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Break The Rule In Midday Photography

No Need For A Lens Break

A traditional rule in photography is to avoid harsh, midday sunlight, but like all rules in photography, learn the rules and then learn to break them effectively. While old school photographers will tell you that noon sunlight is a nightmare and you’re better off taking a siesta, I’ll tell you that’s one photography rule you can break easily if you follow a few photo tips for working in this type of natural, ambient lighting.

Natural Light, Midday Sun, Photography Photo

This photo, featured on the back cover of my lighting book, model Rika is illuminated by the reflected light off the sand and water. The photo was taken in the midday light.

If you’re like me, where you break out your digital camera when the photographic passion itch strikes, you won’t let the midday sunlight stop you, and one of your photography tools that will help you get through this tough time of day is a medium telephoto to telephoto lens (85mm to 300mm).  These types of lenses allow you to crop tight on your subject, thus reducing the amount of harsh shadows found in the overall scene by eliminating harsh distractions out of the frame.

Midday Light, Natural Light, Photography Reflected Light

Elite Agency model Jenni is illuminated with a California Sunbounce Pro reflector while she sits in open shade during the midday hours.

Long lenses, with their increased magnification of the entire scene, help separate your subject from the background too, especially if you place yourself as close as possible to your subject while keeping your subject further away from the background.  The idea is to make your background go out of focus with the lack of depth of field a long lens provides, thus capturing a clean background.  When using long lenses, or any lens during the midday hours, always attach the lens shade or hood, to prevent lens flare, especially since an effective method of capturing a great image during these hours is to shoot with the Sun behind your subject.

Simply place your subject’s back to the Sun, then place yourself directly in front of your subject, utilizing your subject to block the Sun from entering the camera lens. Depending on the type of light meter built in your digital camera, set your aperture values one or two F/stops wider than the meter indicates. Obviously your meter will indicate your exposure is overexposed, just ignore that warning and you’ll notice the tighter you crop and compose your image frame, the overexposure warning may shift to a correct exposure value.  Regardless, expose for your subject’s skin, not for the digital camera meter value of the overall scene.

When determining your exposure values, it’s best to start with higher shutter speeds, such as 1/1000th and up, as you’ll be battling the Sunny 16 Rule, which simply states that on a bright sunny day, if you set your shutter speed to match your ISO, then your aperture value at F/16, you’ll get a correctly exposed image.  So if your camera ISO is set at 100, and your shutter speed at 1/100th, then set your aperture value at F/16 for a correct exposure, however, since we’re shooting with the Sun behind us, in order to expose the subject’s face properly, we’d set the aperture value at least one or two F/stops faster, either F/11 or F/8.

Fast Lenses In Midday Photography
Faster aperture value lenses work best with midday photography.  My favorites are the Canon 85mm F/1.2L USM and the 70-200mm F/2.8L IS USM zoom telephoto lenses.
In addition, we’re trying to keep the background clean and out of focus with a long lens, so we’d prefer a wide, or faster aperture value such as F/4.0, F/2.8 or even lower and thusly we’d raise the shutter speed (following the Sunny 16 rule) to offset the additional light entering the camera.  A great exposure value at ISO 100 might be 1/1000th at F/4.0 or 1/2000th at F/2.8 as starting points and then you can increase or decrease your shutter speed and aperture values accordingly to suit your photographic style.

If you feel the “over lit” background just doesn’t fit your photographic style, then reverse both your subject’s and your position so the sun is behind you and in front of the subject.  Normally the Sun is not directly overhead, so find your shadow and use it like a scrim to block direct sunlight on your subject’s face.  Again, you’ll probably be overexposing your photo if you go by your digital camera’s light meter reading—and again, ignore this, just ensure your subject’s skin is properly exposed by chimping your LCD screen.

Midday Light Photo, Natural, Ambient Light Photograhy

Tess is captured during the midday in an open shade environment. While the background it overexposed, it's also considered today in photography "over lit" and editors do find it acceptable.

In this style of shooting, you might find it works best if you position yourself level to your subject’s face, or a low position relative to your subject.  Also shoot into a darker background area, like a tree, shrub or dark building wall and avoid shooting at a level that features the sky as the background.  Overexposing a darker background tends to brighten it up in an image and doesn’t normally leave the viewer in believing it’s overexposed.  In fact, it looks more normal to the viewer.

One thing to consider about the background, especially if you have a dark and light area that tend to form a line, like a horizon line from where the sky meets the land, watch for the position of the that line within the photograph.  Always avoid this line from lining up with your subject’s eyes or shoulders and never place a horizon line in the center of an image.  A horizon line should not dissect your subject at the eyes, neck or shoulders.

If you’re still not satisfied, then wait for a cloud to roll in to diffuse the sunlight, or place your subject under a tree or other open shaded areas. Try to line your camera lens up with your subject where you’ll shoot into a dark background.  This helps keep an appearance of correct exposure in your photo, even though the image is truly overexposed. If you feel your exposure is too overexposed for your background, you can close your aperture by one F/stop value or more by merely reflecting light onto your subject with a California Sunbounce Pro reflector—try and use the Zebra fabric first, then if you want more light and contrast, switch to a silver fabric. Gold works well too as the light color temperature in shade is cooler and the gold fabric will help cancel out the blueness normally found in shaded areas.

Fast Aperture Lens Photography Midday Photo

This photo of Tess was taken during the midday lighting while she was underneath a pool umbrella. The tight crop helped make this photo usable during this time of day.

While technically your exposure is for the correct exposure of your subject, ultimately the rest of the scene illuminated by the midday sunlight is overexposed.  If you don’t have a California Sunbounce reflector, another practical method to keep the entire scene properly exposed, is to simply use fill-flash to either balance your subject’s exposure with the entire scene or over-power the sun with flash. This also helps if you’re not too crazy about shooting into a darker background or not impressed by an over lit background. If you have both a California Sunbounce reflector and only an on-camera fill-flash, you can do a hybrid combination of bouncing the flash into the reflector so the reflector bounces back a softer flash fill onto your subject, as camera flash units are more specular and harsh, similar to midday Sun.

Midday Photography, California Sunbounce Reflector

Magnum photographer Eli Reed photographs Rika using a California Sunbounce to reflect light on her in open shade.

It’s all about your personal taste and photographic style. When your photographic passion strikes during what old school photographers call midday light, or the harshest hours of sunlight, all you have to do is prove to them that you can break the rules effectively. It’s easy, simply choose the right lens, crop tight, set the correct aperture values and if necessary, use a reflector or fill-flash. Breaking the rules is not hard to do in photography.

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  1. For such a short article this by far the best aritcle I have ever read on shooting at midday.

    • Michael,

      Thank you for very much for your kind words. I plan on more articles soon. Please let your friends and colleagues know about us. Thanks, rg.

      • Great article. Heading to Miami next week to shoot and these ideas really come in handy since I’ve got 3 models to shoot on the beach but only two days of sunrises in which to shoot. Thanks for the information!

        • Jack,

          Thanks for the nice words. Please let your fellow photographers and colleagues know about Lens Diaries™. Thanks, rg.

  2. Great information since some of my clients can’t fall within the golden hour. I will be using the Sunbounce this Saturday for a 12 PM shoot. Would love to see some of these kind of articles on indoor setups showing all the background lighting and set ups. Hope to meet you in USVI in May of 2011.

    Blair Darst

  3. Thanks for the tips! I’ll be shooting for the first time in front of water fountains on a lake with the family in front. I was looking for advice on how I could capture the water and clients without major blow out, or funky contrast. Wish me luck!


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Welcome to (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

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