When on the road as a tourist, I often do not carry a reflector of flash. Now I am at a location with very strong sunlight and I want to take a photo of a companion in front of a nice scenery or building, the classic "we have been here" photo.

With very strong sunlight however, specially at a slight angle, I either get it into the person's eyes and they squint like crazy, or they are in the shade and their whole face is black.

Please note that I do not have aspirations to take a professional photo in such circumstances, but at least something acceptable.

Is there an easy trick to deal with that?

  • Why the flash hate? In the shadows with a touch of flash can look natural and very good. Oct 31 '13 at 10:32
  • 2
    @PatrickHurley - The user doesn't seem to hate flash, but rather not bring it with due to size and weight restrictions while traveling. I run into this situation often because my DSLR does not have a flash and I don't always want the extra bulk of an external speedlight.
    – dpollitt
    Oct 31 '13 at 14:36

Here are some options, I've personally had both huge successes and miserable failures with all of those techniques so you have to choose the one that fits the situation best:

  1. Find shade - A tree or a building that is just out of frame can do a very good job at preventing harsh sunlight (but you have to be careful not to blow up the background).

  2. Use some random object as a reflector - I once got someone to hold a bright orange backpack right out of frame to provide warm fill light (reflector + CTO gel in a single object).

    Any random object that happens to be there can be used walls, buildings, boat parts (as Esa Paulasto said), cars, street signs, anything (I don't remember where I've read it but some photographer said that tall overweight people in white shirts make great assistants because you can use them as reflectors).

  3. Exposure compensation - Just raise the exposure compensation so the face is well exposed, everything will be very right but that's ok (as long as you don't blow the highlights) because you are in direct sunlight on a bright day, I've had very good results with this technique lately.

  • 1
    If the subject stands in the shadow at a "bright sunny day", the background will be blown out and the object in the I-have-been-photo will almost surely not be recognizable. The same applies to advice 3: with high exposure the photographer risks losing the object of the photo. Nov 5 '13 at 8:44
  • @PavloDyban - those do work, I have the pictures to prove it, but not all the time, you do have to watch your histogram and blinkies and change strategy if it doesn't work. I have used the high exposure technique successfully on a trip just 3 weeks ago - it was under direct sunlight mid-day in the middle of a dessert with no clouds (resulting in very bright sunlit areas and almost black shadows) and I used EC of +1 stop - it really opened up all those dark harsh shadows and I didn't blow the highlights at all (modern cameras are pretty good, it worked way better than I expected)...
    – Nir
    Nov 5 '13 at 21:05
  • ... in another trip, in direct sunlight but with a bit of clouds, I tried the EC +1 and got blown highlights on the subject, so I moved him into open shade, the background wasn't perfectly exposed but it was recognizable enough for an I've-been-there photo (not my best work, but no one cared except me).
    – Nir
    Nov 5 '13 at 21:12
  • Your approach would not work on my Nikon D90, but it sounds like you use a more professional camera with a wider dynamic span which allows you to recover details in overexposured areas. Nov 6 '13 at 7:23

A reflector is not necessarily an item specifically made for the purpose, but can be any surface that reflects light.

Place your subjects right next to a light-colored or white surface that is lit by the sunlight. This will act as your reflector. Direct your subjects to look away from the sun, so that the light on their faces is the reflected light from that surface.

enter image description here

^^ In this self-portrait I'm standing right next to a white .. uh, I don't know an English word for it, but you can see similar structures further down in the picture. The white whatsit reflects light very efficiently.

enter image description here

^^ Here a friend of mine is standing three meters away from a very large blueish grey wall surface. The sunlight in this photo is not so harsh, but as an example of a photo where the main light is the reflected light coming from left side, while sun is shining from the right. He was standing in partial shadow of a tree.

  • 3
    You look like a bada## in that top photo, sweet beard.
    – dpollitt
    Oct 31 '13 at 12:37
  • 1
    Good examples here.
    – D. Lambert
    Oct 31 '13 at 13:27

Assuming you want the face to be visible, try some of this:

  • Use spot metering, point it to the person's face. You could try to underexpose slightly to give a bit of headroom in post.
  • Change your or the subjects position to try shooting towards/against the sun (rather than having it come from behind you)
  • The sun could be hidden just behind the person, or towards the edge of your frame, but not right next to it
  • You could point the spot meter to the background/scenery with the composition described above, this could give you a nice silhouette instead. That's a quick change with a completely different outcome

I would recommend taking multiple exposures and combining them using Exposure Fusion. I would not recommend combining multiple photos to HDR as you are likely to get a very unrealistic effect, but Exposure Fusion on the other hand could give you a pleasant image.

Here is a post that explains how Exposure Fusion works: How does exposure fusion work?

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