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Making the Most of Harsh Lighting Conditions

by Leo Volz and Rob Kleine

© Copyright 1998 by Leo Volz and Rob Kleine. All Rights Reserved.

(A version of this article was first published as "Midday Light Magic," in Outdoor & Nature Photography, Summer 1998, Peter K. Burian, Editor)



"Shoot during the magic hours -- the hours surrounding sunrise and sunset. To photograph at any other time of day, during the ‘ugly hours,' is worthless."

Dinosaur greeter of visitors to Bedrock City, AZ. Image # 10014. (c) Rob Kleine.  All rights reserved.How often have you heard that advice? Sure, the low angled light of early morning and late afternoon is spectacular. Let's be realistic: travel schedules, companions, work, family, and myriad other obligations often preclude us from chasing golden light. And what can we do when visiting an area during the midday hours? Should you heed the "magic hour rule," and keep your camera stowed away? No way! As the photos accompanying this article attest, you can shoot compelling -- even publishable -- photos during the ‘ugly hours.'

That's not to suggest shooting compelling photos in midday's ugly light is easy. Let's explore what happens to the light around noon. The sun has reached its highest point in the sky and is shining through the least amount of atmosphere. Shadows are harsh. To complicate matters, atmospheric haze and reflections become much more visible during mid day. Haze and reflections cause bright colors to lose saturation and wash out. In short, ugly hour light has too much contrast or too little contrast. Too much contrast means the brightness range in a composition exceeds the exposure latitude of your film; shadows will ‘block up,' highlights will blow out, or both. Either way, image detail is lost. Too little contrast causes pictures to appear ‘flat.' Read on for tips on how to counter these problems so you can make the most of ‘ugly hour' light.


Metering Ugly Hour Scenes.
High contrast midday light will yield photos with blown out highlights or blocked up shadow areas unless you meter carefully. Avoid surprises by metering the brightest and darkest regions of your composition (use your camera's built in spot meter, if it is so equipped) to determine the brightness range of your composition. Highlight and/or shadow detail will be lost if the two readings differ by more than about four stops when shooting slide film or about five stops when shooting print film. If the brightness range in your composition exceeds the dynamic range of your film, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I recompose to eliminate the brightest or darkest elements of a composition to yield a brightness range that falls within the exposure latitude of my film? For example, can I exclude the bright sky or crop out the most deeply shaded area in the composition?
  • Do I want to retain the highlights and allow the dark/shadowy areas to be rendered as black? Silhouettes are the result of properly exposing the background while underexposing shadow areas so they go black.
  • Should I blow (i.e., over expose) out the highlights (brightest areas) and retain detail in the shadow areas? This yields an effect opposite that of silhouetting. Here the (usually back lit) main subject is properly exposed while the background or foreground is overexposed. Well done, the effect can be striking.
  • When in doubt underexpose the scene slightly. What is the most common complaint about noontime pictures other than the detail less shadows? "My pictures look bland . . . washed out." Slight underexposure by ½ or 2/3 stops will saturate colors. Some shadow areas may block up, but highlight areas that often blowout completely will fall within the film's range.

Regardless your metering strategy, bracket your exposures and pick the result you like best. To bracket with slide film, first expose one frame at your estimated 'correct' exposure. Then adjust your exposure setting so your second frame is over-exposed by at least a half stop. Finally, expose a third frame that is underexposed by at leat a half stop.




Effective use of midday light is key to successful ugly hour photos. Consider these tips for improving your ugly hour compositions:

Pick your subjects carefully. Optimizing your ugly hour photos requires seeking subjects that make effective midday shots. If the light is too flat for a grand scenic, isolate parts of the scene that you can render effectively: shoot the flowers instead of the flower field, shoot architectural details rather than a city scape, shoot people.

Select your shooting angles carefully. Unless you live on the equator, the sun is almost never directly overhead. This means that just about everything you'd want to shoot receives some degree of front lighting in addition to the strong top lighting at noon. Properly positioning yourself allows you to hide the shadows directly behind your subject. This is most easily done by keeping the sun directly behind you and shooting at a somewhat downward angle. If you find that your pictures lack dimensional quality and look flat, try moving lower and off to either side, bringing the shadows back into your composition slightly. If the shadows are too harsh, don't worry. We'll tell you how to deal with those shortly. Alternately, make the shadow the subject of your composition. Unique shadow patterns can make striking photos.

Use simple compositions. This is a good rule of thumb for photography at any time of day, but it becomes especially critical when you are trying to cope with the rigors of photographing in harsh lighting conditions. The more cluttered your composition, the more likely you are to lose some important detail in an unwanted shadow and the more steps you have to take to control the lighting for suitable photographs. Clean, simple compositions make it easier for the photographer to concentrate on controlling the light as well as making it easier for the viewer to appreciate the pictures.

Control the background. This goes hand in hand with simplifying the composition. A busy background, especially one that is strongly lit and contrasty, can be a huge distraction. When possible, take control of the situation by relocating the subject or by improvising another background. This works especially well for macro subjects where a small piece of colored poster board in the background can make for a more pleasing effect than something cluttered and washed out. Another option is to allow shaded background clutter to block up thus eliminating the distracting elements. Yes, contrast can be your friend.

Use back lighting. There are several back lighting techniques you might want to try for a variety of striking photographic effects.

Look for translucent subjects. As the sun shines through them, translucent subjects seem to glow from within, producing stunning effects.

Include the sun in the frame, possibly hiding it directly behind the subject for rim lit silhouettes. A note of caution -- protect yourself and your equipment when photographing with the sun in the frame, especially when using telephoto lenses. Don't look directly at the sun, don't keep the camera pointed into the sun for any longer than necessary, and where possible use the appropriate safety filtration.

Silhouetted backpacker admiring the Grand Canyon. #10010. (c) Rob Kleine.  All Rights ReservedSilhouette the subject. A silhouette is blocked up shadow detail that retains recognizable form. If dark elements of your composition have interesting, distinctive, or readily recognizable form, consider rendering them as a silhouette. When composing a silhouette make sure the elements of the element to be silhouetted will be distinct and don't merge with other elements.




Often you can add to, subtract from, or diffuse the available light so the contrast range falls within the exposure latitude of your film. Here are some techniques useful any time, but especially when shooting during mid-day:

A river rat pauses to flash the peace sign while running Tanner Rapids of the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park. #10058. (c) Rob Kleine.  All Rights ReservedUse a diffuser to soften the light. The smaller a light source relative to the size of the subject, and the further the source of light from the subject, the harsher the shadows will be. At noon time the sun is effectively a pinpoint of light in the sky. The diffuser becomes your light source. Because the diffuser is a light source that is closer to your subject than the sun and bigger relative to the subject, a diffuser will soften or eliminate shadows. Diffusers sold by PhotoFlex, Westcott, Visual Departures, and other firms all work well. You can also make your own highly effective diffusers from a variety of inexpensive materials you have at hand or can acquire from craft and office supply stores. Drafting Mylar, wrapping tissue, a bed sheet, or any other translucent sheet material you find may be used to diffuse light. Experiment to until you find the diffusion material you like most. And don't ignore Mother Nature. Clouds make wonderful diffusers. Wait for a cloud to obscure the sun, then shoot.

Use flash fill. When many people first start out in photography, they think that the flash is only for use in dimly lit indoor situations. As they become more experienced, many find that the flash is even more useful outdoors where it can be used as fill light to soften harsh shadows. And using fill flash has never been easier thanks to the programs built into modern cameras. For most modern cameras, setting the fill flash is as easy as turning on the flash and shooting. The camera automatically determines how much fill is correct and balances the flash with the ambient light. When the ambient light and the flash deliver the same amount of exposure it is said that they are balanced 1:1, but at a 1:1 ambient-to-fill ratio, the light may look flat and dimensionless. Many photographers prefer to use slightly less flash fill. This lightens the shadows but doesn't completely wipe them out, giving the photo some sense of depth. Adjusting the amount of fill is almost as easy as turning it on. Most TTL flash systems have adjustments where you simply dial in the amount of light you want, say minus 1 stop, and the flash will automatically deliver one stop less light than ambient.

You will need to experiment a little in order to determine what fill level you find most pleasing. Start with fill light at 1:1 then work your way down in half stop increments until you find one you like. Keep in mind that, if your camera has an automatic flash-fill reduction feature, any adjustments you make will be in additition to those added by the flash-fill program. For complete control over flash fill, turn off auto flash reduction before experimenting.

If you don't have an automated camera, don't worry. Setting fill flash with a manual camera and flash is not unduly difficult. First determine your ambient exposure, setting a shutter speed that is within the flash synchronization range of the camera. On the flash, set the same f-stop as you're using on the camera and set the distance to the subject. This will give you 1:1 fill. If you would like less fill from the flash, set the flash to a lower f-stop number (wider aperture). You are, in effect, telling the flash that to output less because the lens is set to admit more light. For instance, you've determined that the ambient exposure is f/8 at 1/125 sec. If you set your flash to f/5.6, you will have a perfect -1 stop fill. One final consideration to using fill flash, when exposing for outdoor ambient light you are often relegated to a small aperture (higher f-stop number) in order to stay within the flash synchronization speed range of the camera body. This can significantly cut the working distance of your flash. Pay careful attention to the working distance and make sure you stay within range, or your efforts may be for naught.

Consider using flash-fill under these situations:

  • All outdoor people shots. Most any ugly hour outdoor portrait will benefit from use of flash fill to restore detail to eye sockets, nose shadows, hat shadows, and the like. Even the low powered flash built into many SLRs have adequate power to flash fill an outdoor portrait.
  • When your subject is backlit and you desire the background and foreground to be properly exposed. Meter the background then use flash to properly expose the subject in the foreground.

Flash fill is for outdoor scenics, too! Use flash fill to illuminate nearby shaded foreground elements that will otherwise go black.

Use reflected fill. Reflectors used to bounce fill light at the subject can be every bit as effective as using flash fill, and in some ways more so. Consider these advantages:

  • Bounced light can have a softer, more natural appearance than flash fill.
  • A reflector can be easily repositioned to accommodate different lighting angles and to vary the intensity of the fill light.
  • The effect produced by a reflector is immediately visible, eliminating the uncertainty that sometimes accompanies use of flash fill. You can try different positions until you discover the effect most pleasing to you.
  • A colored reflector can add pleasing color to your composition. A gold reflector provides a pleasing warm effect. Again, you can see the effect immediately to assess whether you like the effect.

Commercially made collapsible reflectors of various sizes and colors (white, silver, gold, and black) are available from Adorama, Photoflex, and Westcott and other manufacturers. We find 24" reflectors most helpful for small subjects. Larger 40" models are most useful for people portraits. Combination models, with a different color on each side, are most versatile. We are especially fond of the white/gold combination reflector. The gold side is especially effective for warming up a subject. Many commonly available materials work just as effectively to reflect in fill light, everything from poster board to aluminum foil, to a white wall, snow, light colored rock, or a light colored piece of clothing.

Subtract Light to Reduce Contrast. Sometimes, especially when the subject is small, removing light is the easiest way to reduce contrast in a composition. You can block all light reaching your composition. Alternatively, you can block light reaching part of the composition. This is effective for controlling background distractions by causing them to block up. An opaque reflector makes an effective light blocker, as does your body (all or parts), your camera bag, clothing items, or any other opaque object you have at hand. Just remember that the resulting shadow area may appear ‘cool' on film so a compensating warming filter may be needed.

Filters to Modify Midday Light.
Filters provide another way to modify and enhance the quality of midday light. Consider these possibilities:

  • Try a UV or Haze Filter. Midday haze desaturates colors. A UV or haze filter eliminates haze and restores brilliance to colors in your pictures.
  • Use a warming filter. Many photographers only use of a warming filter to counter the effects of bluish light in open shade. Yet, open midday light is very blue, too. Think about using a warming filter for subjects receiving direct illumination from the sun when the sun is not delivering its warmest light. The 81A, 81B, and 81C filters provide good starting points. The Tiffen 812 filter, a combined UV and mild warming filter, makes a good general purpose ugly hour filter. Experiment to see what filters produce effects you like.
  • Use a polarizing filter. The polarizing filter is an invaluable tool for outdoor photographers. Reflections of polarized light from non-metallic surfaces can cause a washout effect, that is a loss of color saturation due to those reflections. By properly orienting a polarizer, these reflections can be lessened to varying degrees, and in some instances, eliminated completely giving your pictures a richness that would otherwise be impossible to achieve. Combine a polarizer with a warming filter to give your pictures a pleasing warmth to go along with the richer colors. If you like the results of this combination, consider Singh-Ray's warming polarizing filter


Backpacker pauses along the Escalante Route to admire the Colorado River.  Grand Canyon National Park. #10076. (c) Rob Kleine.  All Rights Reserved.Use Low Contrast Slide Film. Since its introduction outdoor photographers have had a love affair with Fuji Velvia. It is unsurpassed in its combination of vividness and sharpness, but it is a very high contrast emulsion. When used in strong, direct light the contrast can become excessive and obtrusive. Fortunately for those of us who like to shoot at midday, there is a nice selection of films offering more moderate contrast than Velvia. Consider AgfaChrome Ctx/RSx (our personal favorite) or Kodak Ektachrome Elite SW. All are richly saturated films that are more versatile than Velvia in several ways. When you consider the extra stop of shutter speed, the lower contrast and pushability of these films, it seems there should be a place for them in every photographer's bag. Another film in this category making a strong comeback after several years of sagging popularity (due mostly to the overwhelming response to Velvia) is Kodachrome. Long known for its sharpness and color fidelity, Kodachrome is making a resurgence with renewed support from Kodak. Although the long term stability of Kodachrome compared to E-6 films is now being questioned, it's still a fine film and one very worthy of consideration, especially for mid-day photography.

Use print film. Print film's wider dynamic range means your contrasty ugly hour photos will retain more detail in highlight and shadow areas.

Try black and white film. That's right. Try black and white for your outdoor photography. Work to emphasize the contrast or seek monochromatic subjects. Try Agfa's Scala, a b&w transparency film. Just don't try to be the next Ansel Adams. Be yourself.


You can make excellent photos at all times of day. Don't be intimitated by the bright light of midday. With a little forethought, some attention to detail, and a bit of extra effort, you can make interesting and rewarding pictures even when the light is at its worst.


About Leo Volz

Leo is a partner in the Carlisle, Pennsylvania based Action Sports Photography. You can reach Leo at LVolz@compuserve.com.

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