I'm pretty sure I've told you before that you ought to avoid taking photos in the middle of the day. I'm pretty sure. But just in case you missed that advice, I'll say it again - mid-day is a lousy time to take photographs. If you have a choice, you should always opt for shooting during the magic hour - those golden moments just after sunrise or just before sunset, when the light is soft and warm. In fact, if you have a choice, shooting after dark can actually yield better results than typical mid-day shooting conditions.
But let's be realistic. Sometimes you just don't have the choice. Sometimes, your child has a soccer game at high-noon, or his best friend's mom scheduled a lunchtime birthday party, or maybe it's just because your lunch hour is the only available photography time-slot you have during the week. Sometimes you're forced to make the best out of a bad situation. So how do you make the best out of this one?
Me by Flickr user sparkovonovinski
Why mid-day is bad for photos
During the magic hour, the light is soft and indirect. That's because at or near the horizon, sunlight has to pass through more atmosphere than it does when it is directly overhead. Direct light is less intense, and indirect light can take over.
Mid-day is bad for photos because, well, it's the opposite. The light is harsh and direct, and there's a much broader range of tones in any given scene. This might sound like a good thing, but it's not. Your camera isn't capable of capturing that entire range of tones, so it compromises. Unfortunately this means it will either blow out the highlights or blacken the shadows. Either way you'll lose detail, and that's almost never what you want. Add to that the washed-out colors and those awful dark shadows you get on people's faces and let's face it, you've got a recipe for some shots that will make people recoil and wish that you were showing your awful photos to some other poor guy with 10 minutes to spend looking at bad photos.
You know what I'm talking about, don't you? We've all lamented at the utter badness of those noontime photos, then ones that would have been splendid if only we'd been able to figure out what the heck to do about the light. Never fear, here are some ideas.
Unless you're shooting on the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, there's going to be some shade somewhere. And anyway, if you're on the Sahara at high noon you've probably got bigger problems than the light (SPF 4200 anyone?). If you do find that elusive shady spot, move your amenable subjects there and get a few shots of them without that glaring sun beating down on them. Take care, though to choose a spot with even shade - the blotchy shade you'll get under a tree can make for some cool photos but it might not always be what you want, especially when you're shooting a human subject.
If you can't find shade, consider making some of your own. That's right, bring along an umbrella and use it to block out some of that unwanted light. If it's a diffuse material, so much the better—that's going to help soften the existing light. Don't worry, it doesn't have to be a frilly Mary Poppins umbrella, though that would be pretty funny.
Moving your subjects to the shade is sometimes the best remedy for the mid-day sun.Amanda and Richard - Strangers #10-11/100 by Flickr user Jason Paluck
Use fill flash or a reflector
In a pinch, you can use that otherwise evil pop-up flash on top of your camera to help fill in the shadows. Ever wonder why camera manufacturers include those mostly-useless things even on high-end DSLRs? I like to think it's because sometimes everyone can use a little fill flash. Now, that little pop-up flash isn't going to create perfect, studio-quality light so expect to see some of the symptoms of direct flash even in these otherwise brightly-lit images: unwanted reflections, for example, in the eyes or on parts of the face. Your pop-up flash is limited in other ways, too, most notably because of its reach—you just can't step back very far and expect it to travel that distance from you to your subject. Pop-up flash is best used at relatively close ranges, though if you get too close you could also wash out your subject completely.
Going Wide and Using the Flash by Flickr user Island Capture (aka Silverph or psilver)
Ideally, you'll want to have an external flash with you so you don't have to rely on the limited powers of that pop-up flash. I know I said it was evil, but it's a wimpy kind of evil. An external flash is going to give you more control over where that extra light falls, and the ability to step back a bit and not be so much in the face of your subject, who is probably already squinting in the noon sun anyway.
If you have help on hand, you can also bring along a diffuser or a reflector. You can get surprisingly compact versions for not very much money, ones that will easily fold away and slip into your camera bag. When you get into a situation where you've got those awful shadows on your subject's face and you'd really rather not move her from the spectacular scenery to that boring little overhang next to the gift shop, try having a helper hold your reflector so that it bounces light into those shadows. If you prefer, you can also use a diffuser to simply soften the light before it gets to your subject's face: to do this just place the diffuser between your subject and the sun.
Use a polarizing filter or an ND grad
I'm sure you've had the experience of trying to shoot a landscape on a bright day—it's tough, because an otherwise beautiful, cloudy sky may wind up completely white and featureless. If you regularly shoot landscapes you know that the sky can often be as important as the rest of the image, so you want to keep those blue skies blue and those clouds well-defined. The trick to getting this right is to invest in a polarizing filter, or a graduated neutral density (ND) filter.
Think of the polarizing filter as sunglasses for your camera—it helps to darken the skies and increase the contrast between that beautiful blue and those puffy white clouds. And in fact, in a pinch you can use your polarized sunglasses in front of the lens of your camera to achieve the same effect! Polarizers have the added benefit of reducing glare—you know those unwanted reflections in the glass you got when you tried to shoot your spouse under the gift shop awning? Use a polarizing filter to reduce or eliminate those reflections. It works for water, too, which is a highly reflective surface and can cause a lot of distraction in an otherwise beautiful image.
Graduated ND filters are useful too, especially when you've got a too-bright sky and a darker landscape. To use an ND grad, position the darker part of the filter over the sky, with the division between dark and light on the horizon. You'll get darkening of the sky without also over-darkening the rest of the image.
Sometimes that hard light can make a statement. You may decide to just embrace the lighting situation and make the exposure anyway, even though you're going to lose detail in the shadows or highlights. This is an artistic decision and depending on the mood you're trying to convey, could work very well. If you're not sure, experiment. You may find you like the gritty statement that mid-day sun makes in your image.
Are you caught in between the patterns of life? by Flickr user VinothChandar
Yes, it's true! Though I will continue to needle and poke you about taking photos during the magic hour, you don't have to listen to me all the time. Most of the time, but not all the time. Despite all of your best efforts even I know that sometimes you're going to get caught out with that sun right over your head. Just make sure you stay aware and that you utilize all of your new tricks to make the best of that otherwise bad situation.
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