PHOTOGRAPHY TUTORIALS & TIPS
Free Photography Tutorials, Beginners to Advanced
photography composition category

Photography in Sunlight

Photography is all about light, the direction of the light falling on your subject is most important, you need to look at your subject carefully and watch how the shadows fall.

If you are able to choose the time of day to shoot your pictures, try to pick a time when the sun is low in the sky, either shoot in the early morning or late afternoon. Shooting pictures of people with the sun too high in the sky, tends to mean the subject's eyes will be in shadow and/or they will be squinting in the strong light, both of which tend to look horrible. A nice side effect of shooting in the early morning or late afternoon is that the color of the light is 'warmer', reds and yellows are stronger which generally gives a more pleasing effect.

If you are photographing in sunlight, try to position yourself so that the sun hits your subject from the side, this will give you nice 'modeling' and help create a 3D effect in the picture.

Sunlight behind the subject can give a very pleasing 'backlight' effect but be careful that you are not getting 'flare' in the lens, which degrades the contrast of the image.

Shot in sunlight showing shadows in the eyes Backlit portrait in strong sunlight
A picture taken in the middle of the day, the overhead sun casts deep shadows into the kids' eyes, spoiling an otherwise quite nice little group portrait. The metering system has exposed for the highlights, as it should, and allowed the shadow areas to be under exposed. There is just too much contrast in the scene for the camera to cope. A professional would lighten the shadows using a Lighting Reflector like this. This picture was taken at the same time as the one on the left but here the sun is behind the subject. The metering system has done it's stuff and rendered correctly exposed faces. The highlights of the hair and background are burnt out but, I think in this instance, it gives quite a pleasing effect.
side lighting
An example of side lighting, taken late in the afternoon the side lighting 'models' the surfer well and pulls him away from the background. Also the late sun gives a warmer light.
back lighting
A backlit shot of a dog shaking off water makes an interesting 'pattern' picture. Don't be frightened to face the sun but watch out for lens flare which degrades the contrast of the image, see below. Either use a lens hood or make sure the angle of the camera is not too close to the sun.
Backlit hair in the afternoon sun Strong backlighting showing lens flare
Backlighting can wreak havoc on a bad hair day! Although there is a tiny bit of flare in this picture softening the dressing gown in the bottom right corner, it is of an acceptable level. Moving round a little puts the sun too close to the edge of the frame and causes nasty flare as seen in the rainbow colored streaks above, note how the contrast of the image is much softer. As with all 'mistakes' in photography, you can use this flare to great effect with the right subject.

Of course you can take pictures on cloudy days as well. If you live in northern, less sunny climates, then you may have to. I, personally, find that shooting landscapes or wide shots in cloudy weather is usually not very satisfying. This, I stress, is a very personal thing, some people love the softer light that you get on cloudy days. Indeed on stormy days the sky can be quite dramatic, as can shots taken in the rain.

When I wrote this sitting in my apartment in southern Spain, by 'northern climates' I meant rainy old England, Belgium, Germany etc so imagine my surprise when I received an email from Greenland putting me right on how lovely and sunny it is up there. Have a look.

What I do find cloudy days useful for is shooting close-ups of people or small objects, the reduced contrast is much easier for the camera's metering system to handle, so exposure will be spot on and there will be plenty of detail in both the highlights and the shadows.

With a little magic in Photoshop the contrast of a 'flat' picture can be built up, to some extent, but it is not really possible to make a dull day look sunny. To learn more try this book

Other tutorials in this section

Lighting

Introduction page.

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Available Light

Getting the best out of the sun.

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Using Reflectors

Filling in the shadows.

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Flash

Break away from the in-camera flash.

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Fill-in Flash

Soften those shadows.

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Red Eye Removal

A quick remedy in Photoshop.

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Studio Lighting

An introduction to indoor lighting.

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Inverse Square Law

A bit of Physics for those who feel the need.

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