Yes, You Can Shoot Good Photos in Terrible Light :: Digital Photo Secrets

Yes, You Can Shoot Good Photos in Terrible Light

by David Peterson 1 comment

You probably have photographer friends who "tsk, tsk" you for heading out to take photos in the middle of the day. If not, you've probably at least read that you shouldn't take photos during the middle of the day - you may have even gotten that idea from something you read on my site. And it is pretty decent advice for beginners, but it is not by any stretch of the imagination an unbreakable fact of photography. You can actually get good photos in bad light, contrary to popular belief. But how?

  • Canon EOS 400D Digital
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 0.012 sec (1/83)
  • 10 mm

Solar tree-clipse II by Flickr user h00j-A

The problem with golden hour photography and golden hour photography alone is a pretty easy to suss out. If you only take photos during the golden hour, your photo opportunities are limited to a mere two hours a day. Add to that the fact that you have to get up before dawn in order to get ready for that short golden hour, or that you have to plan all of your travels around arriving at your destination close to sunset, and you’ve got a recipe for inconvenience. If you’re shooting travel photos, you may not even be allowed at certain locations around sunrise or sunset. So does that mean you should just shrug your shoulders and leave your camera in your suitcase? Of course not!

Filter, filter, filter

I would never go on a trip of any kind without my polarizing filter, because polarizing filters do wonders for those less-than-ideal lighting situations. A polarizing filter does just what the name implies—it blocks polarized light, which in turn prevents glare and reflection (just like that salesperson told you at the optometrist when she convinced you that you needed a pair of polarized sunglasses).

One of the primary problems with shooting photos at midday is the sky—it is often the brightest part of a midday scene, and it can render as a very pale blue or even as a white. But a polarizing filter can fix this problem—it darkens the sky and increases the contrast between the clouds and all that blue. To use one, you ideally want to be standing with the sun at either your right or left (when it’s behind you or in front of you, you may not get any help from your polarizing filter). Look through your viewfinder as you twist the filter—when the sky becomes more vibrant, make the exposure.

You can also use a graduated neutral density filter (a GND) to help deal with that very broad dynamic range that plagues mid-day photos. A GND is like a pair of sunglasses for your lens, only it gradually changes from dark to clear (hence the name). To use one, you simply line up that division between light and dark at the horizon (with the dark part over the sky) and take the photo. You’ll get a deeper, richer-colored sky and a well-exposed foreground.

    Point Lookout - Stadbroke Island by Flickr user Jiaren Lau

    Angle out the sky

    If you don’t have a GND filter on hand, consider just cutting out the sky altogether. I know, this actually sounds a bit weird for a landscape, since landscape photos usually do include some sky. But since that broad dynamic range is a really big problem in midday photos, you can reduce the problem by simply excluding the sky altogether. It does take a little bit of creativity to pull this off—you don’t want to end up with an image where the sky is conspicuously absent and there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it. So look for scenes with big mountains or other areas that seem to be logically obstructing the sky, and use a zoom lens to get close to interesting features in the landscape, which will eliminate the expectation for a sky.

    • Nikon D3100
    • 100
    • f/8.0
    • 0.004 sec (1/250)
    • 18 mm

    Hiking, Majorca, Spain by Flickr user Kristoffer Trolle

    Love your lens flare

    Here’s something that they never taught you in photography 101: instead of avoiding lens flare, embrace it. Point your camera right at the sun. Whoa, really? Isn’t that like staring at the sun, which Mom told you never to do? Well, yes and no. If you have a DSLR, you’re covered, at least as far as your camera is concerned. That’s because a DSLR has a mirror in the viewfinder, which will protect all that sensitive equipment from the bright sun. The mirror redirects the light away from the sensor, which stops it from causing any damage—with the caveat being that you could actually hurt your eyes if you view that scene through your viewfinder. So yes, you can do this with your DSLR—and no, your DSLR’s viewfinder won’t protect your eyes. So you can’t look directly through the viewfinder when you frame the image.

    Now having said all that, the potential for damage has to do with the length of time your shutter remains open, and when you’re including something as bright as the sun in the image, that’s not typically going to be for a very long time.

    It’s a different story with point and shoot cameras, which don’t have a mirror. When you look at the LCD on a point and shoot, you’re seeing what your sensor sees. So if you point it at the sun, you might damage it. So the takeaway from all of this is that including the sun in your photo is a great strategy if your camera is a DSLR, and risky if it isn’t.

    • Fujifilm FinePix S6000fd
    • 200
    • f/7.1
    • 0.001 sec (1/2000)
    • 9.3 mm

    Within Without by Flickr user mikeyexists

    When you point your camera directly at the sun, us a very small aperture (say f/22) and try to block the sun partially with your subject or some other element in the scene (trees and buildings work great). Partially blocking the sun helps scatter the light, so it won’t be such an all-powerful presence in the scene. Plus, it just looks cool.


    No, you don’t have to buy yet another piece of post-processing software, nor do you have to learn how to make those over-the-top, crazily surreal images that you’ve probably seen on Flickr. In fact it is possible to shoot HDR and end up with an image that just looks well-exposed, rather than super-weird. The trick is to go for subtlety in post-processing, rather than choosing presets that emphasize surreal colors and effects.

    To shoot HDR, you really just need a tripod. Ideally, you want to use Raw format (if your camera offers it), but you can also create very successful HDR photos in JPG. To create your image, simply set up your camera on the tripod, frame the shot exactly where you want it, and then take a series of images at different exposures. You want at least one exposure about one stop below where your meter tells you it ought to be, followed by one at that is “correct,” and another that is a stop above where your meter tells you it should be. You can also shoot more images than three, but three is the minimum you need to get a good HDR photograph.

    Once you’ve made the exposures, it’s a simple matter of combining them in post processing. The technique varies depending on what software you’re using, but in most cases it is relatively simple. In Photoshop, you simply go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro and select each one of the exposures. The software will automatically take all three images and combine them into a single shot. You do get a set of presets to choose from, and if you want to end up with a photo that looks natural, make sure you look at each of them and select the one that has good highlights and shadows but does not look over processed.

    This technique eliminates that dynamic range problem because you’re getting the best of all worlds—you get well exposed highlights from the underexposed shot, well exposed shadows from the overexposed shot, and good midtones from the “correct” exposure.

    • Nikon D700
    • 200
    • f/11.0
    • 0.017 sec (1/60)
    • 58 mm

    Memorial Amphitheater by Flickr user wbeem


    I am always one to say that good photography can happen anywhere, at any time. There’s no reason to leave your camera at home just because you know the light isn’t going to be perfect. These very simple tricks can help you get the best out of even a bad lighting situation, and besides that you’ll be able to shrug your shoulders at all those naysayers who think you’re wasting your time pursuing photo opportunities at midday. If you’re creative and knowledgeable, you can overcome almost any photographic obstacle—and terrible light is no exception.

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    1. Larry Coleman says:

      As was pointed out to me by one of the photographers at the Ansel Adams Center in Yosemite, Adams often excluded the sky - or nearly did - from his landscapes. It is always worth considering whether the sky really adds anything.

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    11 minutes
    About David Peterson
    David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.