Summer is coming and that means one thing for many photographers: the dreaded midday sun! Fear not people, you can use that harsh light to your advantage.
I’ve been asked a lot of questions lately in response to my 365 project regarding shooting in midday sun. How do you do it? Why is everything blown out when I shoot in midday sun? So, I figured it was best to write down some tips and tricks I use.
#1. Close That Aperture
A great starting point is to close off that aperture.
Trying to shoot at f/2 in midday sun is not gonna happen unless you have a decent ND filter. I’ll keep this simple as not everyone has a fancy filter set. Close off your aperture to around f/11 and expose for the highlight. That really is the key to success.
You may find your exposure meter jumping left to right trying to determine the correct exposure, and that’s probably because you’re in AV or auto (no shame in that). Your camera is trying to find the correct exposure for the shadow and then highlight as you move around the frame. This is why manual exposure for the shutter speed especially is very important.
Lock down your settings exposed for the highlight and enjoy a calm and still exposure meter. While shooting high contrast scenes don’t be afraid to take the meter with a pinch of salt. I’m never really interested in the meter once I get close to what I’m after. I will use the LCD screen and blinking highlight alerts (very important to have switched on for me) to judge the overall exposure I’m looking for.
I’m very particular about my exposures in camera. I typically will only plus/minus a third of a stop in post. Anything more and I pretty hard on my self for messing the exposure. Modern cameras are incredible at adding exposure but it’s no excuse for poor exposure in camera. With correct exposure your colors and contrast will be deeper and your image will be cleaner on import.
Here is an example (Gothenburg, Sweden) of a simple to capture image but due to the contrasting light it gives it a deep and dynamic overall tonal quality.
#2: Don’t be Afraid to Chimp
We have a LCD screen on your camera so don’t be afraid to use it. Don’t feel guilty for using the modern tools. A few years ago you would have to crack open a Polaroid to check your exposure before shooting the finals. Now it’s instantaneous.
Embrace the current advantages we have in photography and enjoy the fact that it’s easier now than its ever been to learn and improve at a rapid pace. I take the same stance on cropping, I’m never afraid to crop the image to get what I need. I use 20 to 22 megapixel cameras so I don’t have a massive range to crop before quality is degraded, but I will crop if needed.
#3: Find a Dynamic Scene
Midday sun images tend to work better if they can give an overall dynamic sense of light. Deep shadows and bright highlights will do this. Find a scene that represents all these tonal shifts and make your composition.
Take your time to nail the exposure and if your working on street photos be patient. Find the composition first, get your exposure correct and then wait for the subject to come into frame to finish off the image. Some purist regard this as cheating, it’s not a spontaneous style but it’s the preferred style of Henri Cartier-Bresson. If it works for him I’m not going to feel bad about getting my exposure and composition locked down before finishing the image off with the subject at peak positioning.
Sometimes you do need to move quick. A matter of 10-20 seconds is all you have sometimes but the more you do this the better you will become. The absolute best thing about midday sun is the exposure will have the same intensity and quality (see inverse square law). Provided that no clouds interrupt the sun you will have the same settings for a good hour at a time. This is an example taken from Stockholm, Sweden. Notice the clouds blocking some light and the sun illuminating the train and walkway. Very simple to shoot but excellent dynamic contrast help give interest to the image.
#4: Get Out Earlier
Get up early if you’re not looking for the harsh midday aesthetic.
There are benefits to the midday sun giving sharp contrast and vibrancy but getting up early will give a totally different but just as dynamic look. Morning light is often side lit and a little softer, but still with that glowing pleasing illumination of the definition and detail.
It’s far easier to play with all variations of rim lighting while the sun is rising/setting as the sun is normally at a lower angle (not directly above) and with a lesser intensity. The first image below is from Carnaby Street in central London early in the morning. Second image is from the north of Sweden again early in the morning.
#5: Shoot for Shadows
I love the shadows that are created with this type of light. Use these to your advantage to create some interesting compositions. Lead the eye to your desired focal point of the image. Important note to think about, the eye will always gravitate to the brightest part of the image first. You can use this to your advantage to get the viewer where you want them on first look.
#6: Study the Shapes
Those deep shadows are a great way to create something interesting and unique (time dependant) from inanimate objects. I love playing around with composition when I have hard dark lines to work with. It’s a fun way to see the mundane.
#7: Using Direct Light
Don’t feel like you have to make a dynamic image all the time, sometimes just taking a picture of what is in front of you correctly exposed is all you need. Close the aperture to avoid blown highlights and treat it like a cloudy day (find areas of space without exposure changes/light changes).
#8: Find Some Shade
If all fails and your having a rough time in the sun, head for shade. I always gravitate towards full shade from above the subject as this will give a very natural almost softbox look to the light (side lit and soft).
Hopefully this post can inspire some people to embrace the midday sun and have some fun! Photography is an incredibly enjoyable hobby which really can stretch the creative and emotional muscles if done with success. Also don’t be afraid to fail as even failure is growth in the bigger sense of development.
In fact, failure is the number one motivator pushing me forward on my creative journey. Embrace the missed frames and exposures as you will get better each and every time.
About the author: Andy Hayball is a wedding and portrait photographer based in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he lives with his beautiful family. He’s currently working on a 365 day project that started with the birth of his daughter Olivia. You can find more of his work and writing on his website, where this article was also published.