Sunny Family Portraits, Anderson Point, Woodland Washington

Be sure to read through to the bottom of this article to find some tips for how to shoot in high sun when it's simply, unavoidable.

Table of Contents

Session Recap

This #fallfamilyphotosession at Anderson Pointe in Woodland was a far from a dream come true. Actually, pretty much anything we planned that could possibly derail, did just that. The light was so not ideal, and we were going for fall pictures, but the temperature was moderate, and we had a bit of wind, so it made the posing process comfortable. Jessyka’s youngest son Orin had just turned 1 this day and we wanted to incorporate something special to commemorate his grandfather who had passed away. The Pendant Necklace Orin is wearing in these pictures was a gift that his father, Sus, was given by his grandfather when Sus was a baby.

We had originally planned to do this session during golden hour, but such is life, we ended up rescheduling for a few hours earlier due to some things that came up. I’m going to be totally honest, while I’m confident in my abilities, my attitude about shooting in the middle of the early afternoon when the sun was at its highest, brightest and most unflattering, was far from positive. As photographers, I think we all get a little too comfortable shooting in ideal weather, at ideal times, with ideal lighting conditions and we are rarely pushed to stretch our abilities anymore.

The weather was forecasted to be partly cloudy, which I hoped meant a little bit softer light and a gorgeous sunset, but that proved to be a total lie on the part of my iPhone weather app (booooo lol). We ended up with full on sunshine. I headed out a little bit early because at around noon it was looking like the weather was going to totally screw us over. When I got to the location I was super upset because I realized that the beach access where I would usually drive and park my car for photo sessions at this location, had recently been barricaded off with concrete barriers. There was 4x4 access if you drove through the sand but I wasn’t driving a truck and really wasn’t vibing with the idea of getting my mom car stuck….. especially considering I am single mommin’ it up while my hubby is in Idaho getting our new home together (eeeeeek! Total and utter excitement btw!!!).

So I ended up getting out of the car with my boys and just letting them run around the beach for an hour and a half or so. I was totally feeling the disappointment just crowd me like a heavy weighted blanket, except not comfy and cozy. I grabbed my camera bag and walked around the beach for a minute while the kids played, and instead of sulking I decided to pull out my z6II and film some video of my kids playing to get the creative juices flowing and Oh.My.Lord, this did exactly the trick. I spent probably 45 minutes framing different angles and videoing little clips of my 1-year-olds feet in the subtle Columbia river waves. The water was absolutely gorgeous and the wind in the leaves that were beginning to turn fall colors just gave the entire location a ‘warm and cozy’ end of summer vibe, which is totally the opposite of the way the first week of September usually feels at locations covered in deciduous foliage.

When Jess and the Boys arrived on location, I had been watching the sun for a while and had scoped out a few spots where I wanted to have them stand and my game plan was ready. I wrote down my shot list and poses to not get overwhelmed and I started shooting and posing. We scheduled them in for a full ‘up to 60 minutes’ family session but Orin was not feeling it, so we ended up shooting for just under 30 minutes and it ended up being one of the easiest sessions ever. Every shot was just so adorable. Culling my gallery was so difficult because I like to keep my delivered gallery of somewhere between 70-100 edited images that are not repetative and I loved every single image in the RAW file folder!

Family portrait session or wedding ceremony during high, mid-day, harsh sunshine? No problem. I think a lot of newer photographers start to panic when they run into situations where the lighting is harsh. I see this a lot, both in situations where the dancefloor at a wedding is completely black with very little to no lighting overhead, and no ceiling to bounce flash off of and help bring up the exposure of the dark room as well as situations where they run into a midday, sun blazing, high noon wedding ceremony, or a family portrait session where the only availability the family had was during the worst hours of the day for lighting.

Natural light photography is definitely a growing fad these days among newer photographers. And this isn’t a surprise because everywhere you look on the internet, in any photography tutorial video on YouTube, experts are telling these newbies that the best light is Golden Hour, an overcast day or later in the afternoon when the sun is at an angle the light is generally just softer. This is completely true, and I’m not here to argue. But what happens when you go 2 or 3 years building a photography business and no longer consider yourself a newbie, and you run into a situation with bad or harsh light, and you have no idea what to do or how to handle your gear? Sounds like a total disaster that nobody wants to experience.

Nobody intentionally plans a session for the middle of the day or early afternoon when the sun is at its highest, least flattering point in the sky. However, as photographers sometimes this is simply unavoidable, and we need to be able to adapt the harsh light and still create a gorgeous product for our clients. A great example of this kind of situation would be a wedding ceremony where the ceremony itself is outdoors, the lighting is extremely harsh and bright and there’s really nothing you can do to get away from having to shoot in the high mid-day sun.

Tips for shooting in harsh sunlight

1. Mentally Prepare

Whenever this happens, I like to just take a minute to do a few things. Firstly, I mentally prepare myself for the task ahead. I am not mentally preparing to hate what I’m doing, but rather, mentally preparing myself in a sort of pep talk way. When I try to wrap my head around how gorgeous the pictures I’m taking are going to be before I even take them, it helps me approach the session, wedding ceremony etc. with a positive attitude and this helps creative juice flow. Another thing I like to take a moment to do, is remind myself that I am always going to be my own worst critic and no client is every going to pick apart my own work as meticulously as I do. This is, by no means, an excuse to produce a subpar product, but rather a moment to reflect and remind myself that I know what the heck I’m doing, I know my way around my camera bodies and lenses, and I am well versed and practiced in handling harsh light situations after nearly 12 years of photography experience.

2. Lighting Test and Gear Check

This might seem so obvious to the well-seasoned photographers, but the first thing I do after mentally prepping is check my gear and test the light. I take tons of test shots and make note of what the light and dark spots in the image are doing. If the weather is looking like it’s going to be harsh sunlight, I like to try to spend about 30 minutes ‘warming up’ and messing around getting my white balance somewhere that I like and metering light enough to preserve detail of my subject while still not blowing out the back. If you’re not shooting in manual yet and are still relying on those aperture priority or other automatic settings your camera has, this is probably a good time to make the leap over to fully manual shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance, focus, spot metering etc. Our digital cameras have some fantastic technology, but they’re unfortunately not smart enough to expose correctly, while maintaining a shallow depth of field on a bright sunny day. This leads us to tip number 3.

3. Shoot In manual, shoot with a Wide Aperture, but keep your Aperture in your lenses sweet spot.

For portraits I try to shoot 2-3 stops above wide open. If I’m shooting a single subject that isn’t moving and is in a studio or outdoors with perfect lighting, I will shoot wide open or around 1.8 but for wedding portraits or families I try to shoot between 2.8 and 4.0. This is contradictory to a lot of trendy information floating around the internet today, but all lenses have what’s referred to as a sweet spot. This not only allows for multiple subjects to be in focus and helps prevent focus miss but also is the sharpest aperture at which your lens can possibly shoot. Shooting in your lenses sweet spot, while still wide open around 2.8 not only helps your images come out as sharp as possible but also helps to smooth out skin tones and maintain even color throughout the skin.

4. Shoot either 30 minutes before or after high noon.

High noon is the absolute ONLY time of day when the sun will have zero angle to work with, but if you shoot at least 30 minutes before, or preferably after, you will have a slight angle in one direction or another to turn your subjects back to.

5. Face Your subject away from the sun

I hear it said a lot to face your subject away from the sun and shoot into the sun but this is such bad information. This will cause an overabundance of lens flare which will soften your entire image, blow out detail and there is not a whole lot you can do to bring it back.

6. Match the light of your subject’s skin, to the light of their background.

This sounds more difficult than it is. So, what you’re trying to do here, is place your subjects in frame where there is a relatively even amount of light across both the front of their bodies and background. You can achieve this in a few ways, the first is by using off camera lighting or flash for fill to artificially create fill light and match the exposure of the background. The second is more optimal for photographers who don’t want to use flash, or do not consider flash part of their style and this revolves around finding a location in the shade. I strongly suggest at least practicing fill flash, because there is not always a shady spot for portraits.

7. LAST BUT NOT LEAST: Slightly overexpose for the skin and use your subjects to shade each other.

I don’t mean legitimately overexpose, I mean overexpose as far as your light meter is concerned. When you’re metering your exposure in camera, often your light meter will try to tell you your shot is overexposed, however, this is not always the case because the skin of your subject and the background behind your subject are lit, drastically differently, it confuses your camera. so, in this situation you would want to expose for the skin. The second part to this tip has to do with placing your subjects in such a way that they shade one another and keep harsh shadows and light lines off each others face. It’s pretty self explanatory.


Like I said before, we can’t always shoot at the most optimal time of day. Sometimes this just isn’t the case, so while we can, most of the time plan around perfect lighting and conditions, its highly recommended that you practice shooting at times of day where you don’t have as soft as light as ‘golden hour’ or late afternoon.

Happy Shooting!

Here are some of my favorite shots from Jessyka and her Boys Family Session in the Harsh Sunlight where I use a LOT of the principles and tips I mentioned above!

Interested in Contacting me about your Family Photos ? Fill out the contact form below. I can't wait to hear from you!

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