Dealing with Difficult Lighting Situations :: Digital Photo Secrets

Dealing with Difficult Lighting Situations

by David Peterson 6 comments

In the Photographer's Perfect Paradise, the golden hour would last all day long. The light would forever be soft, your subjects would never squint and raccoon eyes would simply be markings on the face of a common North American procyonid.

But alas, we do not live in a Perfect Paradise. After all, we have to get up at dark-o-clock to take advantage of that elusive morning golden hour, and neither it nor the one in the afternoon lasts as long as we need them to. And the rest of the time, the light varies from occasionally splendid to just OK, to absolutely terrible. Can you hear those tiny violins? We photographers have it tough. Painters, they have it made. They can just paint the right light. We have to wait for it to come along. Or do we?

[ Top image Waschbär beißt Butterkeks by Flickr user Joachim S. Müller]

One of the hallmarks of a photographer who has mastered his art is the ability to take great photos in bad lighting situations. Not only is it possible, it's required. After all, you can't just tell the bride and groom, "Well, sorry that it's super sunny today and you were silly enough to schedule your ceremony for high noon. Guess you won't have any photos for that lovely white album with the bells on the cover." Oh,no. You'd not only be risking the wrath of Bridezilla and Groomenstien, but you can also be pretty sure you wouldn't be shooting many other weddings after that. When the light is bad, you can't call off the shoot - you have to have tools and techniques in place to deal with those situations and to make the best of them.

So what are those bad situations?

I already mentioned one of them: high noon. Or, more accurately, direct, overhead light such as what you'll find on a bright sunny day around lunchtime. This sort of light is unfriendly to almost every subject, from a rock face to a human face.

    Those dreaded 'raccoon eyes'.Tree Trimming by Flickr user Rennett Stowe

    The simplest solution to those raccoon eyes is to chase the little pest out of your trash with a garden hose. But we're talking, of course, about raccoon eyes on a person, not on an animal. The raccoon eyes we photographers need to worry about are those deep, unflattering shadows that form beneath people's eyes on a bright sunny day. Sometimes those shadows are so deep that the person's eyes aren't even visible. Going back to our wedding example, no bride wants to look like she's coming off a 72-hour Warcraft binge on her wedding day. You've got to get rid of those raccoon eyes, and the easiest way to do that is with a fill flash.

    If you're just out and about without all your extra gear, you can use your onboard flash as a fill flash and probably get pretty good results. Now you will take note that I almost never recommend using your onboard flash for anything, so you might want to mark this moment. On a bright, sunny day that onboard flash might actually save your shot. The disadvantage to using a built-in flash, of course, is that they all have just a little bit of those tell-tale "flash was used" qualities - reflections in the eyes or other parts of the face, for example. Another disadvantage is the utter wimpiness of most of these units. You'll have to be pretty close to your subject for it to have much of an effect, though if you're too close you may have the opposite problem - too much light. If your flash's strength can be adjusted, make sure you experiment with that until you get an effect that you like. And if you need more distance (and hence more power), you'll need to have an external flash on hand.

    If you do have your camera bag with you, you can use a portable reflector or diffuser to change the light so that it rewards you with better photographs. Have a helper hold the reflector in such a way that the reflected light fills in the shadows on your subject's face. Alternately, place a diffuser between the subject and the light source (in this case the sun).

    Or, here's a thought, try moving your subject/subjects into the shade. Just beware of that splotchy light that can come down through tree branches. That can be even less flattering than that overhead sun was.

    One thing you should always do in tricky lighting situations is shoot in RAW, especially if you find yourself underexposing in order to make a too-bright sky appear darker. RAW format captures the broadest possible tonal range in any scene, making it easier to make corrections and adjustments in post-processing.

    This photo was shot just after mid-day, with help from a polarizing filter, a ND filter and a graduated ND filter.Yoho Valley, Yoho NP British Columbia Canada by Flickr user JonoMueller

    If your subject is inanimate or very large, such as Mount St. Helens, you may need to bring out the big guns in order to get a good noon-time photo, though why you're not at Mount St. Helens during the magic hour instead of high-noon is a question for another time. By big guns, of course, I mean that little tinted glass filter that you screw on to the front of your lens. Yes! A filter. A polarizing filter can help saturate that bright sky and even out the harsh light. A graduated neutral density filter can help darken the sky while maintaining good exposure in the foreground.

    When all else fails, simply make a choice. Do you want well exposed shadows and potentially burned-out highlights, or do you prefer well exposed highlights and darker shadows? Put your camera in manual mode and adjust your shutter speed accordingly.


    What is it about indoor photos that always makes your subjects look like they went train-dodging and lost? It's the flash, of course. Most amateur photographers just automatically flip open that flash whenever trying to take photos indoors. And it never ends well. Ugly black halo shadows, blown out walls, bright reflections and red-eye are some of the awful symptoms of this dreaded condition: Unnecessary Use of Pop-Up-Flash-ism.

      Sans-flash. This indoor shot was taken at f/1.4, 1/30th sec, ISO 25,600Little Low-Light Monsters (D800 @ ISO 25,600) by Flickr user Sean Molin Photography

      So how do you deal with that poor indoor light? If you have a modern DSLR, your camera is probably already perfectly capable of producing a nice indoor photo sans-flash. Most modern DSLR's have excellent ISO capabilities, and will produce virtually noise-free images at ISOs as high as 1600 or 3200. So first, try turning up that ISO to see if you can get a good exposure without a flash (note that you may have to adjust your white balance as well in order to compensate for the yellow/orange cast that indoor lighting often has). If it's still too dark for a clear photo, make sure your aperture is wide open. You can also slow down your shutter speed - if you have a tripod or a good, stable surface for your camera, you can get some good motion blur (vs. camera shake, which is bad motion blur) to go along with your well-exposed image.

      To get this shot, the photographer used bounced flash.Bright Eyes by Flickr user originalpozer

      When all else fails, you can also try using an external flash and bouncing it off of a ceiling to soften it, or use a diffuser to scatter the light and reduce or eliminate those ugly shadows and blown out highlights.

      Reflective Surfaces

      Reflective surfaces like water and snow are also culprits in creating unfavorable lighting conditions. This is especially true if you want to capture the motion of water - on a sunny day it just can't be done with your usual lens-camera combination. And snow is a problem no matter what shutter speed you'd like to use, because snow is a vast expanse of highly reflective material.

      If you're shooting water on a sunny day, your best friend is a neutral density (ND) filter. An ND filter is just a way to reduce the amount of light that reaches your camera's sensor, thus giving you more flexibility in choosing your shutter speed.

      • Nikon E2500
      • 100
      • f/4.8
      • 1/3000 sec
      • 16.8 mm

      Underexposure is a common problem when shooting snowy scenes.Underexposed Mont Blanc by Flickr user lorentey

      Shooting snow requires a whole different philosophy. Because your camera's meter is standardized for middle gray, when you point it at a snowy scene it's going to assume that the range of light in that scene will average out to somewhere in that middle range. Of course it doesn't, because it's snow, but your camera's meter doesn't know that. So if you trust your meter you're going to get an underexposed photo of snow that looks just like middle gray.

      A good rule-of-thumb is to set your exposure compensation to overexpose your images by one or two stops whenever you are shooting in the snow on a sunny day. If you want this to be an exact science, you can also use your spot meter and meter something in the scene that you'd judge to be around middle gray (or better yet, use a gray card that was designed just for that purpose). Remember that snow is pure white (most of the time) so is already pretty darned close to being overexposed anyway, so if you have to let some of the snow get blown out in favor of correctly exposing your subject, your viewers are going to be a lot more forgiving than they would be if, say, you did the same thing with a blown-out sky.

      The sun sometimes shines in Scotland by Flickr user Project 404


      Oh no, I'm going to recommend pop-up flash twice in one article. Something must be happening to the structure of the universe. Yes! When you are photographing a backlit subject - a person or object standing directly in front of a light source - it can help to use a fill-flash. This works almost exactly like using a fill flash in direct, overhead sun - if you're close enough to your subject, your pop-up flash may do a sufficient job, though you may still get some minor reflections and shadows you don't really want. If you're a little further away you may need an external flash so you'll have some more power and distance.

      Another way of dealing with backlighting is to use exposure compensation. There are two schools of thought on this one: first, overexpose the image. You'll get a washed-out background but a more correctly exposed subject. Second, underexpose the image. Now your subject will be a silhouette against a nicely exposed background. Which method you choose is up to you, of course, because each one will return vastly different photos.

      As with bright noon sun, you can also use a reflector to add additional light to your backlit subject. This works in exactly the same way except that it's a bit tricker - because the light source is directly behind your subject, you'll have to angle that reflector in such a way that adequate light falls on your subject but your reflector isn't blocking the camera.

        Notre Dame at Noon by Flickr user Stuck in Customs


        HDR is more than just a cool way to create weird, surreal looking images. HDR can actually save you in a poor lighting situation. How's that?

        Your camera, as you know, has a tough time dealing with lighting situations where there are very bright highlights and very dark shadows. In a single photo, you will either get underexposed shadows or overexposed highlights. Sometimes the best solution to this problem is to take not one photo but three - one that is exposed for the shadows, one that is exposed for the highlights, and a third one that is somewhere in between. Then, in post-processing, combine those three photos to get a final image that is the best of all three worlds.

        Obviously, this works best if your camera is stably mounted on a tripod. You can use your camera's exposure bracketing feature to get the exposures right, since ideally you want each of the three exposures to be equidistant from each other in terms of how much exposure compensation is used. You also want your subject to be as still as possible - easier with landscapes and buildings, more difficult with living things.

        This method does of course require good software - Photoshop, for example, or Photomatrix Pro. There's also some learning curve involved, but if you've always wanted to try HDR that bad lighting situation you're suddenly faced with may be just the opportunity you've been looking for.


        So don't think of bad light as a good time to pack away your camera and go for a swim. Think of it instead as a challenge - a way for you to hone your skills and make the best out of a bad situation. Keep working at it long enough and eventually bad light won't be a problem at all for you - it will just be another lighting situation for which you already have the tools and techniques to handle.

        Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


        1. Leo says:

          Another good and helpful light essay. Thank you!

        2. Venu Gopal says:

          Thanks David,

          People are saying I'm shooting better and was suggested to send my clicks to photo contests.

          All this credit goes to you !!!


        3. Tammy says:

          Thank you David for all of your great knowledge
          It keeps me inspired.

        4. tholumuzi says:

          Very helpful article, thanx David

        5. Roy says:

          Hi David,

          Good stuff ... amazed that you wrote this without referencing histogram even once !

          I find that by taking a test shot and then using the shadows / highlights feature you can quickly make out where the problem is and then adjust as needed ... use a filter, adjust exposure, use fill flash, etc.

          Of course one also needs to know the solution !


        6. Rohinton Mehta says:

          Very well-written. Thank you.

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