The weather-men and women are predicting hot weather ahead, lots of sunshine, and blue skies for UK-based photographers. This isn’t something we’re generally used to and while shooting in bright conditions has its benefits, it also has its negatives, writes Andrew James and Jon Adams. When we had to put expensive film in our cameras, the general adage was simply to avoid taking pictures when the sun was high in the sky, but these days we can be a little more laissez-faire in our approach because recording a few more images on a memory card isn’t costing us anything extra. In the spirit that you WILL be out shooting with your camera this summer, here are six summer sunshine shooting and processing tips.
Shoot early or late
Yes, it’s a cliché, and yes you know this already, but be honest, how often do you drag yourself up early to catch the best light or, instead of watching the Wimbledon tennis highlights, stay out until the last rays of light have dipped below the horizon? It’s really easy to become a lazy photographer but the simple truth is, when the weather is good and you can guarantee there’s going to be blue sky and sunshine, doing the early/later approach will yield better results. But is early or late best? There’s no real answer to this and a lot will depend on what and where you’re shooting. When the sun is low, whether early or late, the light is softer, more directional, and often much warmer – although the cooler blue light of pre-dawn and post-sunset is also worth working with. In all cases here, without thick cloud to cloak the sun, you’re going to get atmosphere, and this is the ingredient that can make an image really stand out. In these conditions, you might want to consider shooting into the light (contre jour) to bag the best shots. But remember, with a direct light source in your shot, you may want to consider bracketing your shots for best results. Take a look at the article Into the Light Landscapes for more on this. Make yourself do an early morning or late evening session this weekend – and you’ll get a great result because you made the effort.
Use fill-in flash to change the lighting
Rather than modifying or redirecting the sunlight falling on your scene, it’s sometimes more practical to use an extra light source to counteract its effects. A flashgun is the only thing that will fight the brightness of the sun, as a continuous light like an LED lamp will never have the kind of power needed to make a dent on direct sunlight. You can use your flashgun mounted on the camera, but this limits you to one direction of light, so it’s better if you can take it off camera and fire it from a different position. To do this, you’ll need to use either a flash cable or a wireless flash trigger to make sure the flashgun fires at the right time. We’d always advise the wireless approach, as it offers more flexibility and gets rid of the hassle of trailing cables. You can use TTL (through-the-lens) settings to let your camera and flashgun do all the calculations for you, but provided you’re not in a hurry, using the flashgun manually will be just as good and will help you learn more about the principles of lighting. Just set the flash to its Manual mode, and after positioning it and taking a test shot, you can increase or decrease its effect by turning the power up or down.
Use a diffuser to soften shadows
One of the problems with harsh, overhead sunlight is that the shadows formed within the scene will be hard-edged and short. This is an unattractive look for just about any subject you could think of, so to soften the light, a simple and easy way is to diffuse it. By using a diffusion panel, you can throw some shade onto the subject without reducing the intensity of the light too much, so it’s a bit like having a portable cloudy day at your disposal! 5-in-1 type collapsible reflectors offer one of the most convenient and cost-effective means of adding diffusion, because if you unzip the cover, you’ll have a diffusion panel ready to go. Just hold it between the sun and your subject for the gentle light and reduced contrast of cloud cover. It is obviously limited to smaller subjects, as the diffused light will only be as big as the size of the diffusion panel, but for anything from portraits to nature shots, it’s a quick, cheap and effective fix.
Use a reflector to redirect light
If a diffuser isn’t giving the results you want, and more of a ‘kick’ is required in the lighting, then a reflector offers a great solution. This can be anything from a sheet of A4 paper to a large, shiny, silver or gold unit, but by placing it reasonably close to your subject, you can redirect the overhead sunlight and sculpt a new look to the lighting in your scene. Again, 5-in-1 type collapsible reflectors are great, as they offer a variety of different reflective surfaces that change the character and colour of the lighting. The white surface of the diffusion panel is the softest and most neutral, but if you want more oomph, then the silver will turn up the ‘power’ of your handheld light source. To apply the same intensity but with a warmer, yellower colour cast, switch to the gold surface to give anything a suntan! For really small subjects, you may find a larger reflector to be too unwieldy, so keep a couple of sheets of tinfoil tucked away in your camera bag. These can be sculpted into any shape you want, but crunch it up then flatten it out to break up the surface and avoid too much of a mirror finish.
Shoot raw and do a shadow lift in post-processing
If you’ve followed the advice above then you’re not going to need this fix, but let’s be honest, you’re not always going to be able to use a reflector, or a flashgun to add light to the shadows because this is the real world! Therefore, by shooting raw you can give yourself a fighting chance of fixing a photo that’s been taken in harsh light and has too much contrast. As a rule, contrast is great because this is what gives your images shape and definition, but when you have strong, deep shadows, you lose too much detail. Most raw processing software these days offers a way to lighten the shadows and it’s a really useful weapon. But like all things in processing, you need to be careful with it. If you overdo a shadow lift, not only can you potentially degrade image quality, but you can also make an image look unnatural. If you’re a LR or ACR user, taking the Shadows slider to the right is going to help to bring detail back. But remember, it’s NOT a fix for a badly underexposed photo – just a way to subtly bring some detail back to balance a picture. It’s no surprise that in earlier versions of Lightroom/ACR, the slider that did what the Shadows slider does now was called ‘Fill-light’, because it mimicked the work of a reflector or flash.
Opt to shoot for Black & White
The harsh light of a summer’s day can often work really well for a good B&W photo because you need that contrast range to give your mono shot impact. It could still be the case that the depth of shadows is more than you want, but with black & white we have much greater control over those tonal values at the processing stage. We can still use tools like the Shadows slider, but we can also brighten and darken the individual colours through the Black & White Mix channels. In the world of painting there’s a saying that colour gets all the credit but it’s value (tone) that does all the work. This phrase is exactly the same for photography, except we can easily lose the colour and let the value get all the credit too!