Outdoor Portraits – 77% are wrong

How to work with the sun


Photography is an art that relies heavily on the interplay of light and shadows.

When it comes to photographing a portrait outdoors in bright sunlight, understanding how to position the sun for the most flattering light is crucial.

This very scenario is presented as one of the questions in our online Photography Assessment Tool.  The results gathered from hundreds of participants, surprised me.  70% said they would shoot with the sun to the side of the face.

I wanted to scream!!

Seriously?  To the side of the face?

Don’t they realise what that does to the shadows?

I really should not have been surprised.  Every time I teach this subject I get the same results and I always get the same reaction when I tell them where I would place the sun.

It’s usually one of disbelief.

Here’s the thing, I never (as in absolutely NEVER) shoot outdoor portraits with the sun to the side of the face.

Nor do I shoot portraits with the sun behind ME.

Back in the day, when Kodak first began selling cameras to everyone, it provided simple guidelines to help people take photos.  Among those guidelines were the instructions to stand with the sun behind you, to ensure the person you were photographing was fully illuminated.

Back then technology was very basic.  You needed as much light as possible to land on the subject’s face, so the instructions made a lot of sense.  They were more concerned with simply getting the photo, rather than worrying about image aesthetics.  These days it’s all so very different.

Shooting with the sun behind the photographer means that light is shining directly into the eyes of the model, and of course, this causes them to squint (see below). Not only that, but this type of lighting also creates nasty, harsh shadows, which we can see under the chin, the nose and in the eye sockets.  If the model is wearing glasses, they too create additional shadows.  It’s all very unattractive.

Finally, on occasion, you can get areas of extreme brightness on the face.  They are usually referred to as specular highlights and can occur when the person has oily patches of skin.  In most cases they can be reduced in editing afterwards, but occasionally they can be extreme, blowing out pixels, resulting in areas that are badly overexposed.  These would require more sophisticated work to correct.

Sun from the side?

So, 70% of photographers voted for side lighting.

Now I can understand where they are coming from with this.  In certain circumstances, it’s possible to get some very nice images with soft light hitting the side of the face.

Think of someone standing by a window.

The photo below was taken by one of my private students, Mark Cartwright, assisting me during a wedding.  He has captured this lovely shot of the groom getting ready.  The only light source is the window.  The light is diffused, cloud was obscuring the sun and the resulting light was very flattering.  There are no harsh, high-contrast shadows.  The mood is gentle.  This works very well.

If direct sunlight was coming through that window, it would have been a different picture with extreme highlights and extreme shadows, creating a very different mood.

However, for the purposes of today’s discussion, we are talking about shooting OUTDOORS in bright sunlight.

Outdoors… and with the sun coming from the side we have a new set of issues.  Firstly, half the face is bright and half is dark.  If you expose for the highlights the side of the face in shadow goes very dark.  On the other hand, if you expose for the shadows, the bright half can now look overexposed.  It’s a delicate balancing act.

Some corrections can be done in post (post-processing), but it rarely looks natural.

70% of photographers voted for this option, over two thirds!

You can see from the image below of the young girl, it just does not look good.  She has massive exposure issues.

One solution would be to use a reflector to bounce some light onto the lefthand side of her face (her left, not ours).  That way we could dilute some of the shadow strength and bring some balance back to the photo.

Alternatively, you could use fill-in flash in the same way, but both these solutions suppose you have the right gear with you at the time.

What if you don’t?

What about shooting with the sun behind?

This is how I shoot all my outdoor portraits in the sun.

Honest, when I say this in the classroom there’s an audible sharp intake of breath as students react in disbelief.  It’s completely counterintuitive.

“Put the sun BEHIND the subject…  are you kidding??”

“Surely you’re pointing the camera at the sun?”

“Surely you’ll get lens flare?”

“Surely they will be silhouettes?”

No, no, no and no!!!

I am absolutely not kidding, this is my preferred method for shooting all my outdoor portraits in bright sunshine.

When I arrive on location, the first thing I do is look for where the sun is – and place my models with their backs towards it.

I don’t point my camera at the sun.  The trick is to ensure that the sun is higher in the shot than the heads of the models.  All you get then, is the lovely rim lighting around their heads and shoulders.  Rim lighting can be extremely attractive and help lift an ordinary photo into something quite special (see the image above of the three girls.  Notice the rim lighting on their hair and the tops of their shoulders.).

When the sun is very high in the sky, the rim lighting is less pronounced (see below).  But you often still get a hair light or at least a bright top to their head.

If the sun was really low, as it is around sunrise and sunset, it’s possible that it could be in shot, but it tends to be a lot less bright.  In these circumstances, if I found it was causing any problems or it was creating unwanted lens flare, I would reposition myself or the model to take it out of shot.  Specifically, I would try to put something in the background, like trees or a hill, making sure it was immediately behind the model.  The other option is to raise the height of the camera in relation to the model.  Either I need to stand on something to make me taller, or I may need to reduce the height of the model by getting her to sit.

Lens flare?  

You can reduce this by using your lens hood (that’s if you can find it).  Few photographers seem to use their lens hoods these days.

Some have them fitted back-to-front on their lenses, which is how the lens was shipped in order to reduce space in the box.  Most flare can be avoided by experimenting with the angle of the lens.

Some photographers actively encourage lens flare, they like the effect.  I’ve even been known to add lens flare artificially in post.  Heresy!


Beware of Baldies 

WARNING… Be particularly careful when photographing bald men and blondes.  If you only have sky behind them, you may find that the tops of their heads get lost, as the sky and their heads merge.  Sometimes, even with the best editing tools, it is impossible to recover the highlights, allowing you to separate head from sky.

Today’s latest AI editing tools could probably reconstruct missing head-tops.  I’ve yet to try it.

The shot above has the sun behind the subject.  Notice that there are no shadows on her face – that’s because her whole face is within her own shadow.  It is a much cleaner look, the light looks gentle, more flattering.


Depending on how bright the background is, you may need to watch your exposure.

If the background of your shot is very bright, the face will likely be dark, possibly even silhouetted under extreme conditions.  This is easily remedied by tweaking the exposure (by experimentation usually).  If you’re shooting in Aperture Priority, crank up the exposure compensation dial a few stops until you get the result you want.  Shooting in manual, you can play around with aperture, shutter speed or ISO, depending on the situation.

The final step…

Of course, the final step, taking the portrait to a higher level, is to open up the aperture and slap on a longer focal length lens.  The background will then blur out and the increased compression of perspective, combine together to produce a fabulously flattering image.

I reduced some of the colour saturation in the final shot.

To recap…

The Photography Assessment Tool asked participants what they considered the most flattering position for the sun, when photographing a model.

Out of the hundreds of respondents, the majority, 70%, believe that positioning the sun to the side of the model is the key to creating the most flattering light. Surprisingly, only 22% preferred having the sun behind them, while 7% opted for positioning it behind the model.

It is clear that a large number of photographers simply do not fully understand some of the basic principles I’ve discussed here today.  Follow these very simple guidelines and your portrait images can take a real boost.  The next time the sun comes out (I know, living in England doesn’t make it easy), try these techniques for yourself and see the difference it makes.


Understanding the impact of lighting in photography is essential for creative control. While the majority of respondents favoured side lighting, I think I’ve shown here that it may not be the most flattering of light.

Also, I am absolutely not saying we never light from the side – but I am saying that for most situations, rear lighting will produce the most flattering final result.


Ready to Test Your Photography Knowledge?

If you’re passionate about photography and curious to test your skills, take our Photography Assessment Tool quiz at https://bit.ly/Photo-Quiz.

Kevin Ahronson

Kevin is a full-time professional photographer and has been teaching photography since 2009. He founded the Hampshire School of Photography where he runs photography workshops and gives one to one mentoring to photographers at all levels, from complete beginners through to those who want to turn professional

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