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Sometimes beginning photographers ask me to look at their photos and tell them how they can make the photos better. Nearly every time this happens I end up saying the same thing, “You need to stop taking your pictures in the middle of the day.”
I have previously written about how and why photos taken at dawn and dusk are vastly superior to those taken at midday, so I won’t do so again here. I have also talked about a few things you can do to mitigate the damage of the midday sun. But that’s all you are doing – mitigating the problem – not solving it.
At the same time, I understand that you cannot always photograph at dusk or dawn. Family and work commitments limit us all. We cannot always get up so early or stay out so late. Some places aren’t even open or accessible at dawn. Is there anything else that can be done if you have to shoot in the middle of the day?
There is one way that you can still take great photos in the middle of the day. That way is to convert them to black and white. Black and white photos frequently work much better than color photos in this regard.
If you don’t believe me, just to check out the work of photography masters. I initially noticed this when looking at the work of Ansel Adams, who many – myself included – consider the greatest photographer ever. A large number of his photos are obviously taken at midday. For example, check out Monolith, the Face of Half Dome (1927). Yosemite Winter Valley (1940), Canyon de Chelly National Monument (1942), Mount Williamson (1944). and Half Moon and Clouds (1968).
All of these photos were obviously taken at midday. You can tell by the bright light and shadows. But they are all still great pictures. In fact, some of them are among his best. Why is that?
Why does the same picture taken at midday look horrible in color, but pretty good as a black and white? One reason is that black and white pictures handle high contrast really well. That is not to say their dynamic range is any different, but that these pictures look great when there is high contrast within them. In fact, black and white pictures crave high contrast. Color pictures, on the other hand, don’t always do well with stark contrasts. Therefore photographing at midday – with all of its bright areas and dark shadows creating high contrast – can look really nice as a black and white photo.
The other reason why black and white photos taken at midday can still look great, is that they seem to handle processing better than color photos. In other words, you can push the processing further with a black and white photo and get away with it. This was true in the darkroom, and it is also true today with digital tools.
Why is that? I think it is because black and white photos are already unnatural; obviously, the world is not black and white. When you look at a black and white photo, your mind knows that it is not an accurate representation of reality. If the processing is pushed a little further, your mind accepts it more readily.
That is not to say that you cannot over do processing in black and white, you can. But it does offer you a little more flexibility.
Perhaps, for this reason, this is one area where HDR can still be a really useful technique. There is much discussion these days about HDR being dead. To be sure, almost no one in photography likes the HDR look (oddly, 100% of non-photographers do like that look). In addition, there are a lot of great tools these days for dealing with dynamic range problems without resorting to HDR. Nevertheless, black and white photos are one area where HDR is still very useful. Since there is no color, part of the surreal nature of HDR is avoided. In addition, the same phenomena mentioned above about being able to push the processing further in black and white is at work.
Another way to improve your black-and-white photos taken at midday is to break out your 10-stop neutral density filter. If there are clouds in the picture, it will give them a sense of movement. If there is water in the picture, it will smooth it out. You can see and example of this in the top picture in this article, which has both clouds and water. Of course, this works for color pictures as well, but it seems to work particularly well with black and white images.
I still maintain that the number one thing you can do to improve your photographs is to start shooting at dawn or dusk. It costs nothing, and you don’t even have to increase your skills to make vast improvements. You just have to get up earlier, or stay out a little later. But for those occasions when that is just not possible, try converting some of your photos to black and white. The high contrast might look good on your photo. In any case, you’ll be able to push the processing a little further. It might prove an easy way to make your photos better.
Please share your black and white midday photos in the comment below.