June 8, 2016

Pancake Session: Shooting in Harsh Light


Happy Wednesday & Happy Pancake Day!!

Over the past week and a half it’s been the craziest thing, in that we’ve had the same question come up about five different times from five different people and in five different ways. So we took that as a sign that it was high time to make a Pancake Session out of it! The question first came up in person last week and then again from someone else in an email, once on Facebook, and then again on Instagram….and it is: how do you go about shooting in really harsh light?

I think the high noon First Look is one of the most dreaded, anxiety-inducing enemy of most photographers. The light is bright, the shadows are harsh, the highlights are off the charts, the eyes are squinty. In short, it ain’t pretty.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

So for today’s Pancake Post, here is our three-pronged strategy for dealing with harsh light. We hope it helps!

**Each of the pictures below was shot in that 12-2pm range during the summer, in what we would all consider crazy, harsh light.

1. Look for a spot where the sun is everywhere. It sounds really counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Here’s this thing we don’t like (harsh light), so now let’s look for more of it. This was especially hard for me to wrap my head around as someone who had been so set in the mindset of just looking for open shade (solid even shade usually cast by a building of some sort that blocks out the harsh light and creates more even light). But the thing is, sometimes you just don’t have any open shade available and all you have is dappled light. Or maybe the shade that you have is coming off of a red barn and creating really awful color casts in your images. In those cases, what we do is look for something out in the wide open where the light is hitting everything. Because if it’s ALL in that sunlight then everything is that same exposure, and you can just expose for that. It’s only when you start to see some things in shade in the background that it will betray just how harsh the light actually was.

2. Also look for a spot in that wide open light that has a light colored, neutral ground. In New England, we get a lot of clam shell driveways. In the city, it might be the light concrete of the sidewalks. On the beach, the white sand. But whatever it is, that light colored ground is going to help bounce light back up into the front of our subjects to create soft, pretty light on their faces. In the two pictures below, we were on a beach in Miami around 12 in the afternoon and I was scared you guys! :) But as soon as we started shooting, I realized the combination of everything being in bright sun (and therefore the same exposure) and that beautiful white sand as fill, was actually giving us a fairly soft result in the image.

You can see in this picture below that the addition of the umbrella was actually creating some of that dappling in the shadows on their faces, betraying that the light at around 12pm in Miami can be pretty harsh! :) We were able to position the umbrella at an angle off to the side to keep most of it off their faces, but you can still see just a little bit on the left of Sonia’s face. If I could “Plus One” this picture, I would have either shifted the umbrella a little more or most likely gotten rid of it (and therefore the tell tale shadows) completely.

3. Now position the sun behind the subjects at angle of around 10 or 2 on a clock. Putting the light behind our subjects means that it’s not blasting them in the face & causing them to squint, and just helps to soften it in general. But we always try to be careful not to put the sun directly behind them during harsh light times for a couple of reasons. The first is that at that time of day, putting the sun directly behind them will typically result in having our subjects completely silhouetted even with all that light fill from the ground. And the second reason, is that when we put the light directly behind them it casts a hard shadow of them directly in front of them. Which can end up looking weird/less natural in a lot of cases. Positioning the light behind them but off to the left or right just a bit (like at the 10 & 2 position on a clock) will cause those shadows to fall off to the side a little in a more natural way like the picture you see below.

And finally, when in doubt, if you feel like any kind of shadow is really betraying how hard the light was right then, you can always just go closer and crop that shadow that they’re casting out of your frame completely.

As always, we hope this helps! And if you have any questions at all, feel free to leave them in the comment box below & we’ll do our best to answer them!

Rock it out friends!

**If you need more help on ROCKING your light in ANY situation like night shots or reception details, definitely check out our J&M Lighting Guide by clicking HERE!! 

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  1. Kristin

    Such a great post!

  2. Pam Byrd

    Love this..thanks!!! I can’t wait to get to the beach to try it out!!!!

  3. Nancy Barnhart

    Makes sense really! Thanks so much!

  4. Emilia Jane

    I CANNOT wait to see those elopement photos!!!!

  5. malika luthra

    haha this same question has been on my mind for the past few days! so glad you guys did a pancake post on it! :)

  6. Catherine Ann

    This was super helpful & you’ve inspired me to start practicing shooting in harsh light! I have a first look scheduled next month in St Augustine that I was starting to dread (-:

  7. Jessica Norman

    Thank you for posting this! I always cringe when pictures are scheduled outdoors during that time frame. Now I can more accurately plan and execute!

  8. Jessica Norman

    And PS – I *love* that last picture!

  9. Tiffany Farley

    Gosh I wish I had read this yesterday!

  10. Emily

    This is super helpful! Thank you so much!!

  11. Claire Pelella

    Thank you!! Was there flash or any other light, other than available natural light, used in any of the above images?? They’re so good.

  12. sharon elizabeth

    i feel like i always start my comments off with OH MY GAH.. but OH MY GAH.. those two beach color shots = GAH times a zillion

  13. Ali W

    Oh shoot! I want you to add a point :). What are you exposing for? I find that sometimes, if I expose for their faces, the background is completely blown out just because that dynamic range is simply not there. But getting detail in the background may underexpose their faces and I have to bring it back in post. Just wanted to see y’alls thoughts on that! LOVE the points! Looking for a good natural reflector is such a good point!!!

  14. Jackie Lamas

    so helpful! I just discovered to do this at a family session and the photos didn’t come out too harsh! the light was actually pretty even… just really, really, hot lol.

  15. Rebekah Hoyt

    This was SO super helpful!! I never thought to look for a wide open area in bright sun but that totally makes sense for the exposure! Thank you for sharing this helpful tip!!

  16. Gorete Ferreira

    Thank you, I enjoyed reading this, always so helpful.

  17. Maria

    Thank you J&M :) I’ll be using these tips on my next shoot!

  18. Karen Bonar

    This is a GREAT topic! Thanks for the tips!

  19. Amber M

    thanks for posting this and thanks for the help in Mpls it was great… you both are just the easiest people to talk to even thought i was ubber nervous and it showed :) thanks for writing this up!!!

  20. Jessica Magee

    Oooh thank you for this! It was so SO helpful! Especially at the beach! I can’t wait to try it!

  21. Jade

    This is such a great post.. Im always having to shoot in harsh light… Some great tips :)

  22. Janet McKnight

    I just had myself a great little mini workshop day reading back over a years worth of Pancake Sessions. What fun! It was great to hear your voice in the video sessions, and now I’m determined to make it to a One Light Workshop if I can! I also appreciate how much you love your work and your clients. Thanks so much for sharing so generously!

  23. Elizabeth Gelineau

    Thank you for this post!!! So, so, helpful and perfect timing as I know I’ll be doing some First Looks in this timeframe at some of my summer weddings!

  24. Candice

    Great info! Thank you!

  25. Xiomara

    SUPER helpful post going into the wedding season and that dreaded noon first look. Thank you SO MUCH!!

  26. Annetta

    Love the 10 or 2 o’clock tip. Never thought of that.

  27. Robert Sadri

    Really liked the umbrella idea. It’s also a great prop. I always found my 600 Ex-rt flashes to do a good job in the sun, but overheating was an issue. This post is going to be very handy. Love the new website btw.

  28. Beth

    Are you using off? How did you expose for the beach photo (retaining the sky detail and perfectly exposing their skin/faces)?? Please share!

  29. Rachael

    Great tips!!! Would you share your camera settings in those beach photos? Specifically interested in shutter speed.

  30. Krista

    Great post! I second the questions about exposing for background or the subject. I’m also curious about Beth’s question on exposing for that beach photo – so well executed!

  31. Justine

    Great post! Super helpful. Could you respond to Ali W and Beth’s questions about exposure?

  32. Paul Keppel

    Really interesting post, I think I really need to work on my hash light wedding photography over the winter, so this has been really helpful

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