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How to make great portraits in bright sun 

click to enlarge © SEAN CAYTON / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
  • © Sean Cayton / All Rights Reserved
I recently photographed Kathleen who was visiting Colorado Springs with her family. She wanted to do her senior pictures in Colorado and thought the Garden of the Gods park would be a perfect place to make her senior pictures unique to her.

I met Kathleen and family at 10 a.m. at the visitor’s center at the Garden of the Gods. She had a couple of outfits picked out and her makeup and hair was done before the start of the shoot.
click to enlarge © SEAN CAYTON / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
  • © Sean Cayton / All Rights Reserved
It was a typical Colorado morning with deep blue sky and the sun was high in the sky. It was also quite warm. Because the sun was so bright it made the landscape look flat and I knew it wouldn't be super flattering for portraits of Kathleen to put her in the sun without thinking first about how to handle the light.

So here are four rules I employed to make pleasing pictures of Kathleen that mitigated the sun and allowed me to make great pictures of her that will definitely stand out from her friend’s photos in her yearbook.
click to enlarge © SEAN CAYTON / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
  • © Sean Cayton / All Rights Reserved
#1 Look for open shade.

When I arrived that the visitors center I found a little corner with landscaping that had a simple background. The sun was bouncing off the parking lot and into this space and I knew it would be a pleasing place to begin with Kathleen’s pictures.

#2 If you can’t find open shade to work with, the next best thing is to put the sun at your portrait subject’s back.
click to enlarge © SEAN CAYTON / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
  • © Sean Cayton / All Rights Reserved
We drove into the park where there were tall grasses and some sunny flowers and I posed Kathleen with her back to the sun so she wouldn’t be squinting. I also consciously overexposed the picture which allowed me to give Kathleen’s skin a pleasing look.

#3 Use dark backgrounds to make your subject stand out.

After working in the grassy field, I posed Kathleen with trees behind her. With her standing in the sun, the dark background of the trees created contrast in the images and made her stand out from the background.

#4 Go with the sun

After nailing the earlier shots, the final photographs I made of Kathleen were in full sun. We drove to the high point parking lot where I posed her in front of the deep red rock formations and I slightly underexposed the images to saturate the colors giving the images a bright, glamorous look.

Give these tips a try when you have to photograph someone on a sunny day. Happy shooting!

Sean Cayton is a wedding photojournalist of 19 years and operates a successful, award-winning wedding photography studio in Colorado Springs. He's also an award-winning photojournalist. Sean is happily married to the love of his life (also his business partner) and is father to three beautiful children. When he’s not working, Sean can be found outside flying kites with his kids, hitting golf balls or casting a fly rod to hungry trout.

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