The trickiest light to get right. And light I’m forced to work with very often as a travel photographer. This article was inspired by the obvious fact that so many photographers, especially beginners, so obviously struggle with this type of light. And, since midday happens everyday, you will, at some stage, be faced with this challenge. Here are some tips for working the light in your favour.
Don’t shoot in midday light.
I know it’s kinda weird to start with this in an article about shooting in midday light, but it is a very important point, nonetheless.
Midday light is harsh, creates contrasts that are very difficult for the camera’s sensor to deal with, no matter how fancy a camera you have, and you will end up with either completely underexposed shade areas or completely overexposed sunny bits. It’s flat, as the sun sits right overhead, and you will have none of that 3D-depth that late afternoon or morning light will create. So, first rule for shooting midday light: Whenever you can help it, don’t plan your shoot so that it coincides with midday light.
Sunny 16 Rule.
We can’t control everything. In my travels, I often get to a place right in the no-no time of day, and then, when you’ve travelled so far to get there and still have to travel far to get to your destination, you don’t just go on without taking a picture of this spectacular landmark before you. In situations like these, I use the Sunny 16-rule. What now? you ask. Well, it’s simple. It simply refers to your aperture setting. When shooting in midday light, it is best to switch to f/16, as this aperture-size is the one that creates the best balance between light and dark areas, and because the aperture is fairly small, light will enter your camera in an orderly way with minimal distortion.
In bright, sunny situations, you should always use an ISO of 100 (or lower, if your camera allows it). The ISO refers to the light-sensitivity of the sensor, and you want your sensor have the least amount of sensitivity when you are shooting when there is abundant light.
You may find that, when using f/16 in less harsh midday conditions (when it’s cloudy, for example, or when it’s hazy, or any other type of natural diffusion takes place, like dust or smoke) that your shutter speed may be too slow (under 1/80 seconds) in which case I would open the Aperture by one or two stops (f/11 or f/8) rather than upping the ISO.
Perhaps slightly more advanced, but worth getting to know as early on as possible. You can use your built-in pop-up flash for this purpose, but you will find, eventually, that you want better and stronger light in some situations, and you may want to consider getting an external flash unit for this purpose.
By using flash in bright conditions, you can lift out shadows in faces, for example. Simply expose (I like to slightly underexpose) for the bright scene, and not for the shadowy bits, and tweak flash power accordingly. You may want to start, with built-in flash, with something like -⅔ flash compensation, and then increase power as needed. We can perhaps explore this in detail in a separate post.
I know, I’m starting to sound like a stuck record about RAW, but only because I know that I should’ve started shooting RAW earlier on. RAW files allow you to lift out those shadows, bring down those slightly overexposed bits, and contains so much more information for you to work with.
These are used in the same way as fill-flash. Only, you don’t necessarily need to buy them, and they can create really creative effects. Anything that reflects light can be used as a reflector. A white t-shirt. A lightly coloured wall. A shiny piece of material. Of course, I love the 5-in1 reflectors.
Filters like ND (Neutral Density) filters and polarizing filters are great for shooting in the middle of the day in bright conditions. ND filters do a great job of minimising the light that enters your lens, by making the entire scene darker (basically like sunglasses for your lens). Polarizing filters do much the same, but also increase the saturation and eliminate some of the reflections in your picture.
UV filters used to be essential on film cameras, but nowadays they really only serve to protect the front element of the lens from dust and scratches.
Diffused light is the best type of light if you are going for soft, even lighting. Diffused light can be caused by nature itself (clouds, mist, haze, dust) or can be created artificially by using semi-transparent material. Think of a greenhouse effect, where the light gets through, but less direct and less sharp. Some of the reflector kits on sale include a diffuser, but you can create diffused light by using any type of semi-transparent material. Keep in mind that the colour of the material will influence the colour on your picture, and a green diffuser, for example, will create a green cast on your subject. Of course, unless it’s a natural diffusion taking place, you won’t be able to use this in landscapes or other larger scenes.
It’s simple. When the sun is too bright and the light is not to your liking, especially when doing portraits, move into the shade. Make sure it’s solid shade, and not the dappled shade of a tree, which could mess up your exposure again by creating unflattering bits of light and shadow on your subject.
Experience will teach how and when to use and combine the above-mentioned techniques and resources in your midday photography. As always, my advice is to play around, shoot a lot, and once you’ve mastered the basics, to break the rules to see what results can be achieved.
Some extra tips:
Remember the lens hood.
Lens hoods serve a very important purpose in especially midday photography, as they help reduce flare in your pictures, by creating a sort of tunnel-effect. This means that it helps minimise the unwanted light sneaking in from the sides, and only lets in the light your lens is actually pointing at, ie. the scene of your image. It also helps protect your front element from bumps and scratches, so if you have one, use it.
In the absence of a lens hood (some lenses don’t come with lens hoods, or it’s simply not something you have with you at the moment) you may use either your hand, or a hat, or something similar to help block out rays trying to sneak in where they are not wanted and so minimise reflections on the lens.
When shooting people, pose them with their backs to the sun.
The reason for this is obvious: people squint when looking into the sun. When you pose them with their backs to the sun, you’ll get a pleasing backlight effect created by the sunlight. Just remember to use fill-flash or a reflector to lighten the shadows on their faces. Be careful of shiny reflectors here, or pointing the reflected light straight into their eyes, though, as they will then only end up squinting again.
Be careful of shooting into the sun.
Even with a lens hood, you may still end up with lens flare. Although lens flare is not completely undesirable in all situations, you do need to watch out for it, and try to control it. Sometimes it just doesn’t work with the picture.
Keep your front element clean.
Be this the front element of your lens or the filter you have fixed to the front of the lens, keeping it clean from dust and smudges means you will minimise flare even more, as dirt on the front element may cause unwanted reflections. On my travels I’ve found that keeping a UV filter on the lens at all times means that in a fix I can swipe it clean with any soft material (t-shirt, cloth nappy…), as it does sometimes happen that you wander away from your kit – which lies forgotten in the excitement. You don’t want to be as careless with the actual glass of your lens, though, so if you are not keen on using UV filters, keep a lens pen or cloth handy at all times.
Feel free to add any tips or questions you may have for shooting in midday light in the comments below.