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People always think: “Wow. Summer. Great light to make pictures in.”

Only they’re wrong.

Summer is great for the beach, picnics, softball games and eating watermelon, but it can also be the worst time of year for making good pictures. Not only is it hot, but the sun is directly overhead (at least in the northern hemisphere) and that will only cast hard shadows on people’s eyes, which makes them look fairly ugly. And then there is the squinting. Lots of problems and worst of all, everyone wants to make pictures in the summer. So what’s a photographer to do? As summer winds into the dog days, a photographer must find creative ways to cope with the particular challenges of the longest and most beautiful days of the year. There are three ways I can think of that would effectively make use of the great weather:

Using Open Shade

The first and most obvious solution to bright overhead sun is open shade. This is the easiest and best way to counter the harsh realities of a relentless summer sun. No matter what time of the day, buildings, trees, sheds, or any kind of structure that your clients can stand under will provide you with a soft, smooth light to shine on their faces. All you need to do is place them just inside that line between light and shadow so that there is no sun directly on their faces. It is even better if you can find circumstances where they are standing or sitting in shade with the sun at their back (thereby creating an excellent “hair light”). Three things need to be taken into account: background, first and foremost, must be kept simple and fairly dark if you can arrange it. Second, to throw a background out of focus, thereby eliminating obvious distractions, shoot at the lowest ISO you can manage, and increase your shutter speed and drop your f-stop so that you create the shallowest depth-of-field possible. The third consideration will greatly assist you in creating this kind of a condition: namely, a reflector. Either a solid white or even a gold reflector will work wonders to eliminate any shadows under the eyes. It will take years off a person’s face. Just take care to keep it far enough away from the subject so they are not blinded by the light. Lastly, be very careful with a silver reflector for that very same reason. It’s almost like shining a mirror in someone’s face and that is not good for you or your subject.

Surviving Summer: Tips for Photography in Harsh Summer Light

The Right Kind of Light

Get up really early in the morning (I mean really early), or shoot very late in the day. This one bit of advice is the one that hardly every gets used, and for two very good reasons. First, nobody likes to get up at dawn unless they’re getting paid to do it, and chances are they are paying you. But the light in the early morning is so beautiful that it can’t be ignored, especially at the beach. It makes a light that you can hardly duplicate except under studio conditions. Conversely, shooting very late in the day will create similar, but warmer tones. The only real trouble with shooting early and late is that there is very little leisure time. By the time the sun is up over the horizon in the summer, even for an hour, that sweet light is gone. So you need to work fast. The truly best time to work with sweet light is just before sunrise and just after sunset, and I mean immediately before and after. Watch how fast the light changes at the horizon. You can also make great use of the sun as its setting, as that warm, almost reddish glow can make profoundly beautiful and dramatic photos that your clients will love. There is nothing better than very late afternoon summer sun on a human face.

Surviving Summer: Tips for Photography in Harsh Summer Light

Taking Your Shoot Indoors

The last choice is the most obvious: go inside, turn up the air conditioning and break out the lights. It won’t be as challenging as working with summer sunshine, and it certainly won’t afford you the opportunity to grow and understand available light, and it most certainly won’t give you the kind of light and landscape possibilities that outdoors will provide, but one thing is certain: your clients will be more comfortable, you may not have to work as hard and as fast to “run with the light” as it ascends or descends, but you will have complete control of your environment and produce predictable results.

Whatever you choose to do, don’t shy away from finding solutions outside your comfort zone. You’ll not only make yourself into a better photographer, but you’ll also have the added benefit of giving your clients a twist or two to look forward to. One last piece of advice that you can count on when you’re working outdoors: I can almost guarantee that when shooting outdoors in the summer, you are going to invariably run into someone who will be watching you work and approach and hire you for a job next week.

James Schuck

James Schuck is a writer and photographer working in Southern California. He is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has photographed everything from Architecture to Auto Parts to Cookies to Portraits and Weddings.

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