Tuesday, April 12, 2016


As a professional portrait photographer I’ve spent most of my career avoiding direct sunlight on my subjects. Simply put, direct sunlight is evil and ugly on people and it’s my job to make people look great; end of discussion.

There are several properties of direct sunlight that also make it difficult yo use: 
  1. It will create a scene with very high dynamic range that many digital sensors can’t handle. From highlights to shadows this range can be 14 stops!
  2. The shadows it creates are pure black with razor sharp edges (a good thing/bad thing).
  3. Because the sun is always moving (the the lower it is the faster it seems to move!) it’s constantly changing your direction of light and the length of the shadows. (A good thing/ bad thing depending on your subject!).
That being said, item #3 reminds me of the only exception to my no direct sunlight on people rule—magic hour (especially at the beach).  The last hour—the last half-hour—and, even better, the last 15 minutes of warm light from the setting sun is magical.

Some photographers use sunrise in the same way, but none of my clients have ever agreed to getting up and out that early for a portrait session! This brings me to using the worst type of direct light that I avoid using on people. What’s the best use of this super hard light? 

My Rule: Use hard light on hard things. 

It just happened that I had the perfect collection of hard things for this type of light….

f18.0 @ 1/60 sec., ISO 400
This image I called Grandpa’s Tools had been germinating in my mind for several years. It wasn’t until I moved to Idaho that it all came together. I already had my grandfathers tools and when my mother gave me my late step dad’s WWII trench knife and my great-grandfather’s riffle all I needed was a base or background for all these subjects.

I knew I’d found my background the instant I saw this old door while rummaging around a local antique store in Boise. It was a six-foot side door to an old barn—another casualty in the war between Idaho’s old farmsteads and spreading urban development.  

At 10am I placed the door, flat, on two “apple boxes”, in the direct sunlight coming through a large window in my studio. As I was placing the “tools”, deciding on a nice composition, I could see the shadows move.By the time I had placed them the rising sun had moved enough that I had to move the entire set-up closer to the window to keep everything in the sunlight. Because this became a race with the sun—get a couple shots…move the set-ups, etc.,—using a tripod was out—I did it all hand held.  This is not the perfect method of doing still life or product photography in the studio!

I really like the results of this effort, but the next time I did photography of guns in the studio I used my professional studio flash system, creating as many different compositions and set-up as I could think of, at a nice relaxed pace. That’s how I prefer to do studio photography.

Hope you enjoyed my adventure…should you have any questions please don’t hesitate to leave me a message.  ’Til next week….

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman, Certified
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com

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