Summer has finally arrived, and it’s time to start planning some fun in the outdoors. The summers of my childhood were magical times, endless days of adventure and exploration that couldn’t last long enough. That sense of freedom is something absolutely unique, and I can’t wait to watch my own kids experience it for themselves. Of course I’ll have my camera at the ready to capture those fleeting moments of boundless joy, and although I use a DSLR for my professional work, I carry my mirrorless camera with me for everyday use. I’m a big fan of the Fujifilm X-Series for example, and also the Sony RX100.
Photographing in the summer does present a unique set of challenges and opportunities, and today I wanted to give you an insight into my thought process when I’m shooting on a day of bright, full sunshine. I’ve got six important tips for you, to help you make stronger, more emotive, and more interesting photographs. They’re loosely arranged in order of importance, or in terms of the order in which I’m likely to apply them. I’m also going to assume that you like to photograph people, although you’ll find that a number of the principles are the same across all areas of photography.
Ok, on with the show….
1. Find a shady spot
The big challenge of photographing of a sunny day is the sheer intensity of the light. It may seem like an obvious point to make but the sun is a super intense source of heat and light, and it creates conditions in which our cameras don’t always perform to their very best. The key issue is that when the sun is high in the sky, it creates very ‘contrasty’ light conditions; very bright highlights and very deep shadows. Due to something called ‘dynamic range’ (read this post to learn more) our cameras struggle to capture such scenes effectively, with the result that detail is lost either in the bright parts of the scene or the shadow areas. So my first tip is to get out of the sun’s glare; find a shady spot where the light is more even. The north facing side of a building is always a good bet in the Northern Hemisphere, as the sun will never hit it directly. If you position your subject with their back towards the building and facing an area of bright sky, you’ll get some beautiful flattering light, and wonderful catchlights in the eyes. (Catchlights are those glints that give a portrait real vitality).
2. Shoot into the sun
Let’s imagine you’re at the beach and that it’s just not an option to look for a shady spot. You’re in the moment, everyone’s having a good time, and you want to capture some great candids. My advice is position yourself so that you’re aiming your camera in the direction of the sun. This may seem counterintuitive, and other photographers may disagree with me, but I find that stylistically, this leads to the most pleasing results. One of issues we face on sunny days is so-called ‘panda eyes’, where the eye-sockets throw deep shadows over the eyes, concealing the most expressive part of the face. It’s also likely that our subject’s will be forced to squint, which is never particularly flattering. Facing your subject away from the sun alleviates these problem, but don’t be surprised if you find your images are consequently underexposed, at least on your subjects face. The solution is to either bump up the exposure on your computer (using a program like Adobe Lightroom for example), or use the exposure compensation feature on your camera to overexpose the image.
3. Wait till the sun is at a lower angle
Your absolute best option on a sunny day is to wait until the sun is a little bit lower in the sky, around dusk ideally. There are two advantages to this. The first is that the sun’s light is much less intense, because it’s passing through a greater amount of the earth’s atmosphere. (The same reason that it’s less important to wear sunscreen later in the day). The second advantage is that the sun is coming from a more interesting, more flattering angle. And if you wait until the sun has dipped just below the horizon then you’re getting into the Golden Hour, that photographic Nirvana where the light becomes almost magical.
4. Use a lens hood – or don’t!
If you take my previous two pieces of advice (wait till the sun is low in the sky and shoot towards it) you might encounter a phenomenon called ‘lens flare’. You’ve probably seen it many times before, even if you didn’t know the technical term. Strictly speaking it’s a form of light distortion, and as photographers we generally try to avoid distortion of any kind. There are two ways to deal with lens flare; you can either put on the lens hood that came with your camera lens, or you can embrace flare in all its artistic glory! I’m definitely in the second camp.
5. Take off those shades
This is a really simple and practical piece of advice, but one that can make a huge difference to your images. The eyes are the most expressive, most recognisable part of the face, so when they’re covered by sunglasses you lose something really important in your photograph. It takes almost no time to ask your subject’s to take them off, and I promise they won’t mind at all, particularly if you follow tip number 2!
6. Look for interesting shadows and reflections
Let’s say you’re out and about on your travels, maybe doing some street photography, and it’s an intensely sunny day. Instead of wishing it away you can embrace it and look for for the opportunities, like a reflection from from a building casting an interesting light in an otherwise shady area, or the lines created by deep shadows. Photography is all about problem solving and finding opportunity in adversity. Challenging ourselves in difficult situations is one of the ways we grow as photographers, so don’t be afraid to get out there with your camera at any time, in any conditions, but be prepared to think hard about how you can make the most of the situation.