Finding the Light at a Location

There are some things we know about light.  We know that light changes throughout the day.  The best portrait lighting is when the sun is low in the sky — such as early morning and an hour before sunset – and we know to avoid shooting midday when the sun is strongest and directly above.  No one likes having harsh shadows under noses and in eye sockets or subjects squinting from the bright sun! 

So let’s say you’re at a location when the sun is fairly low in the sky.  Now what?  Where do you shoot?  Is the quality of light the same everywhere?

Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional photographer, the question is the same:   How do you “find the light” at a location?

It’s the same sun, the same location and the same time of day, yet the light varies depending on where you are, what direction you shoot and what surrounds you.  Simple and small adjustments can change the outcome of your image.

To give examples of the various kinds of light, I chose a park with hills, trees and buildings; and walked around with my model in the afternoon for about half an hour.  I’ve marked where I took my shots in the image below.  I did not use a reflector or flash.  It was just me, my camera and my model.

Should the Sun be Behind You or Your Subject? 

We started at Location A where there was ample light.

If the sun is behind your subject, you get warm “back light”, which brings color and attention to your subject’s hair.  It will also create a bright outline of your subject, which is especially nice for maternity, children and Senior portraits.

With my model in the exact same position, I moved to the other side of her, so the sun is now behind me.  The image looks and feels completely different.

Her hair now appears jet black and the image looks cooler.  I notice more texture and details because the light is shining directly on my model.  Overall, it is a good image, except for the glaringly harsh shadows on her face!

Depending on whom you are photographing, you may not have control over where your subject will be, like in the case of young children.  It would then be up to you to make slight adjustments to improve the lighting situation or make the most of the type of light.

Here, I corrected the harsh shadow problem by having my subject turn her head.  Voila!

Open Shade

In Location B, I saw a large flowering bush that blocked the direct sunlight, but allowed enough light to illuminate the area.  This is called “open shade”, and it produces even lighting and softer shadows, which is great for portraits.

Mixed Light:  Shadow and Sun

Both images below were taken at Location C, just steps apart, but the quality of light was vastly different.

Sometimes I like dramatic light – where shadows are very dark and the light is very bright – when I want my image to focus on a pattern or the architecture or to create a particular mood.

For a portrait of my young model, I preferred the contrast to be less dramatic.  So we walked along the same side of the building to a doorway that was close to surrounding trees.  With a narrower range of dark and light, the portrait still had interesting shapes from the mixed light, but they were more subtle.


Engulfed in Light

There are times you have no choice and there are times you may just want to:  shoot directly into the sun.  In fact, fully immerse your subject in it!  (Location D)

To keep your subject from being underexposed because your camera sensor will read that this is a very bright image, you can use a flash or reflector, or adjust your camera’s “exposure compensation”.

This image below was shot at ISO320, f/2.8, 1/2000 sec, and +1 exposure compensation.


Once you realize that sunlight is different even in the same location and same time of day, you can learn how to “find the light” that you want for a particular image.

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  1. Melissa

    I am a huge fan, love your work & love the tips you post. This one was especially helpful! My question is regarding the last 2 images in full sun. They look beautiful but how will they print? Will the background print alright or is it over-exposed? Thanks for your response!

  2. A good question, Melissa! The 2nd to the last one will print just wonderfully. I would suggest Metallic Paper for that one, and it will just “pop”! The last one is washed with sun flare, so the entire image will print light. I like it this way…. correction. I LOVE it like this. However, if you want it to print with more contrast, you would need to put more love into the post-processing.

  3. Hi Annie,

    Excellent article. It sums what I ended up learning in pieces. I am providing 2 comments to make this even more useful:

    1. You can mention about the reflected light, and how standing in open shade next to a (say) white wall or reflected ground, one can make amazing photos.

    2. You would obviously have also some thoughts in your mind about what you look for when scouting locations. If you share that in next photography article, that will be very useful.

    Thanks again for all the hard work you are putting in sharing the knowledge.

    BTW, this is probably my first comment on any blog ever 😉


  4. Annie

    Hi Kapil,

    I can’t comment on your comment for some reason. Anyhow, I wanted to thank you for your well-thought-out, detailed comment. Thank you for taking the time!

    So I’ve written an article some time ago about finding a location! Of course every photographer is different and some may choose the same 2 locations they always shoot at. And some may look for the “prettiest” location possible for their shoots. For me, I am an anomaly! haha. Here is my article:

    I agree with reflected light as well. I always look out for that. Thanks for bringing it up!