Photographer's Edition: How to Shoot and Edit in Harsh Light

Lions and tigers and harsh light, oh my!

Many photographers, or non-photographers telling photographers what to do (face palm), will tell you that there is only specific light that is best for taking photos in and that you shouldn’t shoot in harsh light like during mid-day. I saw screw the rules.

Many will tell you that you should only shoot during golden hour to dusk, in even light like in shadow or on a cloudy day, or with the light facing your client.

I’m here to say that these thoughts are outdated.

Use that backlight or harsh light, play with shadows, and get WILD.

Harsh light gives me life. It’s expressive and beautiful. It can add depth or even flatten an image. There’s so much to play with! Be an artist and get out in that difficult light and create!

Light is powerful. Embrace it. Practice with it. Be friends with it.

I recently shot a mid-day shoot with the sun directly overhead my subject. Above her was a deep blue sky and she stood in a field of tall, dead grass…..tall dead grass is beautiful to me haha.

When I first started taking photos I would have cringed and ran away from that situation. I only shot in the lighting situations that I stated above.

I have since challenged myself to shoot in all lighting situations and while I still need to keep practicing and improving, I still would like to share how I shot and edited this mid-day shoot.

Overall, it’s good to know how to work with light. It’s necessary as a photographer.

Sometimes we have to shoot in less than ideal situations where there is literally only a few candles or only artificial light like lamp posts and car headlights.

Sometimes we have to shoot mid-day or with chiaroscuro lighting. It varies.

So instead of fearing it, I am working to embrace all the lighting situations and improve in them and I want to share with you my process!

For this shoot that I’m sharing, I chose two photos to show my editing process with. One is a close-up portrait and the other has more landscape involved so you can see variety.

I took screenshots of my editing tools and I’ll explain how I used them. I will also include a video so you can get a lot more detail but these can be go-to photos if you need them!


Photo 1

-How I exposed in mid-day light

-Editing for exposure, clarity, and saturation x vibrance

-Using the curve tones for harsh light and color

-Manipulating HSL/Color

-Split Toning


-Radial Filters

Photo 2

-How I placed my subject in the light x using a hat for shade

-Discussing a few preset tweaks from the previous photo such as split toning

-Radial Filters

-Before and after of both photos

-Editing Video

Photo 1:

This is the unedited photo. I shoot in RAW and this was at f2.8 and ISO 80.

I underexpose when I shoot and then bring my exposure back up in editing. I like a blue sky to show if it’s there so I expose for that! It leaves my subject a bit darker but I dodge and burn to bring in exposures where I want them. For that, I use radial filters, which you’ll see soon!

On the right panel, you’ll see that I kept my highlights and whites fairly low. I did this to maintain a softer sky and field. If I had increased them then the photo would look too loud and blown out for my taste. I also tend to lower saturation but increase my vibrance in a lot of my work.

I’m a huge advocate of the curve. If you’re looking at these 3 photos above and are already like, “YIKES” because you either have avoided the curve tone or are not super versed in it then here is a quick video that visually explains the curve tone—

Mostly, though, get in Lightroom of Photoshop and just play around with it after watching a tutorial. You’ll quickly learn!

I don’t do too much with the curve tone but I still heavily rely on small adjustments.

The curve on the left controls your shadows, mid tones, and highlights.

As you can see, I’ve kept my highlights very flat to create what I consider a smoother and creamier look.

I did the same for my shadows—I flattened them. In harsh light, flattening out both the shadows and highlights really can even out the tones a bit and avoid insane contrast because you’re softening both the extreme exposures in the photo.

I tend to play with the red and green curve the most in my photos and rarely touch the blue curve. Just a small adjustment on the RGB curve and your photo can drastically change.

I usually pull my red and green shadow anchor points down a tad. I will create a vlog and blog over how I use the curve tool in the future, too, so I can go more in depth with this editing process!

Here’s a GIF showing a before and after with my curve edits. If my RGB curves and the tone curve had no anchors on it then it would be really flat.

Next up is editing the colors! I love this part. It’s my fav! I’m a huge fan of color in photography.

These tools need lots of attention depending on the light, location, and skin tone you’re working with. For these photos, I wanted the blue sky to stay pretty visible and hold more of a green hue than purple hue.

On hue, I pulled my aqua and blue to the left a bit. I also made sure to have the luminance on blue fairly low. This means I’m basically lowering the brightness. It really makes the blue sky pop more because it then looks more saturated and even all around.

A sky will usually be the first thing to be blown out, meaning it’s way overexposed, so in order to make sure my blue sky is still bold and visible I tend to saturate my blue and lower its luminance.

I tend to desaturate my yellow and orange because I add in a lot of warmth in my temperature as well as my split tone, which I cover next. If I don’t desaturate these two colors then my subject will end up looking like an oompa loompa.

I love playing with the split tone! It’s one of the most important parts of an image for me. The colors really set the mood.

In this specific photo, I only adjusted the highlight and left the shadow as is because the field was looking pretty saturated with yellow and is really warm already.

I tend to only add warm tones in my shadows so if my photo doesn’t need added warmth to it then I leave the shadow colors alone.

I added a yellow warm tone to the highlights. I love warm tones. It makes skin pop, can give a more of vintage feel, and looks earthy.

Here’s a before and after when I added a warm highlight in. I think both are beautiful but I usually always end up preferring a warmer photo over a cool tone.

The next editing process, which is also at the very end of your editing panel, is the calibration. I only recently started using calibration in my editing because it can get crazy real fast haha.

I rarely play with these and it’s usually not too necessary in my work. However, I sometimes get wild with these if I’m having fun with colors on a specific shoot OR if I want to manipulate how muted or bold the colors can get.

I kept the red saturation high and the blue saturation low just to balance it all out.

If I lower the blue to the negatives then the photo will become more muted. If I want the photo to look bolder then I would increase it to +30 but the photo glows so much already from the sunshine so I just want a nice balanced look.

Last, but definitely not least, is the radial filters. This. Is. My. Jam. It makes my editing process longer, so you have been warned, but it controls so much of what I want my photo to look like and it’s totally worth it to me.

I am obsessed with radial filters. It’s better than masking with the brush tool if I don’t need super specific masking because I keep radial filters in my custom presets and then simply adjust the radial filter in the photo where I need it to sit.

I use the radial filters to dodge and burn. I also use them to color correct when necessary and to add contrast to areas!

In the photos above, the circle is the radial filter, the red area is the surface that the filter is covering, and the panel on the right shows the adjustments I made. I’ll talk more about these in the video!

My second photo is a close up of my subject and I used the same preset as earlier and then made a few adjustments!

Below is the unedited photo. I shoot in RAW and this was at f2.8 and ISO 80.

As you can see, I placed my subject between the sun and my camera. If I had my subject facing the sun then she would have a lot of harsh light on her face, which can be beautiful and I’ve done that, but for these photos I wanted a softer look.

Hats are always a good idea when you have to shoot right under a mid-day sun! They provide shade and even lighting. Plus they’re cute. So it’s a win win.

This is almost exactly the same preset as the previous photo but with a few adjustments since my subject is closer to the camera and that can change the way light and color and my radial filters look.

The curves are exactly the same in this photo but I did change the split tone slightly to create a warmer look in the shadows.

I used the split tone to bring in a lot of warmth without over-saturating any yellows or oranges in the panel above. By adding two warm tones in to the shadows and highlights, I end up softening the photo as opposed to adding contrast like a typical blue and yellow cross process split tone would do.

To learn more about split tone and what I’m even talking about here, Julia Trotti explains it in depth on her YouTube channel -

Julia Trotti is a great photographer to learn from and her work is beautiful. This video she made is really simple so definitely check it out.

Because the hat is right over her eyes, I want the radial filter that I placed on the top half of her face to bring back some light. I also have a second filter that covers most of my subject’s face in order to brighten that part of the photo more.

Then I have a radial filter that edits all around my subject where I’ve lowered the exposure like a vignette. This can look really dramatic so I’ve softened it a bit by lifting my blacks and highlights.

Below is a before and after GIF with my radial filters. Little edits like this truly come down to artistic preference.

I like a softer look in the shadows. The photo looks to high def without the radial filter for me. Therefore, I used the filters to brighten the subject’s face and soften everything around her.

Now that I’ve quickly covered some basics on these edits, I’ll show you the before and after photos side by side and then have a more detailed video for you to check out!

If you’d rather watch the editing in action then check out this video below!