Thursday, November 1, 2012

All Pros Shoot Only During The Magic Hours

Ah, the magic hour. That time of day that comes twice a day when the sun is low in the sky and the light is at its sweetest. Early morning and late afternoon sunlight is quite magical indeed. It is a well known fact that most pros shoot either only or mostly at those hours of the day. They get up early to climb mountains in the dark or suffer through camping outdoors just to be in position for the early morning sun. Photography books all recommend shooting at those hours. And for good reason, the sun is low in the sky and produces pleasing long shadows. The light is at its lowest contrast ratios and the light seems to have a magical quality about it.

But, wonder if you are like me, most active and motivated in the noon to mid afternoon hours? Or if you are on vacation and can not waste time sitting in your hotel room waiting for the magic hours to arrive? If you have limited time at your location, you may find yourself needing to shoot in less than ideal lighting conditions or miss out on having photos of some of the places you visit during the midday hours. You can either give up and accept the fact that you will come back with nothing more than mere snapshot during those times, or you can choose to work with what you have and make it work for you. I choose the latter option. In this post I give you some tips to make lovely images during the midday hours.

Bright autumn color set against a clear blue sky.
Mid afternoon light worked well for this subject.
Embrace The Lighting Conditions

Bright sunlight with short dark shadows and high contrast is typical of sunny days during the midday hours. So why fight it? Look for interesting shadows and subjects that look great in such bright and harsh conditions.

Use A Neutral Graduated Filter
Use A Neutral Gradated FilterNeutral Grad filters are optical

Here I used my neutral graduated filter to

position the gray portion over the sky to preserve
some of the details in the storm clouds. I also used
fill flash to brighten the foreground wildflowers.

filters that are half clear and half gray. They are available in either square or standard circular shapes. I recommend the square type as you can move them up and down (or side to side) and decide exactly where to position the transition area between the gray and clear parts of the filter. If you choose the round filters, you will be stuck framing your images in unflattering compositions due to the need to place the filter effect where you need it. What this filter does is to help lower the brightness of the part of the image covered by the gray part of the filter. Typically these are used in situations where the sky is so much brighter than the foreground that the digital sensor (or film) can not record detail in both areas of the image without losing detail. It is frequently used with the gray portion of the filter positioned to cover the sky. But it can also be used in a reversed position as well, such as when shooting a snowy landscape. Place the gray part of the filter over the snowy foreground and it will help to record some detail in the snow without having to underexpose the sky. These filters also come in color versions in addition to varying densities of neutral gray. They are fun to experiment with, but if you are only going to buy one filter I recommend getting the gray one as it can be used in all situations.

Use of a polarizing filter darkened and saturated the colors here.
Use a Polarizer Filter

Polarizer filters help to remove reflections and deepen colors. It can remove surface reflections off of water or glass, and deepens the colors of foliage by removing the bluish cast from the sky. Under the right conditions, it can also deepen the color of the sky and make clouds really stand out. The basic rule is to point one finger at the sun and the other 90 degrees away, like making an "L" with your fingers. The finger will be pointing to the part of the sky that will demonstrate the strongest effects of the polarizer. Rotate the filter and watch the filter do its thing. If you are using a wide angle lens it may not be your best option to use a polarizer as the sky will not be evenly polarized and parts of the sky may appear darker than others.

I photographed this toad in the shade where he was hiding.

The soft and even lighting help me capture subtle patterns
 and color in the toad and his beautiful eyes.
Seek Shade

Take a look in the shady areas for suitable subjects. I particularly love to shoot flowers and nature macros in the shade. Light in the shade is generally still bright enough to work with handheld but without bright sunlight to cast distracting shadows. Many other subjects also look wonderful shot in the shade. The flat lighting works well with subjects where dark shadows may be distracting and with subjects that have subtle gradations of color that would be washed out by bright sunlight.

I used a flash set to –1.7 exposure to insure that the image

was mostly exposed by natural light with just a slight hint of
flash to openup the shadows on the front of the bird’s face.

Bring Your Own Light

Use flash to help fill in some of those dark shadows cast by the sun. This tip is particularly useful for portraits and flower and macro images. If using the fill light for portraits it can be done two different ways. One is to just use fill light to lighten the shadows a bit. The shadows will still be there, just softened. So be careful with your posing to assure pleasant facial modeling. When using this technique, set the flash to underexpose by about –1.7 to 2 stops less than full exposure. This can be done by setting the flash compensation either on your camera or on the flash. Read your equipment’s manual to find out how to do this.

Another way to use flash outdoors is to overcome the sun and use the flash as the main light source. Use a professional flash unit and set it to overpower the sun ad set the exposure to expose for the flash. You can also choose to underexpose the background, turning day into night which can be fun to experiment with. There are many tutorials online to show you how to do this.

Here I placed my subject in the shade and let the direct sunlight

act as a hairlight. The reflector acted as a light for her face. I
exposed for the face and let the background details
and sunlit hair blow out.

Use a Reflector

You can use a reflector as fill light instead of flash. Same as with using flash though, you will need to mind your shadows as you will only be softening the shadows and not getting rid of them. Another alternative reflector technique is light your subject with light bounced off of the reflector. Put the subject in the shade and place the reflector in the sunlight and bounce the light onto your subject. A shiny gold or silver reflector is best used for that technique as a white reflector is usually not powerful enough.


These small flowers were in shade with a bright

patch of sun lit grass in the background. I exposed
for the flower and let the background overexpose a bit.

Be Careful With Your Exposure

This is always good advice but it is even more important in situations where the light is very contrasty. In a situation where the dynamic range, the range of tones from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows, is beyond what your camera sensor (or film) is capable of recording it is important for you to decide which part of the image is most important and expose for it. Generally most sensors can only capture 5-8 stops of brightness levels. In a case like this you must decide whether it is more important to retain detail in either the shadows or the highlights. Expose for the most important tone and let the others fall where they may. You can also opt to chose a median exposure, and try to post process the image to bring back as much detail throught the image as possible. It doesn’t always work, but is an option. I recommend shooting a few different exposures, either manually or by using the auto bracketing feature on your camera if it has one, to give yourself as many options as possible later on.

I photographed this delightful scene on an overcast day.
There wasn’t much color or detail in the sky but I was
able to enhance what was there in the computer.


Fix It In The Computer

You can try to enhance your capture later in the computer. It doesn’t always work but is worth a shot if you captured an image that has potential but falls flat for some reason. As long as the image is somewhat properly exposed and it is well composed, there is hope. I recommend reading my blog post "You Can Always Fix It In The Computer Later" as well as my future blog post "JPEG Adventures In New York City" where I do exactly that.

This flower was lit by harsh afternoon direct sunlight. Being

a semi translucent flower, the harsh lighting made the flower
glow and pop right off the cluttered background which
photographically rendered as near black due to the strong
lighting ratios between the flower and the background elements.

Shoot Details And Telephoto Images

When shooting a small detail or a long distance shot, many times you will find the issue of contrast is no longer an issue. For example, there may be a big difference in the exposure values between the top of a building and the shady street in front of it. But if you use your telephoto lens and zoom to capture either just the top of the building or street details, then you won’t have that problem anymore. You may not be able to capture that wide angle shot you wanted, but you may find yourself capturing something even more interesting. Give it a try.

I set up this still life scene indoors during one of our many
cold winter days when I didn’t feel like venturing outside to
capture photos.
Shoot Indoors

If you are not on an exclusively outdoor expedition, why not take a break and capture some indoor images. Go to a museum, a zoo, or some other venue that allows photography and has exhibits indoors. This can fill up many hours during midday and by the time you are done the magic hour may have already begun.

I hope this post gives you some ideas on how to deal with some of the issues faced during midday shooting. Don’t give up, go out there and push yourself beyond the limitations of harsh lighting. Enjoy!

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