Finding Good Mid-Day Light
Here's a very easy and effective natural light trick when you're shooting outdoors at mid-day. It requires no special gear, so it works just as well for phone selfies as it does "real" cameras.
I'll frame the trick in the context of a situation yesterday. I was attending my youngest son's graduation ceremony from elementary school. It was scheduled for 12:30PM, with an outdoor reception on the school lawn starting about 1:30. It was a bright, sunny day.
So, the reception was pretty much craptastic for light – harsh brightness, hard shadows, too much contrast. All of which results in lots of squinty eyes, deep dark shadows on faces, and blown-out backgrounds.
The trick is this: Find an evenly shaded area. Things like the shady side of a building, a patio, an awning, a gazebo, a tree with a dense canopy. The important thing is that the shade is even and doesn't cast splotchy shadows on your subject. Ideally, the ground should be a light neutral-color – concrete actually works really well. Dirt works. Grass is less effective, but it'll do in a pinch. When you've found your location, position your subject fully in the shaded area (i.e. make sure there are no patches of bright light on him/her), but near the edge of the shade.
In this case, the school had a long, covered porch extending the full length of the building. We went to the very end of the porch, which was conveniently away from all the other students and parents. I positioned my son so that he was as close as possible to the edge of the porch's shadow on the sidewalk while still being fully inside the shade. At that time of day, that was about 12-15 inches from the edge of the shadow on the sidewalk.
You can achieve really terrific light with this trick – soft, glowing, and even. The ground acts as a giant reflector onto your subject and the relative size of that reflector will make the light soft and creamy. This is why it works best when the ground is neutral-colored – otherwise, the reflected light can introduce a color cast on your subject which you may need to correct in post. In the background, the light falloff as the scene goes deeper into the shade will get exaggerated by the camera, making the subject pop from the background very nicely. It will almost look like you were shooting with a giant softbox providing fill light! My photos from this scene required very little touch-up in Lightroom. In fact, I could have gone with straight-off-the-camera JPEGS and been fine with the results.
Now, from a composition perspective, I'm not keen on how the lighter-colored band of brick goes right through my son's head (wasn't pay enough attention!). But for a snapshot at a family event with no up-front prep other than looking around for the shade, it's pretty nice. With more thought and preparation, you can produce a truly pro-looking portrait with just your camera.
By the way, I first learned this trick from Robert Valenzuela's book, Picture Perfect Practice. If you don't already have it, break out your credit card and buy it. It has a ton of great ideas to make good photos out of seemingly bad scenes, and the sections on posing are worth the price of admission alone.