So many ‘rules’ you will hear about photography are better described as ‘guidelines’. And like any line, it’s okay if you stray off it if it suits your purpose.
I openly admit I profess to many students to try to avoid mid-day sun if they can. Most photographers agree on this point. But I also make a point to tell them, and you here on the web, that it is by no means a rule that needs to be followed hard and fast. The more I travel, the more I find myself in situations where shooting at noon is the only option and I don’t think I should never let me camera see high sun because of a silly rule.
There are still subjects and methods to shoot in the middle of the day when the sun is harsh. Sure, you won’t get a magical view of Yosemite Valley like Ansel Adams or the golden glow of sunset on a lion pride in Africa, but you can keep shooting if you change your mindset slightly.
This has been my standby ever since I started shooting. Too much harsh sun for landscape shots means plenty of light for details. Get close and look for the little things you missed while scouting for sunset photos.
Show me the patterns in the sandstone. Show me the rivets in that ancient door. Show me details I won’t see in your wide angle shots.
Shadows and silhouettes abound, even in the middle of the day. Use them! When metering, it works best to meter for the area around the shadow rather than the shadow itself. If you fill the metering area with the shadow, chances are your camera will want to make that area far too light. In this case, point to an area away from the shadow, but with the same type of light, press your shutter release halfway down and hold it. This will lock your exposure. Now recompose and shoot.
This method isn’t needed for every shot, just the shots where the shadow is dominating the scene. Another way to handle this problem of shadow lightening is to use exposure bias or compensation to underexpose what your camera has set by one to two full stops.
Use Some Fill Flash
If you think that pop-up flash on your camera is only for parties or night shots, think again. It can do a wonderful job of softening or eliminating harsh shadows. If you are shooting portraits (those ‘me in front of stuff’ photos we often take on a trip) use the fill flash to get light under hat brims as well as adding a little catchlight to eyes. Catchlight is the twinkle that helps bring eyes to life in an image and it can be missing with a high sun.
Why retreat from the sun? Take it on directly and point your lens to the sky. including the sun can be a challenge but shooting digitally will help your learning curve.
If you want the sun to have a starburst pattern around it, you will need to choose a small aperture (high numbered f-stop). In this case, Aperture Priority (A/Av) will work best. This method works best with a second subject visible in the frame, such as a flower.
HDR Can Help
If you have bright highlights and deep shadows, HDR techniques can help bring more life to your work. The premise is to take multiple shots and expose for the highlights, mid-tones and shadow detail then combine the images using select computer programs. This technique overcomes a camera’s typical tendency to not capture the same dynamic range (from dark to light) that our eyes and brain can capture.
More information on HDR photography can be found on Trey Ratclif’s site, including a free video tutorial.
If the sun is give you fits to no end outside, duck inside and explore how the light plays out when not so direct. Maybe there is a skylight or hole in a ceiling. Maybe you can pose your subject next to an open window for some beautiful indirect portraiture. Or use the glare from an open window as a simple source for high-key shots.
How do you adapt to shooting when the sun is high and harsh? Share your tips in the comments section below.