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6 Tips for Taking Photos in the Sun

Travel photographer Peter West Carey shares his top six tips for taking photos in bright sun. Pack up these great lessons and take them along on your next journey!

by Peter West Carey Posted on 06 October 2014

While I love organized tours, there is one detail that is often outside my control: what time of the day sites are visited.

For the average traveller, this isn’t much of a problem; just visit whichever highlights are scheduled on the itinerary and have a great time. But for those of us with a bent toward creating quality photographs, we know that lighting – and thus timing – is vital to our needs. If your tour offers flexibility for events and times, you’re all set. If your tour doesn’t allow you to take advantage of the Golden Hour or other peak lighting times, however, then this post is for you.

What do you do when you are trying to photograph in harsh midday sun?

1. Don’t be shy

The first rule is to not sit back and hide behind the professional photographer’s mantra: “Never shoot in midday sun.” Being ultra-picky will get you nowhere. Realize that the opportunity in front of you may be less than ideal and that it may be a challenge, but that is all it is; a challenge.

2. Forget wide landscapes and look for details

That rule of thumb about not shooting in midday is typically the advice of landscape photographers. When you realize shots of Yosemite Valley appear bleached-out in the midday sun, it’s time to zoom in and look for details. This can be anything from plants to architectural vignettes to artisan details.

Detail of column at a ruin in jordan

If the light is bleached-out, go for the detail shots.

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3. Use the sun and make it burst

If you are shooting with a fixed aperture camera (read: most phone cameras), this one won’t work for you. If you don’t know what an aperture is, check to see if your camera has a mode called “A” or “Av.” This mode lets you change the aperture of the camera and can create starbursts from points of light, like the sun.

The way to work it is to stop down your aperture all the way (the highest number it can achieve) and then include the sun in your shot. It works best where there is some contrast near the sun, but a blue sky can also work. (Having clouds too near the sun hinders this effect.) Compose your shot and take a photo like you normally would.

And that’s it! Here are a couple of examples from my recent trip to Jordan for reference.

starbursting sun over building in jordan

It works best where there is some contrast near the sun.

starbursting sun over petra in jordan

Sun-bursting over Petra in Jordan.

4. Use your flash

Yes, that’s right; in the middle of the day when there is ample light everywhere, use your flash, especially if people are involved in your shot. If the sun is directly overhead, they may have a hat on or, at the very least, the fact that they have eye sockets and a nose means there will be unwanted shadows. This can all be brightened up with a flash.

If the sun is shining all around as it is in the photo below, your camera will likely be tricked into thinking the whole scene is very bright and it will darken your subject. You’ve probably seen this in action yourself when taking pictures of friends or family with the sun setting behind them and everyone is underexposed.

Adding the flash will balance the light in your photo and bring back the dark areas.

My daughter in front of the Treasury at Petra. Without the flash, her face would be far more underexposed and dark.

My daughter in front of the Treasury at Petra. Without the flash, her face would be far more underexposed and dark.

5. Channel the light

Light has a way of finding a path through and around structures. Look for sunlight where you might not expect it. Notice how it comes through windows and around doors. Look for holes through which it can burrow.

light beam in an underground ruin in jordan

Be curious about light. Find places where you wouldn't expect it to shine through.

6. Play

Lastly, don’t forget to play with light. It won’t always be where you want it to be or be as perfectly controlled as you might like, but with some imagination, you can have some fun along your travels.

figure standing with smoke all around her caught in the light

Don't forget to play.

Do you have other tips for shooting in the middle of the day when the sun is harsh? Share them in the comments section below, please!