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Why I Love Direct Sunlight Photography and the Challenges it Presents

I love direct sunlight photography. What that means is, that I love using direct sunlight as my main lightsource. I will only use it at weddings and senior portraits, though. Direct sunlight is so dramatic that it doesn’t often work for family portraits or baby portraits, although I have used it effectively for those types of photo sessions, which I will illustrate.

Posed vs. Candid Pictures

First, I should mention that what I will be talking about is “posed” pictures. If I am doing candids I would simply position myself at the best angle and perspective to the subject and not interject myself into the action. For engagement sessions, creative wedding images and senior portraits, those are all “posed”, or set up to as close to perfection as is possible. I do try to make my poses pictures look natural, or as natural as they can look, most of the time.  These are the type of pictures that I am referencing in this post.

Using Direct Sunlight for Weddings and Senior Portraits

Typically, most professional photographers have avoided using direct sunlight. I can understand this. Using it is much more challenging than going into open shade or using off camera flash. Depending on the time of the day, sunlight can create what photographes call “racoon eyes”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Very bad and distracting shadows in and around the eyes of the subject. This never looks good. So when using direct sunlight, you need to figure out how to fill the eye sockets with light. Again, depending on the time of day, this usually means creating a scenerio where the subject has their face directly up and into the sunlight.

Other times, it is simply putting the subject, like in this image, the bride and groom, into an beam of sunlight and having them look away or right at each other. Or, you can have your subject look towards the sunlight where they are comfortable and not squinting. This is one way that you can take pictures and keep their eyes open. It is dependent, however, on the time of day.

beam of direct sunlight hitting bride and groom
This is as much contrast as you can get but makes for a super dramatic wedding image
direct sunlight engagement portrait
This engagement picture s simply creating a scenario where their face is in the sunlight but their eyes are closed
engagement session with reflections at firestone country club
Here the direct sunlight was shining thru a window at Firestone Country Club during Ryan and Karen’s engagement session.
picture of bride in Madison of Cleveland posing in direct sunlight
Here, our bride, Savannah, puts her face directly into the sunlight, but looks to an area that is comfortable for her to look without squinting. This image was taken at the Madison in Cleveland

There are some situations where there direct sunlight is so soft and subtle, that you can have the subject look directly toward it like I did with my bride Morgan is this wedding image.

Bride in Cleveland Cultural Gardens lit by direct sunlight
A beautiful soft beam hits Morgan right where it needs to for this creative wedding portrait. This was on CJ and Morgan’s wedding day in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens

Using Direct Sunlight as a Secondary Light Source

You can use direct sunlight as a secondary light source as a rim light.  This allows you to have two light sources while only having one off camera flash. Or, you can expose for the ambient light while still using sunlight to rim light your subject.  This technique gives an image depth. I would say that it’s not as dramatic as using direct sunlight as your main light source but rim lighting with sunlight creates its own dramatic effect in pictures.  Here I used it in a family portrait and a senior portrait session that I did in Wade Oval Park in Cleveland.

Mom holding up baby for pictures at Wade Oval Park
For this family portrait in Cleveland’s Wade Oval Park, I used the sun to rim light the family
senior portrait by cleveland wade oval lagoon
For this senior portrait in Wade Oval Park in Cleveland, I rim light the senior then used an off camera flash to light his face


Using direct sunlight makes most photo sessions exponentially more challenging than simply using open shade. However, when done properly, it can make your wedding photos and senior pictures, even family pictures extremely dramatic,  and separate your images from that of your competition.

If you would like more information a photography techniques, feel free to leave comment, below, or e-mail me at