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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.
April 14, 2011 12:50 am
unfortunalty Brides don't get married early or late.. so always a problem for the pics...
January 22, 2011 09:01 pm
Not sure what Dslr you're using Harold, but most of the newer ones have the Live View function. If yours has one, perhaps you can put it one and play with the settings until you get the right exposure. You could then either shoot the image with the Live view, or (and this is something I do often) just check and see what settings you have, so you know roughly where you want to be with regard to aperture and shutter speed, and then you can switch back to shooting in manual through the viewfinder.
Also, dont be shy to use your dslr's auto mode. Try it out, if the picture comes out nicely, then just remember the settings, its kinda like the camera is teaching you what the right settings should be, and once youve gotten that down a couple of times, im sure you would know what settings you want to use in each circumstance.
Lastly, try not to shoot with the light infront of you, because then with even a few degrees of you moving your camera upwards or downwards, your metering will change considerably.
Hope that helps!
January 22, 2011 11:58 am
I have been taking photos at the airport as a life long hobby. I just switched from using a point and shoot camera to a digital SLR camera. I am not able yet to get a good shot of airplanes due to the bright background at mid-day. Any suggestions? I tried thus far to go with ISO 100 and shutter speed of 640 but had unsatisfactory results. The image has either the pIane too dark with the correct blue sky background or the plane clolors correct but the sky almost white instead of blue. I subscribe to aviation magazines and am amazed at the photos taken at mid-day. Any suggestions?
June 4, 2010 05:03 am
I have to shoot a wedding at 1:00 PM (noon) MST and was hoping for some tips. Polarizer. Auto vs manuel.
White balance, etc. Low ISO. Shoot RAW? Need software to edit, but could set camera to do both. Have a Mark III and 7D.
Any help appreciaited. Wedding is Saturday in lovely Cascade, Montana. At a old railroad park that I have not seen.
June 5, 2008 08:37 am
There is 1 (one) proper exposure on any digital array for every image and that depends upon the scene. What is crucial is highlight detail and not losing what you want to gamut which records nothing on the array. A RAW from a good camera will preserve all the reasonable shadows. All you need is a method to retrieve and use all that shadow detail that is retained on the array.
Consider this post of lessons on 11 pages:
Considered feedback welcome.
March 23, 2008 02:00 pm
Cool, I was looking for this!... Nice tips, specially in these cold times here in Moab right now, too cold (22) to ride the bike to a sunsrise or stay out too late for after a sunset! Ara & Spirit
March 22, 2008 04:15 pm
Thank you for the tips. I'll try to use the different metering oprions on the camera. I was tihinking to use the spot methering after I've seen the pictures on the pc. I guess with spot methering at least the persons face will have good colors :)
March 20, 2008 05:55 pm
Here's another thing you might wanna try.
On your metering setting, if you have your setting on Center-weight average, then youre prolly gonna have more of a chance of getting a burn out, because your camera is going to take every bit of the lighting in its frame into consideration when doing the metering.
What i would suggest you do is switch to Evaluative metering (or perhaps Spot metering) and then try your picture again.
You would find this especially useful if you are standing out in the sun, facing a building whos wall is lit up, and you want to take a picture of a man inside the dorr or window in the building. If you have your settings on Center Weight Average, then he would come out to dark, if you change to spot and focus on him, then your walls around might be too highlighted, and you might be able to get a desirable picture with the Evaluative metering.
Hope this helps.
March 19, 2008 01:36 pm
Thank you very much Neil. That is exactly what I was after ... practical answers that even I can follow.
It is so strange in photography until you manage to imagine what the result will be before you take the photo. I'm saying this because our eyes see the environment in a totally different way, and you only figure out at home that 50 of your pictures have a horrible problem ... I guess t comes with experience and many mistakes :)
March 18, 2008 08:38 pm
Pavel - looking at your photo, it seems to me that your camera's meter is getting confused by the big variation in brightness in the shot and as a result under exposing your friends. Try setting the autoexposure compensation (as discussed in this post) to brighten the photo by a stop or two, look at the screen and adjust till it looks right. Otherwise, go to full manual and set the exposure.
You can also try moving your friends to mear the edge of the shade and using a reflector for fill light. Even a fiend in a white t-short can act as a reflector for you.
March 18, 2008 10:05 am
Great article, thanks for the tips. Jut a quick question. When I take photos of my friends at some BBQ, in the middle of the day with a lot of sun (Sydney, Australia) usually we sit in the shade and I get some strange photos. The shaded parts of my friends skin gets very noisy, even if I use ISO 100 on Canon EOS 400D. I'm trying to give an example, http://www.flickr.com/photos/magda_me/2047700351/sizes/o/ although this was resized you can see that skin tone is strange. I guess I should have used the flash to make it better. Any other tips of taking better photos in the shade in the middle of the day?
March 14, 2008 02:25 am
March 14, 2008 12:08 am
Oh and i just thought of another thing i had noticed while shooting in the bright, try playing with the different kinds of metering modes (Spot, center weight average, partial, etc) and sometimes you get some pretty nice unexpected results. The differences are especially evident when you use them during sunsets.
Also, forgot to add links in the earlier post which i just quickly googled:
March 13, 2008 11:54 pm
An idea which is quite a saver at time is HDR imagery. Im sure it has been elaborately mentioned before, but i thought i would give it a mention, since alot of the times it can really help capture some awesome views of landscape with very different lighting. And lot of the time you are left with some very interesting images.
Another idea is a CPL or a circular polarising filter, i have found it to be VERY useful which shooting images such as the canyon picture, at it saturates the blown out sky and give the entire image a lovely azure feeling.
Thanks for the write up Peter!
March 13, 2008 11:52 pm
Great article for someone who lives in Florida :) We don't get many days for photography that don't involve some kind of harsh lighting scenario - great umbrella idea too - never thought of that as an option. Thanks.
March 13, 2008 11:49 pm
Many useful and piratical ideas in the articles.
For those of you who are able to compose true HDR or blending of different expose layers, There is a technique where you taken rapid fire (3-5 shots per sec) of and image with different exposure settings.
This is a technique that I now use in very high contrast settings, normally daylight, where I can hand hold while shooting. With a tripod it is a lot easier, except for weight.
Now with a little extra work the noon-day sun does not have to be the great killer of photos.
This technique has been fully developed by Digital Outback Photo.
March 13, 2008 03:41 pm
Bright midday sunshine is also an excellent time to shoot the high contrast, strong colour shots that often have a big impact. A polarising filter is a big help to improve the contrast in the light and colour, but not essential.
Sometimes using the harsh light to your advantage is as viable an option as trying to minimise the adverse effects.
For example: http://flickr.com/photos/neilcreek/2146374702/in/set-72157603298487289/
Also, if you have some simple off-camera lighting gear, you can use the sun as a light source as part of a cross or back-lighting setup, for some dramatic portraits.
March 13, 2008 03:31 pm
octosink, no, it was taken in Costa Rica. thank you for the compliments.
March 13, 2008 06:12 am
Great article - thanks! Very useful.
March 13, 2008 05:58 am
Mr Carey, the heliconias, was this shot taken at the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok? Awesome article, btw.
March 13, 2008 03:21 am
I also find my split ND filter to come in handy on bright days.
March 13, 2008 03:05 am
Good tips all. I generally shoot at an ISO of 50 for the most part. Never thought about an umbrella though. Also, generally fiddle around with the shutter to see the amount of light I want to let into the snap.
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