Photography Backlighting

3 Photographic Techniques For Creating Beautiful Direct Sunlight Portraits

Text and Photos by Chuck Place

One of the most challenging lighting environments a photographer will face is creating portraits in direct sunlight. This light source has a strong specular quality that produces harsh shadows and strong highlights. The contrast range is often greater than your camera can capture and the portrait is anything but flattering. There are, however, several techniques that allow you to modify the sun’s light to create beautiful portraits with softly diffused, directional light.

Don’t settle for bad lighting—modify it.

The most commonly used, and easiest solution, is to shoot your portrait early or late in the day. Sunlight is softer at those times with a rich, warm color temperature and a definite direction—perfect for portraits. Early and late sunlight creates drama in a portrait that adds an extra layer of emotion to any image.

Sidelight with photographic reflector

Late in the day sidelight with a warm photographic reflector

For many years National Geographic Magazine has used this technique to set their photography apart from other publications.

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

Direct afternoon sunlight with a small photographic diffuser panel

The second technique is used while side lighting your subject during the day, but modifying the light with a diffusion panel. Diffusion panels come in a wide range of sizes, from big “silks” large enough to light a car to small, folding models that can be carried in a camera bag all the time. I myself carry a diffusion panel and a reflector on my camera bag, each of which is 8 inches across when folded and opens to 23 inches wide.  They essentially weigh nothing.

Diffusion panels are placed between the sun and your model and the larger the panel, the softer the light.

I have also found that the closer to the subject I place the diffuser, the softer the light becomes. Diffused light tends to fill in shadows and wrap around a subject, creating smoother looking skin. A bonus in portraiture!

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

Afternoon backlighting with a large photographic reflector

A reflector or flash fill can also be used to control the contrast of direct sunlight, but I personally prefer the look created by a large reflector. By moving the reflector, I can easily shape the light on my subject and create a strong three-dimensional feel in the image.

Heavy backlight with a reflector

Heavy backlight with a photographic reflector to help fill in the shadows

The final technique is one of my favorites—back lighting. Often when I photograph portraits in bright sunlight, I position my subject so that the sun is behind them and I expose for the shadow side of their face.

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

Heavily backlit subjects are exposed for the shadow side of their faces

This approach has several advantages when shooting in direct sunlight.

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

Backlit subject with a photographic reflector

The first is contrast control. The shadow side of your model, as well as everything else in your image, is the same exposure. Backlighting also produces a bit of a bright halo around your subject, helping to separate them from the background. Your subject can also keep their eyes wide open. There is no squinting when your model has their back to the sun. Lastly, as you adjust your exposure for the model’s shaded side, the background becomes brighter relative to the subject. This gives your image a bit of a high key feel, especially with a shallow depth of field.

Admittedly, avoiding lens flare and dialing in the proper exposure is a little trickier than front lighting. You can find an earlier post on that subject at

With just these 3 techniques, you can create beautiful, striking portraits out in direct sunlight. Mastering some simple equipment and positioning your model properly can lead to startling results. Control the light and then connect with your model. A portrait is, after all, a partnership between you and your subject. Have fun. That will always show in the final portrait.


Farmers Market produce

An Exciting Photo Shoot At The Lively Farmers Market

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

My favorite location to try out new photography equipment is not California’s ragged coastline or soaring mountain peaks. Forget the rolling sand dunes of Death Valley National Park or the giant redwoods of Redwood National Park. Give me a good old Farmers Market to run a new lens or camera body through its paces. Whaaaat?

Customers wander a Farmers Market

Customers wander a Farmers Market

That’s right, a Farmers Market. It has everything necessary to test any equipment—or photographer, for that matter. Shooting strong images at a busy farmers market is a test of concentration. A photographer is forced to create order out of chaos, still lifes out of produce and portraits of people who are too busy for a portrait shoot. It’s a tough photography environment!

gold and purple beets

Still life of golden and purple beets at the Farmers Market

Often I take my students to a local Farmers Market, not because I like to see them suffer–not too much, anyway. All photographers that shoot on location need to learn how to take a large, bustling, crowded event and break it down into manageable visual pieces. If a photographer views a market as just a big, chaotic location, their work will reflect just that surface appearance. Let’s break it down.

Eggs and iris for sale

Everything from eggs to iris are for sale at the Farmers Market.

First I like to get some establishing shots as I make a quick survey through the various areas of a market. Different vendors have different products and some create more interesting displays than others. I also pick out the vendors I think will make good portraits. Their looks, their clothing, the lighting at their booth, how they view customers walking by—this all impacts whether I think they will make strong subjects.

cherry tomatoes at the Farmers Market

Diagonals are created from baskets of cherry tomatoes

Farmers Market sign

Farmers Market sign selling strawberries.

My first task is usually to capture the market’s range of products while they are still available. The first tomatoes or berries of the season often sell quickly, so I try to capture those subjects first. Signs are always fun, flowers are always colorful and street musicians always make interesting subjects. I always ask permission from vendors and musicians and drop a dollar or two in the musician’s open instrument case so that I can create a range of portraits without getting the “glare”.

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

Later in the morning, after the crowds thin and sales slow down, I’ll work with individual vendors to create environmental portraits. By this point, they are getting a little bored and often welcome something to break up their morning. Because most produce is hauled in by trucks, the vehicles are lined up behind each of the stalls and make rather ugly backgrounds. I prefer to shoot down a row of stalls, filling the background with more produce. A shallow depth of field is necessary to separate my subject from the busy background and I prefer photographing under one of the white awnings. It produces a beautiful soft light with large highlights and great skin tones.

Strawberry_Vendor

Photographic portrait of a vendor selling strawberries.

By the time I’m finished with portraits, I’m a little worn out, my subjects are tired and I have to return to that stall where I bought those great blanched almonds with rosemary and sea salt. Although I tend to shoot all this with a single camera body and a 24-70mm zoom lens, my camera bag is usually full of treats to bring home.

Where else could I find a single location with such a range of photographic subjects and still shop for dinner supplies at the same time. Give it a try and don’t forget the almonds.


Backlit portrait of parade participants

The 4 Advantages Of Photographic Backlighting

Contrast in a photograph is a pain! Well, it’s good up to a point—until it isn’t. Even modern cameras can only handle so much contrast until either shadows block up or bright areas blow out, or clip. Images with high contrast appear harsh, uninviting. It’s generally not a pleasant look and if you are trying to create a complimentary portrait, it’s a disaster.

Quarter backlit Bed and Breakfast

Quarter backlit Bed and Breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey

There is a simple solution, however, and it doesn’t require diffusion panels, reflectors or piles of photographic lighting equipment.

Simply move your camera position until the primary light source, usually the sun, is behind your subject. Simple. Why is this so effective? With your subject backlit, you will be photographing the shadow side of everything in your frame, whether it’s a person, a building or a tree, and the shadow side of everything will generally be the exact same exposure.

This lighting pattern solves a lot of contrast problems and produces some stunning effects.

First, of course, most everything in the frame is lit at the same level, whether it is two feet from the camera or two miles from the camera. Meter reading can be tricky, but if your main subject is properly exposed, so is everything else.

Backlit Portrait of Yoga Instructor

Backlit portrait of a woman practicing yoga on a grassy hillside

Second, many subjects will have a beautiful, warm rim light, separating them from the background. This is especially important when the background is busy.

Backlit sailboats racing

Backlit sailboats racing in San Francisco Bay

Third, increased color saturation. Light passing through translucent wildflower petals or sailboat spinnakers produces brighter colors than light reflecting off those same subjects.

And lastly, when your model is facing away from the direct rays of the sun, they are much less apt to be squinting into the lens. Getting strong light off a person’s face makes it much easier to achieve those comfortable, revealing expressions we all strive for. The poor photographer will be looking into the sun and squinting furiously, but who cares? It’s worth the benefits. Right?

Next week we’ll cover some of the issues involved in shooting with backlighting.

Text and Photos by Chuck Place


Cambria coast

Give Yourself A Photography Assignment

Early in my career I often found myself wandering around various towns, frustrated, looking for something to photograph. I came to realize that there are always lots of subjects to shoot in any location. All I really needed was a framework, or storyline, about the subject or location. I needed to have something to say before I picked up my camera. I needed an assignment!

Instead of wandering aimlessly, I began to give myself self-assignments, something I continue to do to this day. This forced me to see what was really important about a particular subject and work on creating images that illustrated my viewpoint. My photography quickly got better and I found I was enjoying photography even more.

What do you like to photograph? Do you like to explore small towns, wineries or farmers markets or photograph orchids, sailboats, historic sites or portraits of people? What’s your passion?

Town of Cambria

Quaint tourist destination Cambria, on California’s Central Coast.

Self-assigned photography assignments often fall into three main categories—locations, series and events. Locations can be anything from a National Park to a city or town. What is unique about that location? Is it the physical beauty, the culture, food and wine or maybe even the weather? What makes it interesting to you personally? I had a talented student go to Oaxaca in Mexico to photograph the brightly painted building in the Colonial Center of the city. When he returned, he showed me a beautiful portfolio of colorful buildings, but each had a brightly painted, jewel-toned VW Beatle in front of it. It seems Oaxaca has a tradition of restoring old VWs. He had taken a location assignment and turned it into a series, or collection, of Volkswagen portraits.

Southwest Indian Ruins

Selection of Indian Ruins in the American Southwest.

A series assignment can be anything, from a group of portraits of local chefs to a series on lighthouses, antique cars, California Missions—anything with multiple versions of the same subject. This often requires a greater commitment of time and a larger amount of research before beginning the shoots. This also forces you to create a variety of images while shooting similar subjects multiple times. As a bonus, you get to immerse yourself in the subject during a long-term photography project.

Summer Solstice Parade

Summer Solstice Parade characters in Santa Barbara, California

Event assignments usually require the shortest amount of time, but can be quite an intense experience and often physically demanding. Parades, celebrations, competitions—these can run from a few hours to a week or so. Again, doing some research in advance guarantees you will be in the right place at the right time to capture those powerful images that define an event.

Sit down now and list half a dozen projects that would be fun to photograph. Fill in each with shoot notes—subjects, locations, dates, special equipment—anything that will help you capture great images and expand your coverage. Then go do it!

Stop the aimless wandering looking for something to photograph. Give yourself the framework of an assignment and shoot what really defines the subject. The quality of your photography will improve dramatically and you will have fully developed photo essays to share with those around you. And please use the Reply Box below to share your favorite subjects with other photographers following this blog. Everyone needs ideas.Thanks.


portrait of apple farmer

The Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting Subjects At Ease

Have you ever found yourself putting on a long lens to photograph someone because you were too shy to approach them? Even if you brace up your courage and ask to photograph a stranger, how do you pose them? How do you put them at ease? How do you bring out their personality in an image? The answer is–it’s tough.

After years of photographing people on location for various magazines, I have found there are essentially 5 steps to the process of putting a model at ease in front of a camera.

portrait of a confident young woman on a bicycle

portrait of a confident young woman on a bicycle

Step 1: Discard the notion that you are the shooter and your subject is the target. Rather, start thinking about a portrait as a partnership or relationship between you and your subject. It’s a dialog. You only have thirty seconds or so to establish the necessary trust between the two of you. Show interest in what they do. Be respectful, but also curious. Get them talking about themselves and be a good listener. Get their focus off your lens and on to you.

portrait of wildlife rescuer and young opossums

portrait of wildlife rescuer and young opossums

Step 2: Have them hold something. People visibly relax in front of a camera if you give them something to do with their hands. There was a reason you asked to photograph this person. Give them a prop to hold that gives the viewer more info on what the person does or how they live.

portrait of a baker holding bread

portrait of a baker holding bread

Step 3: Ask how they would like to be photographed. I know, this is your photo, but don’t forget the partnership. Admittedly, sometimes their suggestions are not going to work well for your image, but sometimes the subject comes up with a brilliant idea. In any case, you will need to try all their suggestions just to maintain the trust you have established with them. This is a step many photographers skip, but the collaboration can sometimes produce a much stronger image.

portrait of a barista checking roasted coffee beans

portrait of a barista checking roasted coffee beans

Step 4: Compliment your model. Don’t go overboard on this and sound like a caricature of a fashion photographer. Just pick out something about them to compliment. Everyone likes a compliment. If they still seem a little stiff—harass them. I have found that kidding a subject about their mannerisms or attitude can loosen up some people much more effectively than a compliment. As a photographer, you need to “read” people quickly and be flexible in your approach.

portrait of restaurant hostess

portrait of restaurant hostess

Step 5: HAVE FUN! Before you start the shoot, work out the lighting, posing, depth of field and lens focal length in your head so you can concentrate on the relationship while shooting. If you worry about the technical stuff while you are shooting, the model will pick up on that tension. If both you and the model are having fun, it will show in the final images. As a bonus, I have walked away from shoots with strangers carrying all kinds of gifts, from cupcakes, bread, fresh eggs and chanterelle mushrooms to wine and even cookbooks. If it’s not fun, you are doing it all wrong.

portrait of young woman behind counter of cupcakes

portrait of young woman behind counter of cupcakes

Apply each of these steps to your next location portrait session and watch how your subject relaxes and develops the confidence to let their character peak out. It’s well worth the effort and you can finally move away from that nagging feeling that you are stealing someone’s portrait with a long lens ambush.


The 2 Conditions That Create Beautiful Photographic Reflections

A great blue heron glided into my image, landing right where I would have placed it—if I had a trained blue heron. Better lucky than good! I was photographing a book on San Diego, working with reflections of the ornate Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in Balboa Park. Afternoon was not a particularly colorful time, but as the sun moved lower, the warm tones of the buildings were intensifying and I was photographing the saturated reflection of the architecture in the Reflection Pond. Almost at sunset, the surface of the Reflection Pond was shaded while the buildings caught the last rays of the sun. The golden reflection of an ornate Spanish Revival building was contrasting beautifully with the cool tones of the green lily pads and blue reflected sky, producing a unique image of Balboa Park.

Blue Heron in reflecting pool, Balboa Park, San Diego, California

Fishing_Boat_Reflection

If there is a trick to photographing dynamic reflections, it is making sure that the subject is well lit while the reflecting surface is shaded. Almost any shiny surface can be used to produce a colorful reflection, including store windows and car hoods. My favorite, however, remains water. For me, nothing else conveys the serenity of being on the ocean as does warm light relected off of fishing boats or a coastline at the beginning or end of the day. Even a choppy ocean surface can reflect well with a long enough exposure.

Cathedral Rocks, Red Rock Crossing , Red Rock State Park, Sedona, Arizona

Santa_Cruz_Reflection

Still water acts exactly like a mirror, to the point where some of my tight reflection images have been published upside down. I now add lilly pads or some reference object, if there is no background, to indicate which side is up. I will have to admit, however, some reflections are fscinating viewed upside down and in either case, a reflection provides a unique view of the world and a great change of pace for a photographer.