Happy Thanksgiving weekend everyone! Speaking of giving thanks, I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to shoot a pre-senior portrait for the beautiful Bailey Gomez. Bailey is graduating from Menlo College this year, and we were so eager to take some beautiful portraits in the Fall season. That being said, there will be another shoot when she gets her official cap and gown, so stay tuned for that.

Before the holiday festivities officially start, I wanted to write a brief post showing you guys how to work under harsh lighting conditions based on my experience. The truth is, it’s always preferable to shoot during GOLDEN HOUR. Golden hour is shortly after sunrise, or before sunset, when the sun is softer and slightly more red. This window of time changes during the seasons, but the prettiest hues when shooting with natural light, in my experience, can be found in the Fall (I’ll explain why in a bit). Here’s where it gets tricky. You might be asking “what if my client can’t make that time frame work?” Also, shooting during golden hours doesn’t automatically translate into a good shot with quality lighting. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION, is everything. Even the harshest light can be saved by the surrounding environment if it is a good location.

What’s a good location? Here are a few things I look for:

  1. What does the scenery look like when my client is backlit? This is important. You need to be able to get the right scenery where the sun is behind your subject for the best “glowing” effects/ light, or at least this is the ideal condition to work under. Just because you pick a pretty location, it doesn’t mean your client will get to use up that space. For instance, I want to shoot in a garden where there is water and a bridge and I want to shoot here specifically to capture the water and the bridge. If I don’t do some upfront planning, this might not pan out based on where the sun is at a particular time of day. That location could look great after sunrise, but by 3:00pm or 4:00pm when the sun is ideal and lower in the sky (in the Fall), the sun might be facing towards my client in the opposite direction, which can cause them to squint, or create additional shadows on their faces. This isn’t a complete lost though, it just might mean some additional time in post processing if those images aren’t coming out the way it would if the subjects were backlit. You with me so far?
  2. What in the location can I use to reflect light naturally? I ask myself this all the time because I hardly work with studio lights and flash when I’m in the outdoors. There’s nothing wrong with using flash, but my aesthetic is typically something softer. Not to mention, I am a one man show and prefer not to lug heavy equipment around if I don’t have to. This is important to consider because if the sun is too bright or high in the sky during a shoot, I look for shade, and I look for reflectors. What are reflectors? Anything in nature that can reflect light back to my subject. For instance, water, tree leaves, white brick walls, lightly paved roads, even stones and rocks. If I can find shade, I’m in good hands. Why? It’s better to photograph images that are slightly dim and most photographers do this any way and then later bring the image up in post processing. I like to do this myself to eliminate any washed out photos. It’s easier to brighten and expose an image than it is to gain back highlights and washed out details. trust me.

In parallel to finding a good location, it’s important to consider a color theme. This helps me “save” or work with harsh lighting when I’m editing my photos because I can focus on bringing out certain colors, toning some down, toning the entire image altogether, playing with hues and saturation etc. All of these things come into play and trick the eye to seeing a much softer image than it actually is. Here is an example of using a color pallet:

A. Harsh lighting, raw image. Color pallet: blue, orange, orange/red, green, white. Fall hues. Mood: autumn, warm, happy.

In this photo, we wanted to get the shadows on the ground to indicate trees overhead. We loved the pathway and the leaves so I decided I would make this work. If I had turned Bailey’s back to the sun, that would be better, but the background wouldn’t have been as pretty and with a lot of people. Sometimes you have to pick and choose your battles.

IMG_1098 (1)

B. Post Processing. Yes, this is a different photo I realized, but she was in the exact same spot, so you get the idea. I played off the trees and extended the leaves down to the fence. Blurring the background further helps soften harsh lines and details that you can easily manipulate later. For instance, I used my paintbrush to add softer hues to the trees and background. I even added blush tones to the ground and her face to soften the shadows. we’re playing off the hues in her shirt, so everything is cohesive.


Raw image below: Same color pallet, same mood. In this photo, it’s pretty good to start because my subject is backlit. But notice I didn’t place her in an area with too many flowers or overly bright plants. I kept the hues along the lines of her color pallet. Everything either has a blue undertone (lavender), or an orange red (the autumn colors we were talking about earlier, which ties back to her shirt).


Finished Edit: I can use my paint brush to bring dial up the orange hues around her. This is the soft aesthetic we both wanted to achieve and playing with colors that intentionally existed in this photo, helps us achieve that look. I like more depth in my images so I blurred the background further. At first, I liked the rusty rod that ran across the plants behind her. I liked the texture and color, but when I was editing, I decided to remove that from the image because it was too distracting. As a rule of thumb, try not to have anything in the background that cuts through your subject unless it’s directly at the joints. For instance, if the rod was directly in line with her neck, it would have been easier for my eyes to digest, but since it runs through her temples, and isn’t straight, it makes me feel like the photo is crooked. This is just personal preference, but it’s important to consider.



Raw image: HARSH LIGHTING. What did we do to fix this? Look for open shade. It’s okay to switch up the scenery. You and your client will appreciate this.


Solution/final product: Below are examples of open shade with tons of natural reflectors. Even the ground helped reflect light back to my subject’s face.


Tip: If you like a particular area and it’s overly shaded or dark, try to get a few frames there anyway. We thought this part of the garden would be too dark, but it ended up working fine! You can always add light in post processing like I have done here.

thumb_IMG_1298_1024 FINAL2


Welp, there ya have it folks, as promised. Hope this helps and have a festive Thanksgiving coconuts!


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