Everybody loves the Florida sunshine, but it isn’t always the best light for taking pictures of people. Around midday, strong, overhead sunshine casts shadows into the eyes of your subject, giving them a distinct “panda” look. Couple that with people squinting in the bright light, strong contrast and desaturated colors, and even the most beautiful model needs a little help.
So here are some simple tips to improve things — note I’ve shot these as head and shoulder portraits to highlight the effect of lighting on the face — but the same principle applies to full body or group shots.
The quick and easy option is to simply place your subject with their back to the sun. This gives a glow or rim light around them, eases the bright light into their eyes and removes the panda eye look. Try and find a darker background — such as distant trees — so the image isn't a harsh wash of light with just your subject at the right exposure. Sunlit trees are always good for this as they create beautiful soft highlights when out of focus.
The best option is to diffuse the bright overhead sun. Here, I’ve used a white photographic umbrella held over his head — giving a soft wash of light over his face and shoulders. There is still some shape to the light — creating a gradient across his face and ensuring the image has some dimension.
The same effect could be achieved with a white sheet. Notice also how the shadows are opened up behind him with the lower contrast compared to ...
Same shot without the umbrella diffusor! High contrast, dense shadows in the background and the classic “panda” look!
If you don’t have a diffusor — or someone to hold it — then shade is your friend ...
Stand your subject just within the edge of some shade — from a building or patio umbrella for example. This takes all the harshness out of the light — but notice the blown out background? That’s because the camera is exposing for his face, which is now darker than the bright sun on the background, and it can distract from your subject. So ...
By turning around and shooting into the shade there isn’t as much of a clash of lighting from the background.
Same shot — but this time using a reflector to bounce light back into his face. This increases the amount of light on him creating greater contrast with the rest of the scene — helping him to “pop” more from the background — and it creates a catchlight in his eyes, which can add a little “life” to the portrait. You can use a professional reflector system or just a cheap sheet of white foam core or card.
Another option — taking advantage of natural shade. Standing in the dappled shade of a tree — sun behind him and the tree. Again, we have moved around to find a darker background and used a white card to bounce a tiny amount of light into his face — it doesn’t make much difference to overall light levels but does appear as a catchlight in the eyes. Dappled shade sometimes means there are still bright highlights falling on your subject — just ensure they aren't on their face creating hotspots and you still have a nice photo.
Because there’s so much light bouncing around, you may pick up a color cast or tint from the surroundings — green from grass and trees or red from a building for example. Set your camera to Raw image format and use a package such as Lightroom to easily remove the tint without compromising the quality of the image.
ABOUT THE COLUMNIST
Photographer and cinematographer David Haynes has travelled the world capturing iconic images for organizations such as National Geographic and the BBC. His work can be seen in magazines, newspapers, on book covers and in private collections.
Now he’s sharing his skills with us in a new “cut and keep” column on everyday photography.