How to Shoot in Harsh Lighting

Wedding days are a one-shot game. You don’t get to redo things, and you don’t usually get to schedule everything around when the best light will be. So more often than not, this means you’ll be taking pictures—important, special, one-chance-to-get-it-right pictures—during some seriously less-than-ideal windows throughout the day.

bride and groom hold hands while walking on golf course
Direct sunlight around 1:00pm on a golf course.

While this used to be something that majorly stressed me out, I’ve shot enough weddings now that there really isn’t much I’m surprised by or can’t accommodate for. In short, here’s my opinion on harsh lighting: totally avoid it or totally embrace it.

When shooting in midday light, the first and best option is to find a large shady area where the shade continues back in the direction you’re shooting. One of the WORST things you can do in harsh light is to shoot in a patch of shade with bright sunshine directly behind it; in order to get your subject properly exposed, your background will be entirely washed out. But when your background is dark, you’re able to find the direction of the light and shoot your subject in a way that makes their face pop against the dark background. Ben Sasso calls this “Cave Lighting” and it’s one of my favorite ways to shoot. (Not pictured here.)

groomsmen show off their socks on the wedding day
Direct sunlight around 2:00pm by the water.

Another thing you want to avoid is speckled lighting. When you’re looking for shady areas to shoot in, you might want to find a section of trees. But the problem with this is that the high direction of the sun usually causes lots of speckled sun spots all around, and it’s hard to find a nice even section of shade that doesn’t have splotchy patches of light hitting their faces or body.

The image below is an example of speckled lighting, but we were able to find a large enough patch of shade to make it work. This particularly venue didn’t have any other shady areas outside, so we were forced to work with what we had. It ended up looking nice though, with a little brush work upping the exposure on their faces.

bride and groom hold hands and walk through the forest
Speckled lighting around 2:00pm by a tree line.

If you have no good shady areas to work with, then oftentimes the best thing you can do is fully embrace the sunlight. Reflectors and OCF can help fill in areas of the face where the sun casts shadows, and with the right editing you can really make some amazing images. Shooting in direct light can be challenging, but the more you practice on your own, the more comfortable and capable you’ll be if and when you have to do it on a wedding day.

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