I’ve been a portrait photographer for most of my life and I have learned my trade as I tackled each genre throughout my career. Perhaps the most useful of these was wedding photography. I’ve photographed couples and guests in all kinds of weather over the 400 weddings that I have shot.
A lot of emphasis in the training that I deliver is placed on creating light using flash or continuous lights, but one often overlooked subject is how to make portraits in full sunlight – how to avoid squinting, flare, hot spots on foreheads and harsh shadows. It’s easy to get it wrong when shooting portraits in full sun so many photographers do the obvious thing by playing it safe and head for the shade. In this feature I’m going to share my techniques and cheats for full sun portrait shooting.
01. Top: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF110mmF2 lens at f/2. The last sun of the day goes through more atmosphere and is easy to look towards so this is a good time of day to use the sun as a key light. Bottom left: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF110mmF2 lens at f/2. I love to use a hat to cut out the direct sun on a face, especially when it is high in the sky. Reflected light from the ground is often enough to fill the shadows. Bottom right: Fujifilm GFX 50s + XF110mmF2 lens at f/2. Shooting towards the light is the easiest and at the middle of the day the sun might be too high and scoot down the face so a wide brimmed hat is a great asset. These shots were taken in Arizona and the wearing of hats goes with the territory.
02. Left: Fujifilm X-T10 + XF90mmF2 lens at f/8. This shot taken in full noon sunlight in Rotterdam was made possible because of the sunglasses. Notice how the shadow of the top rim of the glasses shades the models pupils. Right: Fujifilm X-T1 + XF56mmF1.2 at f/3.6 Even with sunglasses it is okay to have closed eyes as required. I love how the colour of the lenses projects onto the face of my model. I went for a narrow colour gamut for this shot by choosing a dress that matches the background. Hard sunlight when used well can give a crisp look to a portrait.
03. Left: Fujifilm X-T1 + XF16-55mmF2.8 lens at f/8. I chose the yellow dress for this shoot while shopping in the UK for this trip. I had the blue Spanish sky in mind at the time. Sunglasses makes anything possible when shooting in full sun. Right: Fujifilm X-T2 + XF35mmF1.4 lens at f/8. I like to place a light subject against a dark background and this curved wall in Pisa provided me with the perfect opportunity to create a background gradient with sunlight. I like to keep the shadows and highlights within my control so using JPEG settings of S tone -2 and H tone -1 with Pro Neg S film simulation gives me an EVF image that I can use to accurately set my exposure. I find all other film simulations seem to compress the shadow detail blocking it out and this is no good for assessing the exposure of high contrast scenes like this.
04. Left: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF110mmF2 at f/8. For this shot taken in a sunlit alleyway in Siena, I set the exposure for the shadows using screen settings described in shot 3. The highlights looked after themselves but I did zoom in to spot check. I always use manual exposure mode because none of the auto settings will give consistent exposures. Right: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF110mmF2 at f/2.5. For this close-up in the same lighting set up, I directed the model to close her eyes. I love the calmness this creates in the portrait and her eyelash shadows are fabulous.
05. Left: Fujifilm X-Pro2 + XF23mmF1.4 lens at f/2.5. I knew this shot on a Parisian balcony would work well because the exterior wall of the hotel made a great reflector. I asked my model to look to camera and because I was standing in the dark doorway, she did not have to squint. When you are in sunlight what you look at makes a big difference. Football players can play in full sun without squinting or needing sunglasses because the grass has about an 18% reflectance that cuts the glare. On a sandy beach or in snow its a different matter because of the reflectivity of the sand and snow. Right: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF32-64mmF4 at f/4. There are times when, in the past, I would have to either expose for the highlights or the shadows but not be able to capture them both. The GFX has changed that completely. The X-T3 with its backside illuminated sensor should be able to handle a greater dynamic range too. I’ve yet to put it to the test.
06. Top left: Fujifilm X-T2 + XF56mmF1.2 lens at f/1.2. The morning light dappled by an olive tree in Tuscany was a perfect scene illuminator. My model had no trouble looking towards my camera set up under the tree. Top right: Fujifilm X-Pro2 + XF23mmF1.4 at f/2.8. The dappled shadows in this shot were on a slab of concrete on the ground in a park in Switzerland. I asked my model to remove her glasses and close her eyes. I placed the glasses on her for maximum effect. Bottom left: Fujifilm X-T2 + XF56mmF1.2 lens at f/4. This dappled light in the centre of Pisa was perfect for a striking portrait. I just had to place my model in the perfect position to avoid blotches on her face. Bottom right: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF23-64mmF4 lens at f/4. Patterned, striking light is my new set up. The dynamic range of the GFX makes shots like this possible. Is it any good or just a gimmick? Time will tell.
07. Top: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF110mmF2 lens at f/2. Shooting into the evening light near Volterra in Italy gave the shot a flarey look. I used a lens hood on my GF110mm lens but I still had to control the excess flare with my outstretched hand. A bit of flare is good. Bottom left: Fujifilm X-Pro1 + XF60mmF2.4 lens at f/2.4 Summer grass makes a great reflector. I like to use hats to get rid of the top light and let the grass fill the shadows. I then expose for the shadows, letting the whites bleach out. Bottom right: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF110mmF2 lens at f/2. I shot this frame into the sun through the long grass. The GF110mm lens is my new favourite optic. The bokeh is as good as the XF60mmF2.4 and the depth of field is similar to the XF56mmF1.2.
08. All three shots: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF110mmF2 lens at f/2. These shots taken in the September sun in Bristol show how it’s quite possible to shoot open eye sunlit portraits when the conditions are right.
09. Top left: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF23-64mmF4 lens at f/4.5. The evening light, together with Fujifilm Velvia film simulation, really brought out the colours in this set of pictures from Cuba. Bottom left: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF110mmF2 lens at f/5.6. Just before sunset it is quite possible to open your eyes when looking towards the sun. Right: Fujifilm GFX 50s + GF110mmF2 lens at f/2.
I hope this article has given you some ideas about how to make portraits on sunny days. If you live in the southern hemisphere this feature will be timely as you are entering a period where the days are getting longer. I love to embrace sunlight and include it in my work where I can whatever the time of year.
If you would like to shoot alongside me on a workshop or adventure be sure to check out my website.