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. 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.

Dave's Favorites: Let PhotoMontage Turn Your Pictures Into Pixels

A few weeks ago, a reader asked if there were any programs available that could create a montage from many smaller pictures. That question reignited my interest in these kinds of pictures, and I hunted for affordable, friendly programs that fit the bill. The first program I found was PhotoMontage, from ArcSoft.

So what is a montage, exactly? No doubt, you've seen them; they became popular in advertising and photo art a few years ago. Imagine that each pixel in a picture is not a single blob of color, but a tiny photograph. A montage can be made from hundreds or even thousands of individual pictures, each one precisely tinted so that when you step back, you see the big picture. Step in for a close look, though, and you see all the individual images.

ArcSoft's PhotoMontage works exactly as advertised. You can specify the picture that will serve as the basis of the big image and then tell PhotoMontage where to find all of the individual "micro" pictures. You can control the approximate number of images in your photo--anywhere from a few hundred to about 2000. You can also tweak details like whether the pictures will align in a precise grid or if they'll be offset, for a more organic look. You can embed a special "treasure" picture in the image--turning your creation into a sophisticated "Where's Waldo" experience--and include a caption or special signature photo tile. Here's a montage made from my own photo collection:

While the program is specialized--it creates montages, and that's all--it is easy to learn and works stunningly fast. The first time I tried to bake a montage, I naively expected it to take several minutes to resize, modify, and position a thousand pictures. It took a few seconds. PhotoMontage costs $39, and unfortunately there's no free trial to download.

Q&A: Do Digital Photos Have Grain?

I am well into digital photography after spending 40 years in film. I am confused on one issue, though. What is the digital equivalent of film "grain," if there is one?

--Jim Sell, Lapeer, Michigan

Well, Jim, the grain is gone--but in its place, we've got pixels and digital noise.

In film photography, grain is a result of the film itself. Each frame of film is covered with a few million tiny "grains" of a metal called silver halide. They are sensitive to light and are directly responsible for creating the picture. Your picture appears grainy when you enlarge it too much, which brings the film's grains into better view. You also see grain when you shoot with film that's extra-sensitive to light, since those grains tend to stand out more. Photographers, as you may know, often go to great lengths to minimize grain in their pictures by shooting with low-ISO film, avoiding overexposure, using certain aperture settings, and more.

In the digital world, there's no film, so there's no grain. But a digital camera's light sensor is packed with pixels, and these pixels translate directly to the resolution of the pictures you take. Enlarge a picture too much, and you'll see pixels.

You also get noise--random dots of color--that looks a lot like grain from the film world. Noise happens when you shoot in low-light situations or crank up the camera's ISO beyond the lowest value. And remember that all digital pictures include some noise; like film photographers of old, it's our job to try to keep that "digital grain" to a minimum. You can do that by not overexposing your pictures, by shooting in situations where there's enough natural light, and by using the lowest ISO possible.

Hot Pics

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "Coming and Going," by Jan Stadelmyer, Dulles, Virginia

About this week's Hot Pic, Jan says: "I took this picture while standing under a golf umbrella (holding it in one hand) with my Fuji FinePix s7000 (in the other hand) while watching bikers warm up for the International "Tour de 'Toona" in Altoona, PA. I was practicing my panning before the race (my first attempts at this type of thing) while the bikers rode up and down the road in the driving rain. I was panning the guy in the background when I heard another biker coming towards me. I was sure he would ruin the shot, so I quick snapped the picture before I saw him. To my surprise, he made it into the photo and made it even better! I doubt that I could duplicate this again if I tried."

Hot Pic of the Month: Each month we choose one of our weekly winners to be the Hot Pic of the Month. For our October winner, we chose "Flower Sniffer," by Ken Dobson from Oro Valley, Arizona.

Congratulations to Ken and to everyone else who won a Hot Pic of the Week last month. Keep those entries coming!

I want your feedback! Send your comments, questions, and suggestions about Digital Focus to If you have a question that you'd like to see answered in the weekly Q&A, send it to And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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