Most people think direct, bright sunlight is the best choice for photography. And it can certainly be very effective in the right situations. But in reality, bright sunlight carries its own set of problems. We will be exploring each of these and how to deal with them in the article here.

Direct light is too harsh

The main issue with direct sunlight is the harshness of the light when shooting portraits. It tends to wash out the subtleties of skin tone. And it creates very unflattering shadows. So using one or even multiple light diffusers is a great way to control the lighting on your subject.

Diffusers reflect sunlight back at the subject. And due to the materials used in their creation, they reflect what’s called diffused light. Diffused light is the light that’s slightly scattered instead of harsh and direct.

This light scattering is also why early morning and early evening are the best times for portrait work. The scattered light is not as prone to creating harsh shadows in areas like the nose, eye sockets, and chin of my subjects.

tip avoid direct sunlight photo

Photo by melancholiaphotography / CC0 1.0

Exposure triangle control

The three elements of the exposure triangle are ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. They are called the exposure triangle because by adjusting each of these elements, I can control how much light goes into the final image.

When shooting in bright light, I usually want to keep my ISO as low as possible. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the camera becomes to light. ISO 100-200 is as low as most DSLR and mirrorless cameras go.

Photo by Maura Parra-Miranda / CC0 by 2.0

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is how fast or slow the camera shutter opens and closes to let in light. In bright lighting, a fast shutter speed like 1/500ths of a second or faster will allow me to ensure I’m keeping the image from being overexposed.

And aperture is the last factor. The aperture setting controls how large or small of a hole I create inside of the lens of my camera to let in light. It’s expressed in f/stops. Each full stop is a doubling or halving of the amount of light reaching the sensor.

Aperture is a bit strange in that the larger the number the smaller the hole becomes. So we want to increase aperture if we want to use it to control exposure. But don’t forget that as we raise the aperture setting, the depth of field also increases.

lens for controlling shutter speed sunlight photography

Photo by Free-Photos / CC0 1.0

Depth of Field

A depth of field is how much of a given scene is in sharp focus. With a closed off aperture, like f/11 or more, most or all of the subject, as well as the background, will be in focus. With an open aperture number, like f/1.4, all or part of the main subject will be in focus. And the background will be mostly blurred and out of focus.

Exposure compensation is a great tool to use if I don’t want to change my shutter speed, ISO, or aperture. Exposure compensation simply changes the overall exposure of the scene by fractions of stops of light.

Intermediate and advanced cameras often have a button or dial directly on the camera itself to control it. But if not, it’s worth navigating the menus necessary to find the exposure compensation setting.

photograph with Depth of Field

Photo by melancholiaphotography / CC0 1.0

Dynamic range compensation

I should always check my manual to see if I can find settings that adjust how my camera responds to high contrast scenes. Nikon users have a setting called Active D-lighting while Canon users should look for Auto Lighting Optimizer.

In scenes that have harsh glare or deep shadows, details can be lost within. Most cameras don’t have the dynamic range of human eyes. Dynamic range is the range of how intense light is from the brightest to darkest portions of an image. So using a compensating setting will help pull additional detail from the brighter portions of the image.


Bright sunlight offers a number of unique challenges to the photographer. Armed with the knowledge above, I can ensure my photos remain properly exposed and don’t become too bright or lacking in detail. Too much light can, in fact, be a bad thing! Happy shooting!