If you didn’t know otherwise, it would be easy to mistake a bright, summer day as the perfect time to take photographs. This seems logical: photography requires light, and when is there the most light? When the sun is directly overhead and there are no clouds, of course! And in the Northwest, we have precious few days like this.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. You see, those dreary, gray days we know so well actually provide a very soft, even light for your outdoor photography. However, the sun must occasionally rear its head and interrupt our otherwise perfect lighting, causing all kinds of problems for photographers—but don’t fret; for each problem, there is a solution.
Sun in eyes syndrome
This. Is. The. Worst. Really, nothing ruins a good portrait like a subject who can’t keep his/her eyes open because the sun is shining on them. Just take a look at the horrendous photo that adorns the top of this article. Photo 101 teaches you to keep the sun behind you, thus on your subject’s face, but your subject doesn’t seem too happy about it. You could try the opposite, so that the sun falls on your subject’s back, but now you either end up with a too-dark subject or a too-bright background. And that lens flare! Grr! Okay, admittedly, I’ve seen some pretty good stuff shot in natural back-lighting, but generally this type of shot requires a fair amount of post-production to boost contrast, saturation, and exposure on your subject. Even for the “fix it in post” crowd, it’s not a very elegant solution.
Instead, try to find some shade for your subject to stand in. Now no matter where the sun is, the light will be easy on your subject’s eyes, and softer than direct sunlight. If you don’t have any shade to work with, a collapsible diffuser will work wonders if you have an assistant to hold it for you (or a stand). This will ensure a nice, even light on your subject.
Alternately, if high-contrast, direct sunlight is the look you’re going for, try having your subject close his/her eyes until just before you snap the picture. The classic “go on three” strategy works well here, and should only result in minimal damage to your subject’s retinas.
Dark foreground, bright background
On bright days, there is a big difference between the amount of light in the shade and the amount of light in the sunshine. It is incredibly easy to blow out the sky if you are trying to capture detail in a shaded area of your subject, be that a person, building, landscape, etc. This is often especially frustrating for beginning photographers, who may not be aware of how cameras work and that “dynamic range” is a thing. I don’t get it, it looks great to my eye, but my pictures look terrible! Basically, human beings can see a very wide dynamic range, which means we can see detail in a bright sky and in shadowy areas on the ground at the same time. Cameras aren’t quite there yet, and generally photographers have to choose exposure settings that capture detail where they need it most. Depending on the situation, there are a few tools to help you with this.
A must-have for landscape photographers, the graduated neutral density filter will help even out exposure levels from ground to sky. These filters are darker on top and lighter on bottom, so they block out the harsh light from the sky and let more light from the shadows in the ground pass through. Typically, graduated ND filters are square, requiring a special filter holder to attach them to your lens. This allows you to easily orient the filter to match your horizon line.
A circular polarizing filter is another great tool in these situations. Often used to reduce reflections off of water or glass, a CPL filter can also be used to darken bright skies. The effect of the filter can be altered by rotating it, and you can immediately see the changes it creates, either through the viewfinder or in live view mode. This is a great way to hang on to detail in the sky without having to underexpose your subject too much.
And of course, the “fix it in post” crowd will want to bring up high dynamic range images. HDR can be used very well and yield good results, but it is not for everyone. An HDR image is generally created by combining 3 or more images of the same subject taken at different exposure settings in order to capture detail in both the shadows and the highlights. The images are merged using special software to balance the exposure across the frame. If you want to try it, you will need: a tripod, preferably a camera with auto-bracketing and a quick burst mode, software (Photoshop, HDR Effex, or Photomatix), and the willingness to spend a fair amount of time in front of a computer screen. Some cameras do offer built-in “HDR,” but the effect is usually very mild compared to what you can achieve by blending 3 different exposures manually.
Not all beach videos should look like the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan.
Given that every camera on the market today also shoots HD video, you might want to take a stab at shooting some moving pictures to accompany your still ones this summer. Sometimes, video is just a better way to capture a moment, especially moments with action and motion when you don’t want to miss a second. The problem with shooting video in really bright conditions is that your shutter speed has to be really fast. This is fine for still photography, but video shot with a fast shutter speed looks very frantic and jittery. It’s a great effect for storming a bunker, but not so much for flying a kite. And if you’re shooting video on your DSLR because you love the shallow depth-of-field look, you’re not going to get that in bright conditions as you will have to stop the aperture down, too.
This is where neutral density filters come in handy, especially the variable ND. Basically sunglasses for your camera, ND filters reduce the amount of light entering the lens. Standard ND filters will reduce brightness by a set amount of stops, say 2 or 3 stops, while variable ND filters will allow you to adjust the darkness of the filter by rotating it. Note the difference from the aforementioned graduated ND: standard and variable ND filters darken the entire frame. This will allow you to bring your shutter speed back down and/or open up your aperture to achieve a smooth, filmic quality to your video even in direct sunlight.
Let’s wrap it up
Hopefully you now feel better prepared to tackle summer’s photography challenges. You know to look for shade, how to use a diffuser, and when neutral density and polarizing filters can help get your exposure under control. These tips, when combined with a cold drink or two, will help make your photos fantastic, and keep your subject happy.Photos shot with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Olympus 17mm f/1.8 lens.