Tips for Shooting in Direct Sunlight


Several years ago my only focus was portrait sessions, and I had the luxury of scheduling my sessions at the perfect time of day, or rescheduling if the lighting wasn’t just right. When I first began shooting weddings I quickly realized that sometimes (Many times to be exact) you find yourself shooting in less than desirable lighting situations. You suddenly find that portrait time might be at 3pm instead of 7pm during the sunset and there just might not be any way around it. A few years ago this was a terrifying thought for me.

I started looking at the work of Susan Stripling about two years ago and I immediately fell in love with her photography. I devoured every bit of information that she put out there for photographers, and my big aha moment came when I found out that a great deal of her work is shot during mid day in direct sunlight! I couldn’t believe it. Sunrise and Sunset is still my preferred time to shoot, because I love the soft diffused and beautiful light source, but I realized that I had no more reason to have fear when my clients tell me that their only option for their formals is at 2pm. I credit much of what I know to sheer exploration and studying Susan Stripling intently.

The photo below was shot at 5pm (The sun sets here in Texas at 8pm so the sun was still very high). When I started shooting this couple I was on the opposite side and sun was very harsh and direct on them. I decided to turn them around to where their backs were facing the sun, which caused a nice even shadow to fall over both of their faces with a halo of light behind them (back lighting). To avoid the flare from the sun entering into my camera, I am actually perched below the vines you see on the left and wedged in in such a way that the sun is not reaching my lens to overwhelm it. When you back light in this way and choose not to use a fill light such as a flash, you have to meter for their faces and overexpose by at least a stop in order to bring the shadows in their face up, and what you have below is a well exposed and evenly lit image of the couple.


This was the original set up with the sun facing them. As you can tell it is extremely harsh on the couple, but I was still able to use the light, shadows and all to create some dramatic images. This was taken only moments before.


When it came time for this brides formals the sun was also still too high in the sky, casting terrible shadows everywhere. The sun was behind her and a little to the right. I decided to place her in front of this archway which provided a little shade for her and then placed myself under a tiny shaded nook behind me and this was the result. There are hot spots on some of the girls on the side which is unavoidable unless you have massive studio sized diffusers with you, which I don’t, but ultimately I felt that this came out beautifully and I love the contrast.



A few months ago I was photographing an engagement session and we were in a large field where the sun just would not set. It was continuously high in the sky and we were having some difficulty finding shade in this particular field. My solution is one that I learned from Susan in her Creative Live series. I placed my couple with their backs to the sun, as I did above and had my assistant hold a diffuser over my head so that the sun did not enter my lens giving me lens flare. I metered for their faces and overexposed by a stop, and this was the result.


And in this instance I propped myself in front of a tree so that I am in the shade, and I placed my couple in the sun, which is the opposite of what you are typically told to do, but it created that halo of light around them and beautiful natural contrast that I personally love in photography


With Andrea and Tyler, we were confined to shooting at 4pm because the park they had chosen closed at 6, well before the sun sets here in Texas. I used the same principles above, placing myself in the shade, them in the sun, exposing for their faces and then overexposing slightly, and shot at 1.8. There is a little bit of flare at the bottom of the image but I still love it.


I absolutely love this bridal image of Ashlyn. We shot her session during the middle of the day when the sun was high, but there was plentiful shade all around us. I decided to do something a little different and place her in this small circle of sunlight as I stood back in the shade, and what I saw was breathtaking. Sometimes taking a moment to look at your surroundings and see things slightly different from what you are used to enables you to make creative decisions that you might not have done otherwise.


I hope that I have helped someone in their quest to learn how to master shooting in direct sunlight. As you can tell, I didn’t need to use a flash or any external lighting for these images. Some photographers will not shoot in mid day without a flash and they achieve completely different results which is fine. That’s the great thing about art, is that we can all do and see things differently. These are some of my tips and trips and I hope you enjoyed them!

XOXO ~ Jenna Leigh

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