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Harsh Light Photography: How to Work It and Love It

Harsh light photography can be quite challenging for many photographers to take on. And it certainly can be when you approach it just the way you would approach photographing with flat light or even golden hour light.

Now, in my seventh year of shooting portraits for my families as well as my commercial clients, I often seek out harsh light to bring that something extra and add some fun contrast and depth to my work.

When taking into account a few considerations for composition along with some perspective play, shooting in harsh light can become not just easy to handle, but may just become your favorite light to shoot in!

Technical Considerations For Harsh Light Photography:

1. Exposure settings

Working with harsh light can mean you are blowing your highlights super fast. You are shooting under bright light, or there could be pockets of light or direct sun, so it’s imperative to get your exposure settings as close to “final” as you can.

Always keep in mind, that once your highlights are blown out (watch your histogram on your camera if you need help with that), you simply cannot recover them.

I always like to under-expose my images when shooting in a harsh light because the details in the shadows may not be as important as the details in the highlights area especially if I am going for a dramatic, moody portrait.

Sample settings to start with: Adjust your shutter speed and f-stop as required based on where you are shooting—ie open area, dappled light space, etc.—and start with ISO 100. I always start with 1/400 of a sec. , f/4.0, and then go up or down from there when shooting in harsh light.

harsh light photography example of young girl portrait
All Photos © Jyo Bhamidipati
woman and man couple outside in harsh light.
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2. Lens considerations

Traditional lenses: Shooting with a 35mm lens is great for high/low shots to get some fun angles and interesting perspectives for portraits, while the 85mm or 105mm can also help block out distracting backgrounds and give a nice compression.

My favorite go-to lens when shooting in harsh light, however, is the 35mm for its versatility and ease of use in any changing lighting situation.

Lensbaby and manual lenses: Lensbaby lenses are my favorite to use in any lighting situation I am working with, be it harsh light or beautiful golden light.

However, when used in a harsh lighting situation it really helps to “block” out the harshness of the light while softening it, making it appear dreamy and out of focus while bringing the focus back just on your subject!

Other manual lenses work very similarly and can produce dreamy images by introducing blur.

Remember, your lens choice can make an even more of a difference when shooting in harsh light (considering you want a flattering but also fun harsh light portrait).

black and white of woman in harsh light and shadow.
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3. The importance of Perspective.

The angle of the sun is important and you always need to look for it with respect to your subject. Placing your subject with the sun behind them during midday light may produce harsh shadows underneath their eyes (raccoon eyes) when shooting straight on (eye-to-eye) to your subject.

Playing in with some perspective, however, can help you balance the light out and avoid or hide the harshness of the shadows (especially when they are unflattering on your subject).

composition matters in harsh light photography.

4. Compositional Ideas for working in harsh light.

One of my favorite tips to “pose your model/subject” in a harsh lighting scene is to angle them/their body such that it’s actually facing the sun but you get a nice profile shot of them.

Angle them to look at the sun in such a way that their heads are slightly lifted and facing towards the sun and count to 3 and ask them to open their eyes so that they don’t squint. You could also have your subject close their eyes instead. You may see shadows from their lashes on their cheeks, which is nice (see image below).

Shoot from down low by tilting your camera upwards while keeping your subject’s face and body angled still. Look for lines and shapes that are created naturally by the subject. This can create some interesting angles and add some fun back to your portraits!

Play with depth of field and use hands, trees, leaves, or any other props close to the camera to create depth while the subject is at an angle.

Play and experiment with movement by slowing down your shutter speed to 1/100 or even lower to 1/80 and compensate for that with your f-stop as needed. This will introduce blur and movement in your image. Use it with the intention to create a story or narrative.

5. Open spaces with full sun.

Shooting in open spaces can be fun and interesting and the beach is a great location to play with full sun portraits! The sand, being light, along with the sky being bright and wide open naturally acts as a big diffuser and hence full sun in an open space can actually make for some fun portraits.

woman outdoors with head pointed towards sky.

6. Embrace the shadows.

Full sun can lead to a lot of opportunities to play with shadows and create some interesting images with added contrast and depth. The key here is to watch the balance between the highlights and the shadows so that you don’t overexpose the highlights or have clipped shadows. Looking at the histogram can help you with that.

Dappled light is another way to bring in some contrast to your harsh light work. Make sure to place your subject (whatever you might be shooting) in that pocket of light and expose it for those highlights. You might have to underexpose by 1-2 stops then you usually shoot with to make sure your exposure is properly balanced.

black and white image with dappled light.

7. Shoot with color in mind.

Harsh light can bring in some pretty saturated color, especially if you are shooting in an area with a lot of color and shapes. You can play that to your advantage by using some funky color to your images to make them stand out!

color portrait of woman outdoors in black gown.
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8. Shoot with B&W in mind.

Harsh light can give you dramatic results when you plan to convert the image to B/W during the conceptualization of the shot.

Due to the high tonal range of light when photographing in harsh light situations, those images convert beautifully to B/W images as well. The contrast between the highlights and shadows in that scene can make for some stunning conversions.

Harsh Light Photography: The Bottom Line

color portrait in harsh light.
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Harsh light photography doesn’t have to be scary at all. With a little prep work and taking the time to observe your surroundings, the light, the lines, and the colors in the space you are shooting at, you can produce some stunning creative images that have contrast and add depth to your work.

Harsh light photography doesn’t have to be something you do for every single shoot you do, but it can be FUN and CREATIVE for when you are looking for something different and are tired of working with the same kind of light day in and day out!

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