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This post on photography in bright sunshine is by Peter Carey from Hidden Creek Photo.
As a previous post on DPS by Jim M. Goldstein pointed out, photography is all about light. Most photographers know the best times for photographing are just after sunrise and before sunset. The light is more pleasing and generally easier to work with and those times of day have been given the name Golden Hour. While they are the best times of day to be out shooting, what about the rest of the day, especially the times right around high noon? During those hours the light from the sun is more direct and harsh, bleeding out colors and leaving images flat or blown out.
What is there to be done about this less than perfect light around midday? First, it’s a great time to scout locations for sunset or sunrise photos. Second, it’s also a great time to take a siesta. But if you’re short on time in your location and want to keep shooting, the following tips may help you capture better images in the middle of the day.
When the sun is near the horizon and coloring a landscape, the dark and light factors in a scene are closer together and easier to meter. But when the sun is bright and high, the background of a landscape can often be extremely bright and your DSLR may be tricked with foreground tones that are much darker. Take for instance the image below shot just after noon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.
This image was shot at a bias of 1/3 of a stop underexposed. And yet, the background is completely useless. With some work the foreground can be recovered but the overall exposure leaves the image beyond the effort it would take to make it useful.
Now, take a look at nearly the same image taken with a full stop of underexposure. The image has had some touching up with curves in Photoshop allowing for the darker foreground to come out a little, but most importantly, the background is preserved. There are even clouds evident in the sky unlike the previous image. This was all made possible by ignoring the default in-camera metering, which is often inadequate for harsh light, and overriding it to make sure the washed out detail is instead captured. Don’t be afraid to experiment and bracket your shots. Getting acquainted with your cameras metering modes and how they affect middle of the day shots is worth the time and effort to learn. Your camera’s metering is frequently wrong in these situations but thankfully it’s also consistently wrong, meaning you can adapt to it when shooting at midday.
If you’re squinting at those mountains in the distance or the sea stretching to the horizon, it’s a good indication your camera might not be happy with the scene in front of your either. Sometimes it’s best to look a bit closer, to areas where you don’t have to squint so much. Shooting close up scenes allow you to remove the large amount of contrast evident in the broad scenic shots.
First, look for some shade. Grey skies lend themselves to the best midday photos, but this article is assuming it’s a lovely sunny day so you’ll have to find a place that is naturally shading out the light. Under or around trees, shrubs or buildings are the easiest places to find what you’re looking for.
Second, you still need to watch your metering and the background. The human eye does an amazing job of taking in all kinds of light and ignoring the glaring altogether. While these bananas are fully in the shade and well exposed, the surrounding scene is a huge distraction. Bright, non-descript, blown out details create a lack luster image that honestly looked great when viewed in person. My eye was able to take it all in and adjust, but the camera couldn’t.
However, the heliconias were set against an equally dark background with just bit of sun coming through to provide some accent. The contrasting greens also help bring the plant to the foreground. The image was still shot slightly underexposed to ensure highlights could be recovered if need be. It was shot about 15 minutes later and a few hundred feet from the bananas. Finding a bit more shade in the middle of the day often delivers better results.
This tip goes hand in hand with the pervious tip. If you can’t find shade, make it. The best type of umbrella to carry will serve for keeping both the rain and sun off you, but also let in and diffuse enough light for good photography. Larger shades are often used in professional photo shoots directly over the subject (often a model of some kind) to greatly soften the light. If you are lacking a couple of assistants and thousands of dollars in high quality folding shades, there’s no reason you can’t get a light white umbrella and scale things down a bit.
The trick here is holding the umbrella and camera and composing in a reasonable manner. Slowing things down a bit, bringing a tripod will solve a lot of your problems. It can be used to either hold the umbrella (with some help from everyone’s favorite tool: duct tape) or steady your camera. I tend to prefer to place the umbrella on the tripod as I can then get slightly different angles on the subject at hand. The softer light filtered through the umbrella makes flower photography come to life while you wait for the sun to sink lower in the sky.
Some people set their ISO for the day and forget about it, acting as if they are still using a film camera at times. Others tend to be all over the place, taking advantage of the flexibility in ISO to shoot some action and then grab some images with impressive depth of field. If you’re not careful, ignoring your ISO setting will cause you to struggle more than you should with midday shots.
Bright, harsh light often lends itself well to a lower ISO. A number of DSLRs now go to ISO50 or ISO64 but good old ISO100 works fine for most shots. If you have your ISO set much above ISO400, you stand the chance of overstepping your lens’ f-stop capabilities. Most DSLRs will flash the f-stop number when the camera metering computes a value beyond the lens’ limit. Be mindful of this information, it will save you from some severely washed out photos. Instead of upping the shutter speed to compensate for the high f-stop, check your ISO setting. Chances are you left it set too high and forgot about it. Being able to change the ISO on the fly is both a blessing and a curse with modern digital cameras.
Likewise, don’t be afraid to head into deep shadows in midday for some detail work with a higher ISO setting. Great results can be had up to ISO1200 so head for the cool shade and let your eyes adjust, then pick out the detail of some interesting rock or bark and shoot away. Once back in the full light of day, don’t forget to switch the ISO back or your camera will begin complaining about the over abundance of light.
While the Golden Hour is optimal lighting and your best bet for dramatic photographs, there are still many useable hours on a sunny day. You’ll need to work at it a little more and concentrate on the difference between how the human eye perceives a scene and how a digital camera reacts. But there isn’t any reason great photographs can’t be stolen from the harshest light of midday when a few simple tips are followed.
Peter and his wife Kim are avid photographers who enjoy travel, portraiture and wildlife photography. They are slowly getting the bulk of their images online which can be viewed at Hidden Creek Photo. A travel related blog of their past and current shenanigans can be found at The Carey Adventures.