MIDDAY LIGHT MAGIC:
Making the Most of Harsh Lighting Conditions
by Leo Volz and Rob
© Copyright 1998 by Leo Volz and Rob Kleine. All
(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,'
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
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.
COMPOSING FOR MIDDAY LIGHT
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
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
MODIFY THE LIGHT TO REDUCE CONTRAST
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
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,
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
MIDDAY FILM CHOICES
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.