We all love the golden early-morning and late-day light in our photographs, and actively seek it out. Backlit, sun-drenched images are gorgeous. The fleeting window of opportunity for capturing it makes this dreamy and hence all the more precious. “Ideal”? What a lovely concept! What if you embraced the harsh, bright full-day sunlight and could exploit it to its, and your full creative potential?

Observe the shadows.

When we’re starting out in photography, we’re told to train our mind to find the light. As your skill and confidence grow, you discover the power of the flip side of the light, the shadows. It’s the shadows that give your photographs depth, a three-dimensional look that draws in and intrigues the viewer. And shadows can ramp up the drama and mood of your captures.

My tips on reaching the dark side: Expose for the highlights. Harsh light streaming indoors is a favorite for me to experiment in, but full daylight without shade hasn’t always been desirable to me. In my personal work, though, weekend daytime is when I’m out adventuring with the family, so I’ve got to make the most of the bright given light.

I note the shadows, yet I expose for the highlights. In fully open spaces, I start with a shutter speed of 1/640 or 1/800, my ISO at 100, and my f-stop at f/3.5 or f/4.0. I’ll typically adjust my f/stop as needed when I’m getting in close for detail, and again when I’m capturing the environment.

When shooting with no shade, try to position yourself with the light behind you so that your subject is evenly lit. If your subject has to face the sun, have her close her eyes so as not to squint.

How to use harsh light in photography - bright sunlight

Get creative with compositions.

Environmental daytime shots can be quite affecting. You want the viewer to be present in the environment and see what’s going on there around your human subject. I typically use my wide-angle lens for such images.

Shooting in dappled light.

Shooting in this light can be a cool way to accentuate certain elements in your photograph. The key, again, is to expose for the highlights in the frame, letting the shadows of any surrounding objects (trees, leaves, structures) fall where they will in the frame.

Find patches of light amid the shadows and place your subject in various ways to take advantage of them. The pocket of light could fall on your subject’s eyes, hands, feet or anything you’re looking to emphasize in your photo.

Shadows as the main subject.

Look for moments where your human subject is casting a shadow on something, and compose for the shadows. Focus on the shadow in such instances, while leaving your subject slightly out of focus.

Shoot through various objects.

This is one technique I absolutely love using. I’m a big fan of simplicity and minimalism; I love how simple objects that reflect light can provide that extra layer of interest for the viewer. I often shoot through glass, windows, bubble wrap, plastic bags, even prisms. The effects of that reflected light hitting the camera’s sensor are fascinating.

How to use harsh light in photography - pockets of light
How to use harsh light in photography - use shadows

Convert to black and white.

One of the main reasons I’ll plan a shoot in harsh light is because I’m going to convert the image into black and white in post, so the contrast between the light and dark areas will be enhanced. Black-and-white images help you focus only on that contrast and the texture, shapes, lines and patterns that draw the viewer’s eye to the subject. A good black-and-white image has a strong contrast between the subject and the background, and it’s usually abundant in the midday harsh light.

Black and white photo in harsh light

Jyotsna’s tools

Cameras: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EOS 6D

Lenses: Sigma Art lenses — 35mm f/1.4; 85mm f/1.4; 105mm f/2.8; 12-24mm; Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM; Lensbaby — Edge 80 and SOL 45

Light: Profoto A1

Photos by Jyotsna Bhamidipati

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Click Magazine. Order your copy, or subscribe now so you’ll never miss an amazing photography story like this one.