How to Shoot Great Portraits in Bright Sunlight without Reflectors or Strobes: Portrait Photography

Shoot a portrait in bright sunlight? Are you kidding me? Harsh light?, heavy shadows?, squinting subjects?… OMG That sounds like a recipe for disaster. After the break I’ll throw a little shade
on this subject! Hi I’m Joe Edelman and in this episode we
are gonna break some rules and talk about how to shoot awesome portraits outside in
bright sunlight in the middle of the day – without using reflectors or a flash to fill in the
harsh shadows. We have all had that experience where you
go outside to photograph a model or shoot a portrait only to realize that the lighting
sucks because it’s the middle of the day and the sun is high in the sky. I rarely shoot with lighting equipment or
reflectors outside. It’s just a pain in the butt unless I have
an assistant along to help with the stuff, not to mention that it eats up time to set-up
and test your lighting. If you have the extra time – go for it. Generally I have a limited amount of time
to get my shot, so my approach is to KISS IT! That’s right – Keep it simple stupid. The easiest solution is SHADE! Yup, place your subject in the shade. Even in the middle of the day you can find
shade almost anywhere. Good shade creates soft, even, flattering
light that is awesome for portraits and modeling shots. I want to walk you through some examples of
shots where I have used this technique and fill you in on some of the hows and why’s
that you should keep in mind before you run out to shoot at high noon. Disclaimer – there is NO “perfect for everything
lighting scenario”. Period. If you want to excel at photographing models
or people in general using natural or even studio lighting, you have to learn how light
works and more importantly how to “see light”. I don’t mean go out and learn about 2 to
1 lighting ratios and rembrandt lighting and that kind of stuff – you can if you really
want to, but none of that will help you learn to see or use it creatively. As always, let’s start with the PLANNING
for the shot. I am going to assume for this conversation
that you have already decided on outfits for your subject and that you know the colors
they are wearing. We have already established that we are planning
a late morning to mid afternoon shot, That means the most important decision that
you have to make is the Location. The background doesn’t have to be in the
shade, only your subject does. You will see what I mean when we get to the
examples. I tend to look for locations with a background
that is either solid in color or that will help me to sell the idea of the photograph
or a location that I can turn into an interesting and subtle background by making sure it’s
blurred as a result of shallow depth of field. Be sure to avoid busy backgrounds at all costs. The photograph is of a person – not the background. You don’t want things in the background
that will distract the viewers attention from your subject and you definitely don’t want
background objects growing out of people. Beginners often comment that when you look
at these locations in the shade, the colors look cool and muted. To the human eye – YES, they do. To your camera, if you are exposing properly
and working with the proper color balance, the colors will reproduce naturally and with
a little boost of the contrast and vibrance settings in Lightroom, Photoshop or Capture
One, you will have an amazingly well lit image. Let’s walk through a few locations that
I use for my modeling portfolio shoots and I will break it down for you. Here is a fun one that is only available during
the summer months. You can see in this shot that the sun is high
in the sky and there is nothing that looks interesting here in terms of portrait lighting. But if we move into the shade, we learn that
this barn is covered with beautiful green ivy. Now I need to make a very important point
here – this is NOT a scenario where you should be using AUTO exposure on your camera. Here is what your camera’s light meter sees…
here is how you actually need to expose the shot….. Even if you shoot directly into the ivy, your
subject is lighter than the background and can easily fool most cameras set on auto exposure
into overexposing your subject. With my model leaning against the wall, I
can encourage her to be playful and I don’t have to worry about having bad light if she
turns to her left or right. The sunlight that illuminates everything in
front of her creates a soft, even and flattering light with wonderful catchlights in her eyes. Here is another example with my model leaning
against the wall of a water treatment plant that is painted green. One of my favorite shade spots to shoot in
is a small park near my studio that has just a few acres of dense trees that in the summer
time provide a wonderful canopy that creates lots of shade. The dense foliage of the canopy lets in just
a little sunlight from above, but most of it comes in from the edges so that you get
a nice horizontal band of light that hits your subject from the front instead of above. If I move deeper into this mini Forrest, I
can get effects like this,,, If I shoot closer to the edge, I get lighting
like this…. Again, this is not lighting that is conducive
to AUTO Exposure settings. Shoot manually, make sure you really understand
depth of field and how to control it, because in this woodsy setting it would be very distracting
if you don’t make your background blurry. There is no right or wrong here. Sometimes I am working with my model backlit
like you see here and I get results that look like this Other times, I am working with my model front
lit and I get results like this There is an almost limitless number of variations
on this concept. You can use an open picnic pavilion on a bright
sunny day – place your subject just out of the sun like you see here, and get wonderful
results like these . . . no reflector needed. you should notice that I had my model turn
slightly towards the sunlight to get a nice even light on her face Now I know the title of the video says no
reflectors – to be clear, I was talking about the kind you buy in camera stores or at Wal-Mart. There are tons of options for natural reflectors
if you pay attention. Back in my favorite wooded spot, when winter
comes and there is no canopy from the leaves, if I wait for a snowfall, the snow becomes
a wonderful reflector that allows me to put the sun behind my model in the middle of the
day. Here is an example of shot taken at 1:00pm
in the afternoon with the sun high and behind the subject. The white concrete serves as a great reflector
to create an extremely broad light source with soft even lighting. When the model came down off the wall, I was
able to shoot this headshot without any additional lighting adjustments. Even when you have just a little bit of shade
and the ground is black top… the black top is actually highly reflective and will create
a nice broad fill light like you see here…. Here is a similar example of a shot where
the model is running and there is only a little bit of shade for her to run through. The background is blurry due to shallow depth
of field and its overexposed because it is sunlit. I am exposing for the models face where the
lighting is soft and even with some natural rim lighting. Pretty cool eh? A little note about lenses, If you are shooting
a portrait or a shot for a modeling portfolio, you will want to use a short to medium telephoto
lens so that you have a little compression and are able to limit your depth of field. For many years I used a 70 – 200mm zoom, but
of late, I have switched to strictly prime lenses and will use either an 85mm or 100mm
lens for my people shots. All of these are fine – work with what you
have and are most comfortable with. I would suggest that you avoid wide angle
lenses unless you are going after something creative and want the distortion. So there you have it. You can travel light and take great modeling
shots and portraits without loads of lighting gear or reflectors. You do need to learn to SEE LIGHT and that
takes practice – lots and lots of practice. So what are you waiting for? That’s all for this episode of The Thoughtful
Photographer. I’m Joe Edelman and until next time – keep
thinking, keep learning and keep shooting! If you like what I am doing – PLEASE – give
the video a thumb’s up and take a second to subscribe to my channel so that you don’t
miss a single episode.

100 thoughts on “How to Shoot Great Portraits in Bright Sunlight without Reflectors or Strobes: Portrait Photography

  1. Thanks for another practical and inspiring tutorial. I love how these focus on technique and problem solving, not the gear.

  2. Thank you Sir, Joe Edelman, for sharing this great video, i have a question. I know that the focal length and distance affects depth of field, but i would like to know the pictures in the park which aperture did you use to achieve blur background? and the shutter speed, and ISO used if possible. because i want upgrade my portofolio in natural light portraits outdoor. Thank you.

  3. I know this video is a year old and not really intended to be a seminar, but I gotta ask ya. When capturing in the woodsy areas, how did you avoid the shadows of the leaves? That's my biggest problem when trying to shoot without a flash in areas where there are a lot of trees. INCREDIBLE work by the way and awesome sharing of information and technique. 😀

  4. One of the best channels I've run into on youtube. What a gem! You have a wonderful way of articulating instructions technically and artistically. Looking forward to seeing the rest of your videos. Cheers!

  5. that was so helpful for me and I think other beginners to know; we don't need to buy lots of gear! instead we should learn to use what is exist naturally 😅

  6. This is such a challenge for me and I have been shooting for a long time. Shooting in the Las Vegas sun in the summer in 110 degrees, no forest, barely trees, full sun, no clouds unless a storm is coming which rarely happens. Sometimes I have to shoot early mornings or late evenings, which is an inconvenience. Shooting in the summer in a desert is an obstacle.

  7. Great information. I recently got into photography and one of my fears is shooting in the sun. But I have recently gotten better. A lot of your videos are very helpful. Thank you!

  8. The best tutorial I've watched so far, and I've watched a lot of these. Always been told this can't be done, but clearly it can. Thanks Joe 🙂

  9. Hi Joe, Would you be using centre weighted for body shots and spot metering for headshots when there is a bright background? Often you can expose well for the face but the background might be blown out. I do realise you can decrease some of it in LR most of the time but sometimes you can't. Thanks!

  10. Excellent Tutorial! Every year since about the 1970's my father, and then I from the 2000's on, would shoot a high school – individuals & a group shot – outdoors between sets of trees, into the sun so the subjects wouldn't squint, with strobes as key. Then it happened. The trees died and they cut them down. So this year I brought them into the shade of the school building with a beautifully lit grassy Hill as the one BG & the brick wall as the other (they get 2 poses). It worked out wonderfully – without any strobes or reflectors. I learned everything I know from my dad & through trial & error. It's nice to see you teaching how to do things properly and in an entertaining manner. Thank you for your videos & I'm very glad I subscribed!

  11. There's just something about you that is different from other tutorial videos! I feel like I can hear what you have to say and know that it is coming from someone who knows their stuff. Your personality doesn't hurt either!

    Thanks for the video. I desperately needed it!

  12. these examples are amazing. The photos in the woods and outdoors, which lens did you use? The full body shots are SO sharp, even the one with the woman running. What would your typical aperture be for those outdoor portraits?

  13. I love your videos man. You are truly teaching us not just showing what you can do so we buy your training material like everyone else. Thank you.

  14. Excellent advice and examples. I like that you are clear, concise, and don't ramble. Can't wait to watch more of your videos!

  15. A great video !!! Thank you again Joe ! Your work is really inspire me ! I know that my best shoot is my next shoot . 😉👍📸

  16. This gave me lots of confidence in shooting out in the middle of the day. So tire of hearing other photographers stress about shooting early or late in the date. I understand why they say it but I think there's always a way around and Joe demonstrated that. Thanks again Joe.

  17. Thanks for this video. A friend linked me to it and it's great. I'm part of a Facebook photography group and when people upload photos, the main criticism is "the sky is blown out" or "the background is overexposed". It really gave me the impression that this is the biggest sin you can commit in photography, so this video and your perspective are very liberating. Keen to go out and have a play with these techniques!

  18. Thank you Joe for all the wonderfully delivered videos packed with great information and always on point without nonsense.

  19. Always amazing and USEFUL information for us. Some of THE very questions we have in our head often seem too minute to join a group or enroll in a class; then, when I look at some of your videos…boom! Just got my answer! Please keep educating us-love your work!

  20. Joe, I really like your presentation style that makes it easy to hang on to every word, I have some great locations for shooting in the open shade that also offers some great diffused and directional backwash lighting for results that I like, I use and Expodisc for custom WB and incident light readings that I take in Aperture priority mode that get exported to manual.. Keep up the good work

  21. I love your enthusiasm! You got yourself a great personality, mate. Thanks for this informative video 😉😉😉

  22. You are a magician.. beautiful colors, beautiful pictures! You are not worried about the overexposed background?

  23. This video is filled with flattering portraits and you do utilize natural light extremely well, but the lighting is often too flat for my tastes. I prefer directional light. I like creating light that brings out the shape of a face and adds dimension and drama to a portrait.

  24. hello, the google translate is not possible. and i would to learn how to shoot in bright sunlight. and i ve don't .

  25. Joe, what I like most is you still talk about Film photography, these little bits make this extremely relevant to me as I am a hobbyist with a Hasselbald. Thank you for the great no nonsense videos

  26. Thanks for keeping it simple (KISS) for those of us who are not professionals. What problems I've encountered are people choosing wide open spaces on bright days where there honestly IS no shade, in which case, it's challenging!

  27. you have a master's eye, Joe.
    awesome. I need to practice a really lot in order to see this.
    I was thinking: ok, but there is no places like these here.
    Than I realize that me thinking it doesn't exist is just me not seeing it. Because they probably exist in a different way.

    Nice video. Thank you

  28. Dude love your videos. Quick question I have acquired an olympus g40 flash and due to my total noobness I didnt realize this wasnt compatible with my oly em1. Do you know if i can use this flash as an off camera slave ? I cant figure it out and i cant find ANY info on it anywhere other than the fact that it was made for use on only 2 dang cameras. #Facepalm lol should I just ditch this thing and get a new one with flash triggers ? Or would it even work with a radio flash trigger ? Thanks in advance and thanks for the vids I'm getting kinda good with this here camera stuff thanks to you.

  29. Very nice video. I often face this situation and end up carrying tons of lighting equipment. This has been slowing me down.

  30. Wow! Joe responded to my post within 2 hours!!! He is going to be doing a post on white balance in the near future. Thanks Joe!

  31. Just wow, you popped up on my recommended list and your approach to photography is so simple it is insane. How have I been taking photographs for so long and you have fixed so many issues in such a short time! I can not wait to get through your entire list of videos and apply many of these techniques immediately. Thank you for making amazing content and making it insanely simple!

  32. What kind of exposure and metering settings do we use in such conditions so that the face is correctly exposed and the background is not overexposed?

  33. I love the approach and share the advice about finding some shade, but I totally dislike the effects/postprod on the faces, they don't look natural/human at all 🙂

  34. What a helpful video, Joe. I appreciate what I have learned from this and it makes me want to go out and experiment. I need to spend more time in your catalogue of “older” videos.

  35. Still one of the most important photography lessons I’ve ever seen. I have watched it countless times. Extremely valuable.

  36. Ok I know this video is pretty old, but I have a question about the auto exposure part he mentioned. If I’m not using my light meter to nail the exposure, would I be using it as a place to start/a reference point to under expose the photo in this situation or am I taking shot after shot to find the right exposure? Time stamp 3:52

  37. Do you have any videos on techniques for on camera (i.e. using a speedlight for) fill flash when outdoors?

  38. fantastic advice. spontaneous and rare family gathering occuring right now for me. I have BW film, and borrowing a classic minolta without meter. am going to try to utilize these suggestions, and expose sunny 16, modified for shade exposure (about PLUS 4 STOPS). then when getting home, figure out the best development time in Xtol to give proper proofs (which give easily printable negative density) thank you Joe!

  39. I've been doing a lot of this lately. Got tired of walking around with a stand and a speedlite and softbox and dealing with HSS flash, or messing with reflectors and all that. I've gotten some really nice stuff walking around downtown and using shade provided by surrounding buildings. Like you say – soft, even lighting with great catch lights.

  40. You have provided me with excellent and straightforward information about portrait photography. I am now happily subscribed to your YouTube channel and will be watching everything you post. Thank you so very much!

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