Finding Portrait Light at Mid-day

Drake Busath ( has been a working photographer for 35 years. He guides workshops in Italy, where he has worked, lived, and traveled extensively. Drake teaches professional seminars from Australia and Asia to Europe and in most U.S. States. He has been featured multiple times on the cover of Professional Photographer magazine, and his photographs hang in thousands of homes and offices across the country. Today, Drake shares his techniques for finding perfect portrait lighting at mid-day, a task not always so easily accomplished.

My favorite thing to do in Italy is meet and photograph local characters, and this guy was certainly that.

This gentleman, a retired architect from Milan, agreed to spend some time with us while I demonstrated how to find good portrait lighting in the middle of the day.

We went to two locations, first a covered patio area at a grand villa. The object was to find a good single-directional light coming in from the side and to get out of the overhead light that tends to be flat and boring.

By getting underneath the covered patio, we forced the light in from the side and found our direction, bringing light down into his eyes.

The second location we went to was in the narrow streets of a nearby village. By now it was 2PM—that dreaded mid-day light on a sunny day when the sun is directly overhead. Most scenes are too contrasty, with harsh highlights and shadow, and overhead sun is seriously not flattering to anybody's face. So, by ducking into narrow streets, we first found some shade to work in and then started the search for soft, directional light.

We found our light bouncing off the building on the sunny side of the street and bathing the shady side with this wonderful soft light. As an added bonus, the sunny buildings are warm colored plaster, so the light bouncing off is a little bit golden.

We began with our friend up against the door, but soon realized that the light was a bit flat—felt a little two-dimensional. I wanted to pull him out and look for an edge-light from behind him.

By bringing him into the street, we got the wrap-around light we wanted and had the benefit of softening the focus on the background. Here I was shooting at F4.5. 1/250 sec. ISO 400. 40mm focal length. ISO 400 has always been my starting point for outdoor portraits, whether film or digital.

As he comes even further forward, we start to lose the light on the front of his face.That’s when turning his attention to the side helped, shifting to profile views. My favorite image was this expressive portrait as he started to charm Kari nearby.

How do you get good expressions from an Italian man? A little attention from the ladies will do it. It wasn’t long before we were taking couple portraits.

Canon 1Ds Mark III
Canon 24-105 f4 lens
ISO 400 / 35mm / f4.5 / 1/250 sec
No reflectors
Light burn of all four courners


Drake busathOctober 2012PhotographyPortrait photographyPortraits