Challenge Yourself: Shoot in Harsh Sunlight

Ice Cold

I can't count how many times I've heard the old saying about the “magic hour” and “waiting for the light to be right”. Pah… if you want to get out and shoot, then get out and shoot. Don't wait for the evening light or an overcast day. Harsh direct sunlight may be a little more difficult to deal with, but it has a few merits too. I actually prefer to shoot in the afternoon sun because it produces such a drastically different result than “soft light” situations.

One big reason photographers (particularly those using digital cameras) like to avoid direct sunlight is because of the limited dynamic range of the sensor. If the light is too harsh, you'll end up clipping your shadows or highlights (or both). We've been trained to believe that clipping is a terrible thing and it will ruin your photo. Not true… you just have to be more careful about controlling the clipping and force the camera to produce what you want it to.

Other reasons people whine about direct sunlight shooting include: shadows, too much light for the sensor, lens flare, it's hot, it hurts their eyes, it's their nap time, blah, blah, blah, etc., etc.

The Lifeguard

So, seriously, don't be bummed out next time you find yourself equipped with a camera and faced with some bright light. Here are a few pointers for shooting in harsh sunlight situations:

  • If you're on digital, expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall out.
  • Seek out subjects that produce interesting shadows, or even make the shadows the subject.
  • Check your histogram often and make sure the camera is giving you what you want.
  • Use your lens hood to avoid excess flares and glares.
  • Don't shoot directly at the sun with a digital camera; it'll look stupid, plus your sensor doesn't like it.
  • Process the photos as black & white; high contrast tends to look better without color.
  • Your f/1.4 lens is useless, so don't worry about bringing fast glass.
  • Use shutter priority and max it out; misused aperture priority can cause you to exceed the limits of your shutter and blow out all your photos.
  • Shoot b/w film; it has a higher dynamic range and you can get some really low ISO films (like ISO 50, 25, 12, etc. – can your digital camera do that? I've always wondered why ISO 100 was the lower limit…).
  • Break the rules; including the ones you see on this page.

The Place to Be Cruisers