FAQ Fridays: help with shooting under bright sunlight

PrettyGeeky’s FAQ Fridays is a segment on our website where we try to answer your photography questions in plain English. This week’s question deals with something we all have to deal with when taking photos. Read the question and see if you can relate:

Natalie writes:

I have been keeping up with your blog site since the beginning of the fall semester. I’m still very new with photography and I find it much easier to shoot on overcast days than when it is bright and sunny outside. I recently took my d90 out around and took a couple of pictures of my friend & I. But I started to struggle due to the amount of sunlight. So, I decided to wait till close to sunset to shoot. (the picture came out better πŸ™‚ )

However, I want to learn how to overcome this obstacle because I know there will be times when I have to be elsewhere. I was looking through the gearlist and was considering on getting some reflectors. I was hoping if you can give me your input. Thanks in advance! Keeping up with your blog really encourages me to travel all around california. I never made it passed L.A

Before we jump to the answer, here’s a photo from an older post to demonstrate how you can overcome harsh overhead sunlight.

grand canyon snapshots


First off, thanks so much for keeping up with our blog. We hope to not only create pretty pictures πŸ™‚ but to be helpful to other photographers who are starting out as well. Before we talk about reflectors, let’s discuss bright sunny days for a bit.

On sunny days… as you’ve found, it’s best to shoot in the later afternoon hours when the sun is not so directly overhead and powerful. The best tip of all is to avoid sunny days :p. I’m glad you discovered overcast days.. those truly are the best days to shoot outdoors. But if you find yourself having to shoot during bright daylight, you have a few options which we’ll discuss below.

  1. If you want vibrant blue skies, have your subjects face the sun (the sun is now behind you: the camera person).

    Pros: sky is nice and blue.
    Cons: people are squinting. you sometimes get deep shadows under nose, eyes and chin.

    How to improve:

    Turn the subjects a little bit so they don’t directly face the sun. Light coming from a side direction always looks more natural. You can then use fill flash or a reflector to lighten up the shadows under the nose and chin.

  2. If you want to a properly exposed faces w/o squinting, turn your subjects’ backs against the sun (the sun is now in front of you: the camera person).

    Pros: less squinting (though some people just have naturally squinty eyes ;p). sunlight now acts as supporting back/rim light. No harsh shadows under eyes, nose and chin.
    Cons: sky is blown out white. sun is directly hitting the camera which can cause lens flare and loss of contrast in photo.

      How to improve without flash:

    • you can use spot metering on the faces to properly expose for them; this will sometimes blow out the sky and give you a bright background (high-key) effect.
    • you can also turn your subjects a bit so the sun is not directly hitting you. This will give a nice directional rim light to subjects and will also keep the sunlight away from your lens to minimize lens flare and loss of contrast. You can also have your hand or an assistant block the light from directly hitting your lens (will notice a night/day difference in contrast in your photo).
      How to improve with flash/reflector:

    • you can now properly expose for the background or sky (keeping it blue) and use your flash/reflector to light up your subject. A flash is easier to use than a reflector because you are less dependent on perfect angle that a reflector needs to properly bounce back to your subject. Sometimes you just don’t have the perfect angle to place the reflector at.. or the perfect angle places your subjects in a distracting background. A reflector also brings back squinty eyes since the sunlight is now bouncing back to them straight in the face.
    Tips for using flash:

  1. use off-camera speedlights to get more pleasing shadows. direct on-camera flash will give you a DMV mug shot ;p. To improve the look, place your flash off-camera at the proper position to give a more natural directional lighting. A good starting point for flash placement is: 45degrees camera-left and 45 degrees up from eye-level. (here’s an example of us using bare flash in harsh sunlight: the grand canyon shoot)
  2. umbrellas or any diffuser in between the flash and the subject will eat up a lot of the power. This is the reason why we somethings gang up 2 speedlights together (for more power). But if you have to don’t be afraid to use bare flash w/o any umbrella modifiers. You just need to place the speedlights at the correct angles to get natural looking shadows on the nose, chin areas.
  3. If you want to preserve the beautiful setting sky, point up to the sky then hit your exposure lock button (AE-L/AF-L). But when doing this, avoid getting the sun into your frame; it is way to strong and will throw off your exposure metering… just point to a section of the sky behind your subject that does not have the sun in it. This will make sure your camera keeps the sky nice and vibrant. Now that your exposure is locked, point back to your subjects and use your flash to brighten them up. Adjust your flash power if they are still too dark. You can use the power buttons on your speedlight itself, or the Flash Exposure Compensation button on your camera, both will adjust the power of the flash. (For an example of exposing for the sky and lighting up with flash see: the sunset shoot)
    Tips for using reflectors:
    Since the main question is asking for input on using reflectors, here is some general information on reflectors:

  1. The biggest problem with reflectors is that you need an assistant to hold it for you. =/ This also means that your assistant must know how to properly angle the reflector; just as important is for them to keep that angle. How many of you have had your little brother/sister get lazy and have the reflector move from lighting the face to lighting the waist haha. *me: hand up* Typical reflectors are also notoriously tough to handle outdoors in the wind because of their flexible fold-away design.
  2. You can use cheap foam boards from your general crafting store as great makeshift reflectors. Because they are rigid foam boards they are easier to handle in the wind and their white color gives a soft white reflection.
  3. If your reflector causes harsh shadows, you can try to “feather the light”. Instead of aiming the light directly at their face, aim a little off to the side of the face. Here’s an example of using just reflectors in bright daylight.

Reflector gear info:

If you look at our gear page, you will see the reflectors we use are:

  1. Westcott Photo Basics 304 5-in-1 Reflector Kit: this one works great indoors, but flaps like crazy outdoors with any kind of wind. tough to hold and keep steady. The reflector frame alone (without the reflective covers) can act as a see-through diffuser. Place this overhead to shade a person’s face from the sun to instantly soften up the light hitting the person. This works well with tight head shots only, as the circular reflector is not large enough to completely block the whole body (the larger whole-body ones are called: scrims).
  2. Lastolite TriGrip Diffuser, One Stop – 30β€³ (75cm): Main difference between this and the above is that it is easier to use outdoors since it has a handle and is a bit smaller than the big circular one above. However, the wescott kit above has everything included as the kit… with this one you have to buy the reflective surfaces separately. Like the one above, the tri-grip itself can also work as a diffuser.
  3. California Sunbounce Micro Mini: this is the best reflector we have. The biggest difference is its very rigid (but lightweight) aluminum frame that can easily withstand wind, makes it easy to handle outside. Added bonus of option to mount onto a lightstand when you do not have an assistant to hold. Super added bonus of having the option to mount a flash onto it to use when you do not have direct sunlight to reflect. Having the ability to mount a flash is huge because now you have all the benefits of a flash (more controlled power) with all the benefits of a reflector (soft diffused bounced light, larger surface area than just a bare flash head).

Well, I hope this gives you a better understanding of using flash and reflectors to help while shooting under bright sunlight. As with everything, practice makes perfect. Get out there and try out these different tips. If you have more questions, just ask them below. πŸ™‚

What is FAQ Fridays?
FAQ Fridays is an ongoing weekly feature on this site where WE answer questions submitted by you. We hope this new segment will help with many of your photography challenges. As always, you can ask questions in the comments section if it relates to that certain post.

Here is a list of: all previous FAQ Fridays posts

If you have specific questions that do not relate directly… then feel free to submit your questions by using the FAQ Fridays Submission Form page.

Alternatively, you can email your questions to: faq -at- prettygeeky.com (note: email broken up to prevent spam bots).

  • Natalie said:

    Thank you so much for posting this. ^_^
    I'm currently on spring break starting today so i'll be practicing and taking in your advice!
    God Bless!

  • @Natalie
    Your welcome! =) Good luck and be sure to drop by again and let us know how it’s going for you.

  • bao bai said:

    Thanks, this helps me a lot too. Because I was struggling with the bright sunlight for Nixon and Dundy's engagement shoot. Wish I would have seen this sooner lol.

  • This is awesome! I asked Ty about shooting in sunlight and with reflectors not too long ago. Please keep these tutorials coming!

  • thanks, useful read as struggling with reflectoors this weekend...

  • Naley said:

    This is awesome! I can't wait to use the techniques!

  • Kevin L. said:

    Hi. I am really impressed and admire your photography.
    For the grand canyon shoot, how did you get a shallow DOF while being in the bright sun.
    Did you use high speed sync or ND filters?

    thank you,

    • tyger said:

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. For this photo, we used high speed sync. It's one of the best features and reasons why we use the Nikon speedlights.

      • Kevin L. said:

        Thanks. One more question.
        If you are using hss, can pw or cyber syncs be used if you want the flash off camera?

        • tyger said:

          The new PWs will let you go HSS. Cyber syncs are stuck at the base shutter speed and won't let you freely use true HSS. For us, we use RadioPoppers. I like RPs because I can use the same familiar Nikon interface.