Challenge Yourself: Shoot in Harsh Sunlight

Ice Cold

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the old saying about the “magic hour” and “waiting for the light to be right”. Pah… if you want to get out and shoot, then get out and shoot. Don’t wait for the evening light or an overcast day. Harsh direct sunlight may be a little more difficult to deal with, but it has a few merits too. I actually prefer to shoot in the afternoon sun because it produces such a drastically different result than “soft light” situations.

One big reason photographers (particularly those using digital cameras) like to avoid direct sunlight is because of the limited dynamic range of the sensor. If the light is too harsh, you’ll end up clipping your shadows or highlights (or both). We’ve been trained to believe that clipping is a terrible thing and it will ruin your photo. Not true… you just have to be more careful about controlling the clipping and force the camera to produce what you want it to.

Other reasons people whine about direct sunlight shooting include: shadows, too much light for the sensor, lens flare, it’s hot, it hurts their eyes, it’s their nap time, blah, blah, blah, etc., etc.

The Lifeguard

So, seriously, don’t be bummed out next time you find yourself equipped with a camera and faced with some bright light. Here are a few pointers for shooting in harsh sunlight situations:

  • If you’re on digital, expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall out.
  • Seek out subjects that produce interesting shadows, or even make the shadows the subject.
  • Check your histogram often and make sure the camera is giving you what you want.
  • Use your lens hood to avoid excess flares and glares.
  • Don’t shoot directly at the sun with a digital camera; it’ll look stupid, plus your sensor doesn’t like it.
  • Process the photos as black & white; high contrast tends to look better without color.
  • Your f/1.4 lens is useless, so don’t worry about bringing fast glass.
  • Use shutter priority and max it out; misused aperture priority can cause you to exceed the limits of your shutter and blow out all your photos.
  • Shoot b/w film; it has a higher dynamic range and you can get some really low ISO films (like ISO 50, 25, 12, etc. – can your digital camera do that? I’ve always wondered why ISO 100 was the lower limit…).
  • Break the rules; including the ones you see on this page.

The Place to Be Cruisers

18 thoughts on “Challenge Yourself: Shoot in Harsh Sunlight

  1. dawn

    I actually like lens flare. I think it can greatly add to or enhance an image. The heat, especially here in Arizona, can be a factor. :-) But I still go out and photograph whenever I’m moved to do so, even in the afternoon sun. I think that some of the blow-outs or shadows that you can get in such an environment can make for really dramatic images.

  2. My camera World

    Brian:
    This should be a lot of fun for people to go out and experiment with some really harsh conditions.

    From a compositional point of view I recommend that the person focus more on the design of the shadows, lines and shapes and interesting patterns. The camera will never capture the full details that your eye can. Once captured you will notice how dramatic the shadows have become and these can be good design elements.

    Sometimes when there is a lot highlight material in the scene and these are not the strong parts, do blow out these parts and make sure you can get good detail in the other important subject areas. It becomes a high key image.

    It has been stated many may photographers who have fully embraced digital that the golden hour of light is not really true any more, except for the warmer colour you can get. With proper bracketing of exposures and good software techniques you can now exceed the dynamic range of the beat B&W film and pull out detail from both ends. But I have seen cases at least for my tastes where this has gone horribly wrong. You know the weird HDR images.

    In fact my latest blog article dealt with shooting a wedding in bright sunlight. A little shadow recovery did help for the faces.

    Niels Henriksen

  3. Craig Lee

    I have to agree with you. Wihy give up so much of the day when you can use the light that is available to you in interesting ways. It might take some extra thought, but isn’t that what we have brains for? ;-) Learn how to make good pictures in bad situations.

  4. gregor

    i enjoy shooting in harsh light situations.
    for example
    harsh light means harsh shaddows
    which offer new ways of being creative.
    and shooting in b&w i don’t have a problem with washed out colors.

  5. Mark

    I have to disagree with leaving the fast glass at home; shallow depth of field might be just the thing. Using a polarizer or ND filter can knock down the light and keep you from pushing past the top shutter speed.

    If you have certain flash systems that are compatible with your camera, you can also play with high shutter synch with the flash which leads to some some cool effects, too.

  6. Mike

    It’s not harsh light that’s the problem, the problem is the positioning of the sun. If the sun is right above our heads, the amount of shadow is in many cases minimal. Not enough shadows to compensate for the light, no contrasts… more chance of a dull image.
    So I notice that in summer time (I live 50° North) I tend to shoot less around midday. But in winter time, when the sun doesn’t rise too high above the horizon…I often shoot in the middle of the day. With harsh light!

  7. Dillon Ross

    Great post Brian. When I first started shotting I didn’t concern myself too much with the time of day. However, now I often find myself deciding not to shoot if the light isn’t what I want. After reading you post I’m remind I should just go shoot and see what I can create. Thanks for the reminder and tips. Keep up the great work!

  8. Tim Johnson

    Since this is EpicEdits, if we can assume that most people will be shooting raw, it would be generally better to expose for the shadows (as long as the highlights don’t completely blow out).

    Because digital sensors record more detail in the light and highlight areas than in the dark areas, if you force the sensor to properly record the shadow detail, you can bring the highlights down in post to capture more dynamic range (compared to what you would get if you didn’t adjust levels/curves in post).

  9. the_wolf_brigade

    This is by far the most entertaining post you’ve written! It made me laugh and just makes me want to get out and shoot – something I haven’t been able to do much recently.

    Love the way you start out “If you’re on digital…” lol.

  10. Brian Auer Post author

    @Dawn You’re absolutely right — lens flare can be really cool. It’s just hard to pull off, and more times than not it doesn’t look too good.

    @Niels That’s a good point you make — these harshly lit conditions can give you the option of creating both high-key or low-key images depending on how you expose.

    @Craig I agree… brains are a good thing. We should use them more often.

    @Gregor I was actually thinking of you when I wrote this post. You are certainly a master of the shadows.

    @Mark Nice catch on the ND filter! I hadn’t thought of that since I don’t have any. I guess my point was that you can’t shoot at f/1.4 unless you have something like an ND filter to block out some of that light. I think most situations (with newer cameras capable of 1/8000 shutter speeds or higher) would only require one or two stops of ND to get that lens opened up. I can usually shoot at f/2 or f/2.8 and still maintain most highlights.

    @Mike Good point on those shadows. Then again, you could just take it as another challenge to find good shots while the sun is directly overhead.

    @Dillon Yup, just get out there and see what you can do. It’s fine to plan certain shots for certain times of the day or “the right light”, but definitely don’t limit all of your shooting to those instances.

    @Tim You’re absolutely right that recovering shadows can result is some really bad data (lots of noise and junk). But I guess when I say “expose for the highlights”, what I mean is don’t let the highlights get blown out. Once you overexpose the highlights (pure white pixels) or underexpose the shadows (pure black pixels) you can’t recover them no matter how hard you try. What I’m getting at is that if you have to choose one, let the shadows drop off the histogram. Why? Because blown highlights look like crap in comparison to underexposed shadows (unless you’re aiming for high-key stuff). The whites are more of an eyesore than the blacks. But maybe that’s just my personal preference.

    @the_wolf_brigade I’m glad somebody saw the humor in it! I thought you might like those little stabs at digital. (not that I have anything against digital, of course)

  11. egm

    Good to know I’m not mad for wanting to photograph at all times of the day regardless of light quality! As you say, if I want a particular outcome that requires a particular light, then I will plan for that. But I won’t let that stop me from taking pictures at other times of the day.

  12. Mandy

    I like shooting in harsh sunlight, it’s a challenge.

    I live in the UK so when we get a sunny day which isn’t always very often with our summers, I’ve got to go out and take some photos!

    I like your tip about black and white I hadn’t thought of that…

  13. Pingback: 10 Things I Hate About Film

  14. Barbara

    Hi Brian – another great post, as everyone gets so hung up on the “magic hours”. I travel a lot, and often have to take pictures when I can – not at the perfect time. Not everything turns out perfect, but with digital I snap away like crazy hoping to get lucky.

    I’ve found that converting to black and white is often the saving grace when I’m stuck in harsh sunlight. Often a picture I would have thrown away takes on a totally different vibe in black and white, and stays in my keepers folder instead of the trash :-)

  15. Heather Jo

    I would LOVE some more tips on this. I’ve just really started getting into photography over the past year or so because I really, really want pics of my kids. Most of the time I’m taking pictures of their soccer or lacrosse games, mid-day on weekends. Pretty much some of the worst possible situations. Fast action with way too much sun! My pics are often washed out or appear over exposed. I’m not sure what setttings/tools to use. I just upgraded to a Canon 7D with the newly released ef 70-200 is II USM 2.8 lens. Not sure if I need filters, different settings, what. I’ve gotten so use to using aperature priority that I pretty much don’t know how to do anything else.

    Any advice would be GREATLY appreciated!!!!!! Thank you!!!!

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