Mad Dogs and Englishmen

As a photographer working on location, one of the more challenging things to deal with is direct harsh sunlight (as the saying goes only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun). From over exposed highlights, to squinting subjects and unflattering shadows in the eyes and across the face, the list of challenges means often photographers will simply choose not to shoot in bright direct sunlight, choosing rather to seek out shade or a time of day when the sunlight isn't so intense. Also on the list for dealing with bright harsh sunlight are ways to diffuse the light using anything from a bedsheets or handheld diffusion panel, all the way up to giant scrim panels used on movie sets. For a really dramatic look, it's possible to have large studio style flashes on location to brightly light a subject and do battle with the bright sun.

However, I'm firmly in the camp that strong harsh sunlight can be beautiful too, despite the challenges it presents. So, off to Colchester city in Essex with Emma Churchyard (@emmalucy_model) on a sunny (but cold!) April day to make some lovely images in bright sun.

Working towards the light

One of the challenges with direct sunlight is that it's what's known as 'hard light'. This means that the transition from highlight to shadow is very abrupt and the shadows look crisp. This can cast unflattering shadows on the face and cause deep shadows in the eyes particularly. BUT it can also accentuate cheekbones and lips, make skin glow and make the fabric and cut of clothes really 'pop'. That's why hard light is used often in beauty photography and fashion.

Being an experienced model, Emma knew to face the sun, and keep her chin up, so that her eyes were illuminated and the light fell perfectly across her face (known as working towards the light). The most important thing for me to do was to keep an eye on where the shadows fell and make sure that there were not unflattering shadows, or shadowy eyes.

Inconsistent Light

Another challenge of working outdoors in the Spring sunshine (particularly in the UK) is the fact that the light is rather changeable. We did spend a wee bit of time waiting for the sun to pop out from behind the clouds and waiting for shadows to be in the right place. In fact, in the run up to the shoot, I kept a close eye on the weather, hoping it would be sunny, but also planning to take large portable studio strobes with me in case the sun didn't want to come out to play. As it turned out, the sun was out for the majority of the shoot.

Being adaptable

The keys to a successful shoot are: 1. Working with talented people (tick) 2. Having a clear idea ahead of time what it is that you're trying to achieve, 3. Finding the right location, 4. Understanding what gear you need and how to use it, 5. being adaptable if something goes wrong and or an opportunity presents itself.

In this case we found a cool looking street that was almost empty, but wasn't in the sun. The only light there was reflected off buildings and diffracted across the sky: fairly flat and boring light. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity, I grabbed the small simple lighting set up I had brought with me and we shot some images here (above). This allowed Emma to turn away from the light a little more and be a bit more creative with her posing and movement. You'll see that the light is much softer (gentle transition into the shadows) but there's still lots of contrast and definition too.

In the UK, we're just coming out of a period of lockdown, and this was the first time I had shot with a model for a few months. It felt great to be outside, in the sun, being creative and working on some great images.

You can find more of Emma's work here and find my links below.

Nerdy Gear Stuff:

Equipment used on this shoot:

Canon EOS 5D iv

Canon EF 50mm 1.2

Canon 135mm 2.0

Sigma 85mm 1.4

Pixapro Pika 200 Compact flash

Magmod grip and, gel holder, grid, sphere and straw gel

Pixapro ST iv trigger

Manfrotto Nano Stand

Magmod mag shoe

Walimex 109cm umbrella with diffusion

Peak Design Slide

Crappy old loupe so I could actually see the back of the camera in the bright sunlight.

One stout wooly hat.