Any photographer will tell you – you do not take portraits in direct sunlight. It’s ugly. It’s much too contrasty. It wreaks havoc on automatic exposure and tests all sorts of other boring technical aspects of a camera to the limit. It’s difficult to pose in, difficult to see in; it creates dark this and blown out that everywhere and one should always, always avoid it. Look for a shade instead. Find yourself an arc, a tree, anything at all under or inside which you can hide your subject and bathe him/her in smooth, soft, brilliant light. You do not shoot portraits in direct sunlight. Nothing good ever comes out of it.
Sorry, I can’t. That’s rubbish.
Before we go any further, there might be a couple of things I have to admit. I, too, often seek shade to place my subjects in. And, if such a chance does not present itself, I will shoot into the sun (either to avoid direct sunlight or, when shade choice is ample, add some brilliant light into the mix) more often than not. And second, the above photograph might have been taken in direct sunlight, but it was gorgeous and not its usual harsh self (a cloud was already moving in to soften the light). So I am cheating here a little bit, but since I told you that myself, you shan’t hold that against me and we may continue!
It’s Harsh, and All the Better For It
You all know the saying – “there is time and place for everything”. There is also a mood, state and emotion for every light. And environment, actually. And a bunch of other factors, all interlaced in every way possible. Now, if the light compliments that emotion created by the person, environment and, of course, the photographer, the image works. Simple as that. What sort of light it may be does not matter – even if you fire a built-in flash directly at your subject as the only light source or use street lights for portraiture. And it certainly holds true for direct, harsh sunlight.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the light source and its character do not matter, what matters is how you use that particular light to your advantage. For example, had I asked the couple to kiss romantically in the light that “drew” the above image, that photograph would’ve been terrible mainly because of how at odds the subject, their actions and the mood would be with the light. I also would avoid formal portraits in that light unless my subjects were very emotional – were they to laugh hard as I photograph them, it would work brilliantly.
Now, if I were to simplify harsh light, I would tell you that it is inherently “dynamic” and compliments that sort of subject better. Generally, that’s true, but photography is never really that simple. I risk contradicting myself, but as I described an image that would not work just seconds ago, I could already see in my head how I could pull it off by changing composition (with a much tighter framing, perhaps) and the angle at which the sun hits my subjects to create deeper, more prominent shadows for a more romantic, perhaps even passionate mood. I guess photography – art in general – is full of contradictions, for even the slightest change in one aspect can turn everything around completely.
There is a Caveat…
The reason why harsh, direct sunlight is avoided is the shadows that it creates. The shadows is what we find disturbing – they draw unflattering lines on the faces of our subjects, and we try to avoid that by making them less prominent. In other words, by adjusting our settings to make them lighter. That is the biggest mistake. Trying to fix an inherent characteristic of the light and basically turning it into a different kind of light altogether is bound to fail. What’s the solution? Simple – use the shadows. Turn them into what’s interesting about that light.
As you may understand, keeping a close eye on where the shadows fall and how is extremely important, thus the angle at which light hits the subject is crucial. But that’s not all. In order for direct sunlight to work well as a source of light for, say, portraiture, exposing for highlights and not the shadows is often a good decision. Not even somewhere in the middle, but to an extent where the image is almost underexposed.
Now, I am not one to proclaim strict rules, there is always the other side of the coin with creativity, always more than two ways to do something. This particular case is no different – if your idea, your image, the mood, the emotion demands it, expose for the shadows and send those highlights to hell. That’s fine. If it works, it works and there’s not much else that can be said. Generally, I try to pull those shadows down and, by doing so, emphasize, draw the eye in towards the lighter portions of the image and how they affect us, the viewers. Why? Because it is the shadows that help us see the beauty of light, as contradictory as that may sound. Exposing for the shadows will give a completely different mood and, in the end, it’s your call. For example, here is an image that I took of one of my couples simply walking down one of Vilnius’ beautiful streets. I made two copies – one is exposed for the shadows, the other – for the highlights.
Both can work, but I would choose the “darker” one myself. That’s how I see in harsh, direct sunlight, literally. That is how I see the image to end up looking even before I take it, I just like that mood a little more. You may disagree and that is only natural – different taste and the choices we make is what makes us interesting as individuals, photographers and artists.
There is also the matter of comfort that dictates certain decisions that you will make. Staring directly at the sun is hardly a leisure for your clients, so you can either ask them to close their eyes and relax, or have them look the other way. Also, more often that not, it is easier to work with a few big shadows than a bunch of small ones – the latter just look chaotic, while the former can be successfully used to highlight important elements within your frame by using the shadows (which, by the way, act as a sort of negative space and emphasize areas of your choice). You can make certain choices to turn seemingly “small” shadows into big ones by simply shooting close-ups/using tighter framing.
Whatever you do, remember – whilst you can use harsh light successfully, that does not mean you always should. Sometimes – quite often, actually – finding a softly lit spot is the better choice. For example, the following image was taken in a shade and the soft, diffused light works well here:
Notice how the upper left corner of the gazebo is touched by harsh light and is blown-out – that’s not “pretty”. I don’t like that and I would have avoided it if it were possible in that particular case. Luckily, the bride was lit beautifully. Had I found her sitting in harsh light, this would have been a completely different photograph.