Digital Focus: Deal With Harsh Lighting

Feature: Avoiding Harsh Contrast in Digital Photos

While we all do our best to take good pictures, I'm willing to bet that the time of day rarely factors into your photo decision making. If you're like me, when you see an interesting picture, you just go ahead and take it. But since good photographic situations happen at all times of day, the light can often be pretty uncooperative. At midday, for instance, bright shafts of harsh light can stream through your scene, cutting it apart, like in this shot.

What went wrong with this picture? The midday sunbeam overexposed a quarter of the scene, decimating it and forcing the camera to compensate for all that extra light by underexposing the rest of the picture.

Watch the Clock

So how can you avoid this problem? One solution is to beware the midday hours. Photographers find that the best time of day to take pictures is in the morning and in the late afternoon. From noon to mid-afternoon, light is highly directional, harsh, and unflattering.

This timing can work to your advantage. On vacation, for instance, you can restrict yourself to lugging your camera around in the mornings only. At midday, stow it back in the hotel room and have fun without a camera slung around your neck.

Watch the Sunbeams

If that's not an option, then keep an eye out for the lighting. With a little mental training, it's quite easy to spot situations in which direct light is streaking through your scene. Look for alternating patterns of sun and shade in your viewfinder; if you see them, recompose the shot to eliminate any direct sunlight. If you're shooting at midday, indirect light--in the shade, for instance--makes for much better pictures.

If you can't move the scene, you might be able to block the light. I sometimes carry a flexible reflector in my backpack, such as a Litedisk Photoflex, sold in most camera shops. RitzCamera.com sells them for about $20 to $100, depending upon size.

The Photoflex unfurls in seconds, and I can hand it to my wife or kids to hold it up to block the sun. I used a reflector to block the sun in this shot, for instance, to get a dramatically better picture of my cat than the one I started this article with.

You can apply the same technique outdoors. For instance, you can use a reflector to shade people in front of a tourist attraction, eliminating the squinting you often get with subjects facing into the sun.

Use Fill Flash

I'll admit that you have to be somewhat dedicated to carry even a small, collapsible reflector around.

A more convenient solution might be using your digital camera's fill flash. If you're photographing a subject that's fairly close--say, within 8 or 10 feet--make sure that your camera's flash is enabled and let it "fill in" the shadows.

Using the fill flash is a great way fix for high-contrast scenes, but remember that it works only with nearby subjects. The flash units built into most digital cameras have a very short range, so they can't do anything to a sun-dappled field 20 feet in the background of your shot. For that sort of muscle, consider adding an external flash, or wait until later in the day, when the sun has moved.

Don't Forget One-Step Photo Fix

If the contrast in your picture isn't too bad, but harsh midday lighting plunged your subject's face into deep shadow, you can handle that sort of problem with your image editor's one-step fix tools.

In Jasc's Paint Shop Pro, for instance, you can click the Enhance Photo button in the toolbar at the top of the screen and choose One Step Photo Fix. Often, the software can automatically brighten the shadows and salvage an otherwise lost picture.

Subscribe to the Digital Photo Newsletter

Comments