Photography in Harsh Mid-Day Light

Image by Stefania Bragazzi

Photographers have been fighting with harsh mid-day light since the birth of the camera. Excessive contrast, blown highlights, hard shadows, washed images and other generally unflattering features are common to mid-day light. Here are a few tips for working in mid-day light.

Find Some Shade
Perhaps the simplest way to avoid mid-day light is to get out of it. While we can’t ask the sun to speed up, we can certainly hide from it under the shade of buildings, trees, structures and any other number of items both natural and man-made. However, not all shade is created equal. There’s speckled shade and deep shade, wrap shade, side shade, overhead shade, etc.

Remember that shade isn’t the absence of light. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to take a photo of anything in it! Instead, shade is a diffusion of light that is bouncing from or through another medium to reach your subject. It’s important to determine the direction from which light is hitting your subject – often it’s more than one. Generally whatever is the closest reflective object or the thinnest diffusion of the light is your key light source.

It becomes especially important when you take the background into consideration. For instance, a subject at the edge of a shadow with a shaded building behind it will be a brighter exposure and pop out more than a dark background. This is because the sun is bouncing off another building or the ground nearby out of the shadow. Keep moving the subject back toward the darker building and the relative exposures will get closer together – lessening the scene contrast. Turn your subject sideways – dark shade to the left, sun bounce to the right (or vice versa) and you’ll have created a more dramatic side-light. Knowing the direction of the light is important to create different effects.

Primes and Polarizers
Prime lenses and polarizers are great tools to help cut down on the mid-day haze. Primes are generally much sharper lenses than their zoom counterparts and come with the added bonus of handling contrast and flare very well. Ever shoot into the sun only to find green flare and fringing in your photo? Primes do a bit better handling flare and reducing the internal light scattering on the lens element(s). I might also add a good lens hood can do wonders here as well.

Combine this with a polarizer filter and you’ll find much sharper images with stronger color and contrast. Polarizers work to filter out mixed polarization in the light (sounds a bit obvious right?) and cut down on glare and flare as well. It won’t help you take away those under eye shadows on a person in noon light, but it sure will make your landscapes and travel photos far sharper.

Take an Angle on the Light
Taking an angle to the back light on this one let's some highlights spill on the hair and shoulders, but avoids a hot spot on the face and wraps the light around the subject more.

Much of the angst in mid-day photos comes from turning your subject into the sun and getting those harsh under eye circles, squinty eyes and just general high contrast on the skin. If there’s no shade around, you can opt to backlight the person. Just know this will usually cause the sky to blow out if you expose for your subject or your subject will be too dark if you expose for the sky. 

Putting the sun directly behind the person is going to create the strongest scene contrast in this regard. You'll find that if you turn your subject at a 30-45 degree angle you can get a little wrap to the light. Just be careful to watch any large and unflattering hotspots creeping in on the face. You can combine this with the use of a reflector.

Use a Reflector or Scrim
Reflectors and scrim panels (diffusers) are a great way to reduce the contrast between your subject and the surrounding environment. They can be used out in open sun or even in combination with shaded areas. Reflectors come in tons of different sizes, shapes and even colors. The important part of their job is to provide more light in a concentrated area where you want to fill a bit more. 

White reflectors will bounce back the same color light as is around you. Silver will bounce back a stronger, higher contrast light that’s usually pretty neutral in color. It has the tendency give a strobed look depending on the scene contrast. Gold reflectors will warm the light being sent back at your subject and black ones will actually absorb it.

Scrim panels come in different stop increments – sometimes ¼, 2/3, 1 stop and 2 stops. They are placed between your subject and the sun to diffuse and soften the light. A person shaded by a good scrim panel from the front might be very close or the same exposure as the background if it’s a small stop difference. This is a particularly popular technique for magazine cover shots – often combined with the blur of a 70-200mm lens. The relative same effect can be achieved by putting the subject at a 90 angle from the sun and placing the scrim between the sun and subject. The wrap of the light is just different – in this case side light.

If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on high quality reflectors and scrims, there are tons of ways to make these from products around the home or at a local crafts store. They may not work quite as well, but they’ll still function just fine. You can make an easy white reflector by just picking up some foam core panels at a local craft store and taping a few together. Scrims can be made out of anything translucent – but make sure they’re solid white or you’ll cast a color on your subject. 

Light It
On camera flash, mini strobes or full Profoto kits – sometimes you just got to light it. Just keep your general objectives in mind – get rid of those under eye shadows, reduce the scene contrast, create a well exposed subject and background/sky, etc. Your lighting often depends on how much of a strobist effect versus a natural look you want.

However you do it – finding shade, using reflectors/scrims, polarizers or lights – your goal is often to be lessening the scene contrast and avoiding any nasty shadows. Hopefully a few of these tips will help you even the battle against the sun.

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