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6 Tips for Taking Portraits in Bright Sun

Shooting in the middle of the day is a photography no-no but sometimes, especially when traveling, you have no choice but to make the most of the harsh light. Here are 6 methods for getting better images in the heat of summer without having to carry a lot of extra tools with you.

Shooting in the middle of the day is a photography no-no but sometimes, especially when traveling, you have no choice but to make the most of the harsh light. Here are 6 summer photography shooting tips for getting better images in the heat of summer without having to carry a lot of extra tools with you.

Turn Your Back on the Sky But Face the Sun

It seems counterintuitive but you want your subject to face away from the sun. Light coming from behind your subject separates them from their background in a pleasing way. However, your subject’s face may be dark. To counter this, use Exposure Compensation or meter specifically for your subject. This may overexpose your background a bit but it beats having a squinting, raccoon-eyed subject.

Practice using the Exposure Compensation dial on your camera.

Having a big open space behind you, as opposed to trees or dark buildings, will help keep your subject’s face bright even when they have their backs to the sun. The best combination is to find a location where the sun can be behind or at an angle to your subject while placing them against a dark background – like the very trees you’re trying to avoid having behind you.


Put the open sky as much behind you as possible with the sun (and a separating, dark background) behind your subject. This minimized shadows on the girl’s face and the sun provided a pleasing rim light around her hair and shoulders. When shooting on Program, Aperture Priority, or Shutter Priority modes, you can override your camera’s exposure quickly with the Exposure Compensation dial.

In short, a great formula for outdoor, high-noon portraits without additional tools is to have open sky behind you and the sun’s direction behind your subject, preferably filtered through darker scenery. Want to improve this even more? Put a reflector in front of your subject. The sun coming from behind them will hit that reflector and bounce that light back into the front of your scene.

Seek Out Environmental Reflectors

Beach sand, those creepy white vans, house siding – these things all provide potential reflected light opportunities in a pinch. Putting the reflective object behind you, next to, or even just below your subject will help brighten their face. Pay attention to your surroundings – opt for shooting near the sand instead of the grass or look for white wall siding instead of red brick.


Take your subject out of the open sun and find some shade. The white pillar on the right softens and brightens shadows thanks to its light, reflective color and is an, overall, better sightseeing snap.

When you’re traveling, it’s okay to be picky about where you shoot. Don’t shoot at the first opportunity – especially if you’re out in the middle of the day. Find shade, preferable near something white for bounced light.

Get Creative with Sun Bursts

The quickest way to play around with sunbursts is to use a small aperture, like f/8 or higher. If you’re not comfortable shooting fully manually, putting your camera into Av, or Aperture Priority, mode will allow you to control just your f/stop while the camera does the rest of the settings. Again, if your subject or foreground looks too dark – dial up your exposure with the Exposure Compensation dial.


A quick recipe for sunbursts: Shooting toward the sun with a high aperture (f/8 or so) and partially block the sun with a person, tree, or building.

Sunbursts look most dramatic when partially obscured by an object. Wider lenses produce larger bursts than telephotos, too.

Overhead Diffusion in the Sun

Scrims, or glorified bed sheets on frames, is the perfect mid-day tool. In just about any bright condition, an overhead scrim will soften shadows and generally make shooting in the sun a pleasure.


Scrims are a favorite, easy-to-use tool for photographers and videographers alike.

The larger the scrim the better but even the smallest amount of overhead diffusion will help. Unlike with bed sheets, you can more easily choose your level of diffusion. Try the Matthews 6×6 Break-A-Part Butterfly Frame Kit, the Westcott Scrim Jim Reflector Kit, or the Matthews RoadFlags II 48 x 48 Kit.

Filters to Use While Shooting in Bright Sunlight

Filters are the quickest way to make prettier photos in bright conditions. There are many kinds of filters but the two kinds you’ll want to experiment with to start are:

A) Circular Polarizing Filters
B) Neutral Density Filters

Ego Alley in a Polarizer

Circular polarizers improve just about any sunny scene, especially skies and water.

Circular polarizers reduce glare and reflections from water surfaces and other shiny environments as well as help to define clouds and skies. While polarizers help saturate the colors of your scene, you also lose about 3 stops of light – great for bright conditions but worth keeping in mind when adjusting for exposure.

ND filters absorb light that comes in through the lens so they, in short, will darken your overall scene. This is especially useful when wanting to shoot at very wide apertures in the bright sunlight and it also ideal for slowing your shutter down to blur water or express motion without overexposing.

See Differently in Black and White

Sometimes unsalvageable lighting conditions are saved by converting to black and white. Shadows become marks of distinction rather than garish distractions.

Head shot of young afro american woman in urban surrounding

Shooting in (or converting your images to) black and white can sometimes save otherwise poor lighting conditions.

If you’re out and want to shoot at the absolute worst time of day to do it then this is a fast way to still have fun and challenge yourself. Look for interesting shadows, weird patterns of light, and other abstract ways to capture your environment and make the most out of “bad light”.

Try out each of these tips to make the most out of your growing photography skills this summer!

Tags: , , , , Last modified: July 7, 2021