14 Tips on Taking Photos in Harsh Sunlight

14 Tips on Taking Photos in Harsh Sunlight - Mastin Labs

As a photographer, it’s your job to capture the subject in front of you and the mood of the day. This can be especially difficult when you learn that dreamy outdoor wedding you were so excited to shoot is happening at noon on a scorching hot day in August, or when you show up to photograph a family session to find out they’ve relocated it to a sunny, white sand beach.

So how can you capture the essence of a gorgeous summer day without blowing out your highlights or ending up with squinty and harsh full-sun facial expressions? As is typical in photography, there is no right or wrong answer, just a lot of people that have found what works (and doesn’t work) for them.

We asked our online community of Mastin Labs users to give us their advice for shooting in harsh, full sun lighting and created a blog post to share it with you.

Adjust Your Settings

Capturing perfect skin tones, detail in the background and foreground, natural colors throughout an image, and capturing a full-sun image in a way that reflects your style, requires you to control your camera settings. Assuming you cannot change the time of day or the location of the shoot, the number one piece of advice that our community gave us was to drop down your f-stop and expose for the highlights.

Topher DeLancy, an experienced full-sun, California-based photographer, shares his process, “I don’t use any filters on my lenses, so when it’s really bright, I’ll drop my ISO all the way down and shutter speed up pretty high, this way I can still keep the aperture at 2.8 or lower to keep some magic in the shot.”

Sydney Renee Bodi recalls her own experience shooting in full sun during a ceremony (where she had no control of the positioning of the bride and groom). She shares how she captured the shots she wanted regardless of the conditions, saying, “I exposed for the highlights and I brought my f-stop way down. Bringing it to 2.8 completely saved me and I was able to get a really great full-sun ceremony.”

Ragi Boctor, Mastin Labs user, offers his advice for accommodating full-sunlight for film and digital photographers. “If you are shooting digital, use your histogram to ensure that you aren’t blowing out your highlights. Don’t trust your camera’s LCD screen. If you are shooting film, meter for the shadows then meter for the highlights. Make sure they are within the dynamic range of the film stock that you are using.”


Photo Credit: Ania Boniecka


The direction of your light source plays a big role, and it’s important to learn to work with the direction of the light to get the images you want.

Front Lighting

Front lighting can yield bold, colorful images of people with sparkling eyes and glowing skin. They can also result in pained facial expressions, watery eyes, and an uncomfortable subject.

As wedding photographer, Kathryn Denelle Stevens advises, “Make sure if you’re asking your subjects to turn into the sun and keep your eyes open that you keep it short and/or give them breaks”. During breaks, ask your subjects to close their eyes and relax. Use accessories to your advantage, like an umbrella, sunglasses, or a hat, to capture the summertime feel while saving their eyes.

When at all possible, avoid shooting front-lit portraits in harsh sunlight, and instead, choose shots where the subject is engaged with an activity, rather than looking directly at the camera. Having your subject engage in an activity or interact with someone else minimizes the impact of weird shadows and squinty eyes. As Kristen Krehbiel recommends, “Capture more candid moments during these times and save the looking at the camera poses for later.”

Mastin Labs user, Ragi Boctor, advises photographers to compose very close up, or far away to accommodate harsh overhead lighting; He reasons, “wider landscape shots are always a safe bet in the harsh sun. You aren’t seeing the features of the subjects face, so it’s easier to capture interesting composition without concern for flattering their facial features. Extreme close-ups can also be a safe bet. Using the body and the hair of the subjects to block out the light and filling the frame with their features helps to avoid a lot of the overpowering light you might be struggling with”.

If you’re shooting with front lighting, try changing angles with your camera, and asking your subject to make small adjustments. Minor angle changes and relocating can greatly affect how the light hits your subject.

Photo Credit: Sydney Morgan


Backlighting can yield dramatic images with dreamy backdrops; they can also very easily turn a beautiful backdrop into a white, blown out canvas.

“When I’m shooting in harsh daylight sun”, says Topher DeLancy, “I keep my subjects moving and document what matters most, the emotions. It’s nice to keep the sun behind, when possible, or completely blasted evenly on their face.” Community member, Timothy Neill, echoes DeLancy by also advising to backlight as much as possible.

When backlighting, especially, consider using reflectors or a flash for fill lighting to help preserve the sharpness and details in an image and even out the exposure throughout.

Photo Credit: Kirk Mastin | Preset: Portra 400

Creative Use of Shadows

Harsh overhead lighting in full sun can lend itself perfectly to dramatic, contrasted images with interesting shadows. Instead of shying away from the full sun, or getting frustrated over the image you’re trying to get, but can’t, use the overhead light to your advantage to come up with creative shots.

Kathryn Denelle Stevens suggests: “look for interesting shadows or pockets of light and place your subjects in that light.” Use open shade an out-of-shot-umbrella, the sunbeam and shadows cast through a car window, or the shade from a building. Find open shade when you can. For all other times, think outside the box and lean into the possibilities. Mastin Labs founder, Kirk Mastin, recommends to “use the hard shadows intentionally”.

a forest filled with shade and harsh sunlight demonstrates some tips of taking photos in harsh sunlight

Photo Credit: Kirk Mastin | Preset: Portra 400

Use the Right Film Preset for Harsh Light

When you transfer your images onto your computer, you may find that the images are not how they appeared on your camera’s screen. Our community members offered up their favorite presets for minimizing imperfections when shooting in harsh, overhead sunlight. The overwhelming vote was for the Mastin Labs Pushed preset packs.

Mastin photographer, Katherine Denelle Stevens suggests using the Fuji or Portra Mastin Labs Pushed presets packs. She chooses to use these preset packs because, “they can handle the shadows in these situations without totally crushing them and without blowing out the highlights.”

Mastin Labs user, and desert photographer, Kristen Krehbiel, advocates for Portra Pushed, insisting, “it does super well in harsh light and accentuates the darks and lights in all the right ways.” Topher DeLancy agrees, but prefers the Fuji Pushed presets for his own work. “I use the Mastin Fuji 400h+2 preset. It subdues and blends the highlights while also adding a pink tone to give the photo a unique look that helps it stand on its own.”

newlywed couple walks hand in hand on a beach in harsh sunlight

Photo Credit: Kirk Mastin | Preset: Portra 400

Be Prepared

Few photographers rejoice when faced with full-sun shoots, but virtually everyone will encounter one at some point and have to adjust; it’s only smart to be prepared and practice ahead of time.

As we mentioned in the introduction, shooting in harsh, overhead light is not a perfect science. What works for you, and what appeals to you, may not resonate with another photographer. In addition, sun is different all over the world; shooting in full-sun in Washington is different than shooting in full-sun in New Mexico. With that in mind, we will leave you with this golden nugget of advice from Mastin Labs community member, Ragi Boctor.

“Don’t be afraid to go out there and try new things and learn from doing.” - Ragi Boctor

Good luck and have fun shooting in the sun!

Do you have any tips for shooting in full sun? Please comment below!


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