Photo Shoot Tips

How To Shoot a Portrait With Amazing Lighting in Bright Sunlight

With no reflectors or lights

Shoot a portrait in bright sunlight?

Are you kidding me? Harsh light? Heavy shadows? Squinting subjects?… OMG that sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Well, it can be a disaster unless you are willing to break some rules and be a little creative. Let’s take a look at how we can shoot awesome portraits and modeling shots outside in bright sunlight in the middle of the day – without using reflectors or a flash to fill in the harsh shadows.

We have all had that experience where you go outside to photograph a model or shoot a portrait only to realize that the lighting sucks because it’s the middle of the day and the sun is high in the sky.

I rarely shoot with lighting equipment or reflectors outside. It’s just a pain in the butt unless I have an assistant along to help with the stuff, not to mention that it eats up time to set-up and test your lighting. If you have the extra time – go for it.

Generally I have a limited amount of time to get my shot, so my approach is to KISS IT! – Keep it simple stupid.

The easiest solution is open SHADE!

How to shoot a portrait in bright sunlight

Yup, to shoot a portrait in bright sunlight without strobes or reflectors, place your subject in the shade. Even in the middle of the day you can find shade almost anywhere. Good shade creates soft, even, flattering light that is awesome for portraits and modeling shots.

4 important tips for PLANNING & MAKING the shot

1. Outfits: Always discuss outfits with your subject BEFORE the day of the shoot. This will insure that you don’t have any surprises due to poor taste AND it will allow you to plan ahead for step 2. Remember, solid colored clothing works best. Prints, patterns and florals are distracting and take attention away form your subject.

2. Location: Given that we already know we are shooting mid-day in less than ideal lighting, the most important decision you need to make is your location.

I tend to look for locations with a background that is either solid in color or that will help me to sell the idea of the photograph. I also love locations that I can turn into an interesting and subtle background by taking advantage of shallow depth of field.

Be sure to avoid busy backgrounds at all costs. The photograph is of a person – not the background. You don’t want things in the background that will distract the viewers attention from your subject and you definitely don’t want background objects growing out ofpeople.

The background doesn’t have to be in the shade, only your subject does. You will see what I mean when we get to the examples.

3. Gear: If you are shooting a portrait or a shot for a modeling portfolio, you will want to use a short to medium telephoto lens so that you have a little compression and are able to limit your depth of field.

For many years I used a 70-200mm zoom, but of late, I have switched to strictly prime lenses and will use either an 85mm or 100mm lens for my people shots. All of these are fine – work with what you have and are most comfortable with.

I would suggest that you avoid wide angle lenses unless you are going after something creative and want the distortion.

4. NO Auto Exposure: This is NOT a scenario where you should be using AUTO exposure on your camera.The examples that you will see below are also situations that will routinely fool your cameras light meter. Remember, AUTO is the four -letter word for FUGETTABOUTIT!

Some of my favorite types of locations for outdoor shooting in bright sunlight

Here are some examples of shots where I have used this technique along with the how’s and why’s that you should keep in mind before you run out to shoot a portrait in bright sunlight.

The side of a building in the shade

This one is only available to me during the summer months. This barn is covered with beautiful green ivy. With my model leaning against the wall, I can encourage her to be playful and I don’t have to worry about having bad light if she turns to her left or right. The sunlight that illuminates everything in front of her creates a soft, even and flattering light with wonderful catchlights in her eyes.

The side of a building creates wonderful open shade
A wooded area with lots of tall trees

One of my favorite shade spots to shoot in is a small park near my studio that has just a few acres of dense trees that in the summer time provide a wonderful canopy that creates lots of shade.

The dense foliage of the canopy lets in just a little sunlight from above, but most of it comes in from the edges so that you get a nice horizontal band of light that hits your subject from the front instead of above.

If I move deeper into this mini Forrest, I can get effects like this . . .

Open shade deeper in to the wooded canopy

If I shoot closer to the edge, I get lighting like this . . .

Lighting closer to the edge of the wooded area

Again, this is not lighting that is conducive to AUTO Exposure settings. Shoot manually, make sure you really understand depth of field and how to control it, because in this woodsy setting it would be very distracting if you don’t make your background blurry.

There is no right or wrong. Sometimes I am working with my model backlit like you see here

Outdoor portrait lighting example

Outdoor portrait example #6

Other times, I am working with my model front lit and closer to the edge of the wooded area for a bolder light and darker background.

There is an almost limitless number of variations on this concept.

Open shade from a picnic pavilion

The picnic pavilion

This could be almost any structure that has an over hang or canopy. Place yoursubject just out of the sun like you see in the example above, and get wonderful results like these . . . no reflector needed.

You should notice that I had my model turn slightly towards the sunlight to get a nice even light on her face

I know the title of the article says no reflectors – to be clear, I was talking about the kind you buy in camera stores or at Wal-Mart. There are tons of options for natural reflectors if you pay attention.

Back in my favorite wooded spot, when winter comes and there is no canopy from the leaves, if I wait for a snowfall, the snow becomes a wonderful reflector that allows me to put the sun behind my model in the middle of the day.

Using snow as a natural reflector

Outdoor lighting with a natural reflector

Here is an example of shot taken at 1:00pm in the afternoon with the sun high and behind the subject. The white concrete serves as a great reflector to create an extremely broad light source with soft even lighting.

When the model came down off the wall, I was able to shoot the headshot below without any additional lighting adjustments.

**Be sure to watch the video above for more images and tips.

White concrete becomes a natural reflector

Develop your images

Beginners often comment that when you look at these locations in the shade, the colors look cool toned and muted. To the human eye – YES, they do. To your camera, if you are exposing properly and working with the proper color balance, the colors will reproduce naturally and with a little boost of the contrast and vibrance settings in Lightroom, Photoshop or Capture One, you will have an amazingly well lit image.

Just like in the film days, your images need to be DEVELOPED. You should be shooting in RAW and EVERY image that you intend to use should be adjusted in post production.

So there you have it, you can shoot a portrait in bright sunlight and get great results without loads of lighting gear or reflectors. You do need to learn to SEE LIGHT and that takes practice – lots and lots of practice.

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

Watch the VIDEO

Curious about the gear I use?

Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
Back to top button