Every photographer who has ever dared to venture outdoors has learned to dread those cloudless days when the sun is bright,…when harsh shadows and extremes in contrast reign supreme and when their knowledge and experience in the areas of composition, exposure and proper use of light will be put to the ultimate test. Sure, it’s easy to curse the conditions and pray for a passing cloud or to just stay at home that day but there are many creative photographic possibilities awaiting those who are willing to accept the challenges and make the necessary adjustments.
Light and Shadow
In this example, the bright light of a morning sun creates deep shadow areas, which were used to help establish a point of interest. The extremes in contrast work together to create a dramatic balance of light and shadow. This shot was metered off the mid-tones (the autumn leaves),…allowing some of the blue color of the distant sky to record and letting the highlights and shadows fall were they may.
This shot represents one of the advantages of getting up early. When the first direct rays of the sun break over the horizon (or just before the sun sets), the light can be truly magical. During this brief period of time, cool and warm tones can be captured and successfully combined within the same frame. This shot was metered off the highlight (the swan’s head), and the exposure was set for 1 stop over that reading. The resulting exposure rendered the head and neck white but with a warm “glow”, while the shadow areas were recorded with a cool-blue tinge.
Another way to take advantage of harsh conditions is to shoot with the sun in front of the camera (but at an angle), and use the illumination from the sun to create halos of light around the subject. Exposure is tricky when using this technique so bracketing is recommended. This shot was metered off the brown fur of this sika doe. It’s important to note that special care was taken during composition to exclude the background sky, which would have over-exposed.
(This compositional scenario should always be considered when shooting into a bright sun and composing a shot metered off the subject.)
It’s also possible to soften the impact of direct sunlight with some type of diffusion. This mushroom cluster was exposed to the direct rays of the sun. To reduce contrast and add detail to the shadow areas, a 10” x 12” piece of beaded plastic diffusion material was held between the subject and the light source during exposure. The resulting image has softer shadows, less contrast, and fewer bright reflections on the highlight areas. (The scene was metered off the mushroom caps with the diffuser in place.)
Mushroom Cluster (diffused)
Diffuser sheets such as this can be acquired at any home-repair store (...the ones designed for fluorescent light fixtures). They are inexpensive, easy to cut to size, and can be a valuable tool to soften harsh light when shooting close. (Note: Compositional dimensions will be limited by the size of the diffuser and its area of coverage.)
This is the same mushroom cluster photographed in exactly the same light but without the diffuser in place. There are deep, well-defined shadow areas which lack detail and harsh reflections on the highlights…typical of bright, sunlit conditions.
Mushroom Cluster (without diffuser)
(Click on this photo to enlarge and use the Previous/Next tabs to go back and forth to accurately see the effect of the diffuser.)
As outdoor photographers, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature and must be willing to accept her challenges in stride. One of the primary components in the art of photography is problem-solving,..adjusting techniques to make the best of difficult situations. Learning to embrace and conquer harsh lighting conditions can be an important first step.
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