How to Photograph in Bright Contrasty Light
Summer – what's not to like? Great weather, more photo opportunities and lovely evening light in many parts of the west. There is a downside though, and that is very bright summer sunshine, which can bleach out detail, blow out highlights and create deep shadows. So what can you do about it?
1) Get up earlier
If you fancy yourself as a serious travel photographer while you are on vacation, the time to be taking pictures is not in the middle of the day or early afternoon, along with the blissfully ignorant tourist snappers.
Get up early, by which I mean around dawn. The light will be much more magical, there will be far fewer people around and then you have the rest of the day to enjoy being a regular tourist.
2) Work around the light
If it's not practical to rearrange the time you are shooting – say you are doing a wedding, for example – then you have to find other solutions. Try shooting in the shade obviously, and moving your subjects away from direct sunlight so they are not squinting.
Or, get the sun behind the subject, be it at person, building or natural feature. Get the sun behind a tree and you can get a nice contre jour effect, or capture some nice 'flare' effects when shooting a person.
3) Try fill flash
Sometimes you have to compensate for strong sunlight in other ways. On-camera flash has limited value but simply popping up your camera's built-in flash can be great for adding a quick burst of flash to help fill-in shadows on people's faces. Try it in aperture priority mode and adjust flash power/flash exposure as necessary (it works with a flashgun too). Make sure you don't totally overexpose and lose all detail in their face however.
4) Reflectors and the Ice Light
You can also redirect light back onto a person's face using a reflector, but be very careful that you don't end up dazzling them. I've done this at a wedding and it's not great. There's also the hassle of lugging around and folding up a big reflector, which is why I like to use the Westcott Ice Light, or one of the many cheaper imitations.
This is a constant (but adjustable) LED light source that looks a bit like a light sabre, and it comes in very handy for filling in harsh shadows. You can easily attach it to a tripod, mini tripod or light stand, making it great for weddings and outdoor portraits. Such lights could work for garden or nature photography too.
5) Strong sunlight and landscapes/cityscapes
Obviously you can't use such accessories for big sweeping vistas, so you need to try and turn the hard light and deep shadows to your advantage.
A black and white conversion will make strong shadows look very dramatic and ominous, while strong afternoon can give a wonderfully bleached effect to shots taken in the desert or an empty city street.
Make the most of strong blue sky by using a polariser, too. Whatever 'middle of the day' technique you use, make sure it is clear that the effect is deliberate, rather than looking like a mistake.