Choosing the best lighting for outdoor photos? | San Diego newborn, child and family photography

A few years ago our friends from Nashville came to visit us in San Diego. They had 2 young kids at the time, as did we, and we were snapping photos of them like crazy, all day long. Kids on the beach, kids in the pool, kids in full sun…not the best lighting, but it was non stop paparazzi. Now ask me how many of those photos got deleted? (more than half). How many of those photos made it to albums? (maybe 10-20). How many got printed and placed in a frame in my house? (none).


Because shooting in full sun is NOT a good way to achieve quality worthy photos, and now, knowing what I know, I try to avoid it if at all possible. Granted, some events you just can’t change the location, or the sun, or the time of day. Like when your daughter is tromping through the open space in her tutu and high heels at 1:00 in the afternoon, you do what you gotta do. But if you can, get the best lighting possible to start with, it makes it soooo much easier on you later!


Choosing the best lighting for photographs outside
At the time of my friends visit, I was just getting started with my photography business. So I was going to do a little photo beach session for them. We were talking about it the day before, making arrangements for the when and where, and she said something that struck me. She said something to the effect of “I know it’s best to shoot around noon.”  I was shocked that she said this because she has a nice DSLR camera, and she takes some really nice photos of her kids. So I guess I just assumed that she, and everyone else, knows that high noon when the sun is way up overhead, is NOT the best time to take photos. In fact, it’s probably the worst.

So that’s what prompted me to write this post. I wanted to give some tips on the best lighting to take photos, and if you can’t avoid taking them at high noon, some other tips to get better looking shots.


First of all, if you are planning a photo shoot of your kids,  your family,  your dog, whatever, and you can choose the time….try to do it during the “golden hour”, which occurs twice a day. It’s an hour after sunrise, and an hour before sunset. There is even a website that will calculate when the golden hour is for you based on your location. This is the time of day with incredible  golden light. It makes your subjects look ethereal and gives them a soft glow while warming the entire photo. No need for post processing editing if you capture the beauty of golden hour!






But again, sometimes you can’t avoid the time of day, especially during the summer, when the sun rises before 6am and sets after 8pm. Those times are especially hard for family portraits with little kids.

So we do what we can with the light we are given.

Below is another example of how I placed my subject in too harsh of light.  See the shadow under her nose?

senior girl in bright sun

But once I moved her to a shady spot her skin tones improved and the harsh shadows were gone. You can still see the full sun in the background, causing parts of the photo to be over exposed, but I was willing to compromise some over exposure for a  picture of her in the grass.

Choosing the best lighting for photographs outside

Sometimes you can angle yourself around your subject to try and alter how the light hits them to make a more pleasing photo. If I had been looking straight on at her when I took the photo she would have been completely washed out on her left, and shaded on the right, which would have caused me to toss this photo. But catching her from the side with the sun hitting only one side of her, gives me a cute profile portrait.

Best lighting for photos outdoors

Getting my subjects backlit is my favorite style.

I love how it accentuates her curls in this photo.

Had I moved a step to the left or to the right, the sun would have been right in my camera. But getting her placed exactly where I wanted her and them moving myself slightly until she was totally blocking the sun from my lens gave me the shot I wanted.

8 year old girl with curly hair at sunset

Here are a few shots taken one right after the other.

This first photo the sun is not ideal, and it’s hitting the side of her face so it’s throwing off the symmetry of the look, highlighting only the one side.

blonde girl on the beach at sunset

For this next photo, I turned both of us 45 degrees, which lined up the sun behind her. If there were trees or something to filter the sun it would be beautiful bokeh light, but since there are no trees in the ocean, I had to line up her head exactly with the sun.

backlight blonde girl on the beach


Next, I faced both girls TOWARDS the sun. It’s a cute photo, but you can tell they are squinting. Your subjects are not going to want to stay looking into the sun for very long.

Beach photography san DiegoSo I ran around them and had them turn away from the sun, towards me.

Cute, but their faces are dark.

Beach photography Torrey Pines


Finally, I placed her in some natural shade from the taller hills nearby. She’s still facing the sun, but this time has relief from the shade and is more comfortable because she’s not looking right into it.  This is the best photo of the group if you are looking for consistency. If you want several photos of different groupings, poses, etc, and the sun is not ideal, find shade. You as the photographer can be in the sun, but getting your subjects in the shade will provide beautiful, consistent results without concern for mixed lighting in the background and shadowing on their faces.

Hope this helps!

Comments always welcome!

Family beach photography Torrey Pines

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  • MeganWow, very helpful. Thanks! Love the back lighting!!ReplyCancel

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