you might be able to pass this off as an angel effect, but I know that I wouldn’t buy those photos.
The three ways that I know how to fix this is to find backgrounds that are already shaded, use a flash, or to create shade on your background by using an extra reflector. For this shoot, I just found backgrounds that had shade. If you have to work with a minimal amount of shade, you could use a long lens to narrow your background.
Lastly, you could use a flash to bring up the subject to match your background. During the day you need a big strobe or multiple flashes to do this, though. The added benefit to this technique is that if you place the lights right, you can fix those harsh shadows I mentioned earlier.
The goal is to make the light on your subject match the light in your background as closely as possible, so your whole image can be properly exposed. There are more techniques to do this than the ones I’ve mentioned, but these are the ones I’ve personally had success with.
Pay Attention To Unwanted Reflections
Buckle in for this one; it could take a minute to unpack.
Something I don’t think people fully understand is that light reflects off of everything. Sure, it’s basic physics but most people forget to apply it to photography. This phenomenon can render a photo that has everything else going for it unusable. I know because it’s ruined a few of my own. Here are two ways it can happen.
When you are shooting photos in broad daylight, sunlight is shining directly on the ground. If you are on pavement, this isn’t much of a problem because it’s close to neutral grey. When you are on grass, however, this can create a green cast in skin tones that is nearly impossible to remove. This can leave your subjects looking sickly or like the spawn of Bruce Banner, depending on their size. You can fix this by either putting a reflector under your subject or moving them to a location without grass.
Colorful Reflections From Surfaces
This applies directly to the aforementioned “green skin effect.” If you have a wall or object in your photo that is reflecting light, it will cause your skin to tint. For example, if you are shooting next to a brick wall with light reflecting on it, the light bouncing off of that wall could cause your subject to have red skin. This is why it’s important to be mindful of where your light is coming from and what it’s bouncing off of.
Blown Out Whites
Certain colors reflect more light. On the opposite ends of the spectrum, you have black and white which have a 5 stop difference between one another. So, theoretically, if you had a truly black and truly white subject in your frame with the same amount of light hitting them, you may have to set your aperture to f2 for white, and f8 for black. In these cases, it’s best to use manual exposure and favor your highlights. Highlights are nearly impossible to salvage when blown out, but you can usually save darker tones. Also, ask your clients not to wear black and white.
Protect The Eyes
As the old saying goes, “the eyes are the window to the soul.” If your subjects are squinting, you won’t take a very flattering photo. This is why I like to make sure my subjects are facing away from the sun whenever possible. This means you’ll be looking at the sun, but at least you’re getting paid.
Most of the time, when someone asks me to shoot mid-day, I strongly advise them against it but I am of the opinion that a good photographer takes great photos at any time of day. The most important tool a photographer has is his/her vision so take your time, embrace your limitations, and try to have a little fun. But also bring a reflector.