How to Take Photographs in the Afternoon Sun

Desert Sun

Photography is the capture and recording of light. However, when it comes to taking photographs under the direct, harsh light of the afternoon sun, it can be tricky to capture that light well.

Direct, midday sunlight presents many problems for the photographer. For one, it is such a bright, harsh light, it causes strong shadows which is unflattering for many subjects. In addition, the high contrast between the sunlight and the shadows it causes can make any photographer frustrated trying to get a proper exposure.

Here are seven tips to help you take great photographs in the harsh light of the sweltering afternoon sun.


Use a low ISO

First things first, make sure you use the lowest ISO possible. When shooting in the sun you have plenty of light and don’t need the high sensitivity a higher ISO gives you.

Remember, when you use a high ISO, you also introduce “noise” into your photographs. So unless you intentionally want noise in your photos, take a quick look at your ISO setting to be sure it’s at ISO 100 or lower.

Confused about ISO? Read my tutorial on Understanding ISO in 3 Steps.


Use a lens hood

Lens HoodsLens Hoods: A lens hood helps to prevent lens fare caused by stray sunlight. Photo by: Jarod Carruthers

Second things second, use a lens hood. Shooting in the bright sun is just asking for lens flares in your photographs and while a lens hood won’t stop all flares, it can help minimize stray flares - so make sure you are using one.

Don’t have a lens hood? Improvise with your hand, a magazine or a piece of paper.


Use a reflector

Man Holding ReflectorMan Holding Reflector: A reflector helps to soften the shadows by reflecting the sunlight back onto the subject. Photo by:

The idea of a reflector is to bounce back some of that bright sunlight onto the subject, thereby “softening” the shadows created by the sun. This is probably one of the best ways to get great portraits in the sun.

The great news is that just about any reflective surface can be used as a reflector: light colored fabrics, poster board, a piece of paper. Of course, the bigger your subject, the bigger a reflector you will need.

There are tons of great, cheap reflectors you can buy that easily fold down to a portable size and also come with different “colors” that you can use to adjust the intensity of the reflected light.


Shoot in the shade

Lens HoodsTree Shade: Trees make the perfect shaded area to take portraits in bright sunlight. Photo by: Swamibu

If you don’t have a reflector or a flash, then try to cut down on the harsh afternoon sunlight by finding a shaded area.

Lots of light also means lots of shade, so unless you’re in an open meadow, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find some shade.


Use fill flash

The same idea of why you would want to use a reflector applies for fill flash. A flash acts like a reflector in that you are “softening” the harsh shadows created by the sun, by adding light onto your subject.

In the case of a reflector you are merely bouncing back the available sunlight, but with a flash you are adding extra light from a secondary light source (the flash).


Use an ND filter or polarizer

Lens HoodsND Filter Example: ND Filters are useful for cutting down the amount of light that enters the camera. Perfect for getting proper exposures on a bright day. Photo by: c@rljones

While a reflector or fill-flash, softens the shadows created by harsh sunlight, an ND filter actually decreases the intensity of the sunlight itself. This comes in handy for more control of your aperture and shutter speed settings, allowing you to take “creative shots” a large aperture (small f-stop) and slower shutter speeds give you.

ND filters come in different degrees of light-cutting intensities. A polarizing filter, in addition to it’s positive improvements with contrast (by minimizing reflections), can also be used to block sunlight by about 1 or 2 stops.


Take a silhouette

Lens HoodsDesert Sun: Instead of fighting the sun, why not use it to your advantage by taking a silhouette photograph? Photo by: Paul Watson

Instead of trying to decrease the sunlight by using filters, or minimizing shadows by using reflectors and flash - why not take advantage of the bright light source? A silhouette is a perfect way to turn a bad into a good. Because the harsh sunlight creates strong shadows, it is a perfect opportunity to create a nice silhouette of your subject.

Want to know how to take a silhouette photograph? Read my tutorial on How to Take Silhouette Photographs in 3 Steps.

Here are 17 Examples of Superb Silhouette Shots.

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