Take Good Photos in Bad Lighting

Photographers love to talk about the "magic hour" in the morning and late afternoon when the sun is perfectly positioned for awe-inspiring photos ("Use the Best Light for Awesome Photos"). Listen to enough of that sort of talk, and you'll start to believe that early morning and dusk are the only times of day you could possibly get any good photos at all.

Unfortunately, most of us take pictures pretty much every time of day except the aforementioned magic hour. Whether on vacation, at or kid's soccer game, or just on a lazy Saturday afternoon, we need to contend with harsh midday sunlight and grey, washed out skies. This week, let's talk about five strategies for taking great photos when the sun just won't cooperate.

Avoid the Middle of the Day

Even though I promised you I'd tell you how to make the most of bad lighting, it's still important to say that if you can avoid shooting at high noon, your photos will thank you. For better results, try taking pictures a few hours on either side of lunch, if your schedule will allow. When the sun is directly overhead, you'll have to contend with a dynamic range that far exceeds what your camera is capable of capturing, so you'll have regions of totally black shadow, pure white highlights, or both.

Put the Sun to Your Back

Assuming that you're shooting any time except noon, keep an eye on where the sun is in the sky, and try to put yourself between it and your subject. Sometimes that will mean walking around your subject and shooting it from a different angle. You'd be surprised how often you'll forget this bit of common sense when you're on vacation and approach some historic attraction--your first instinct will be to shoot it as you approach, no matter where the sun happens to be positioned. Move around, though, and take a few minutes to look for different vantage points with a better sun position.

Shoot a Silhouette

What if the shot you really want to get is between you and the sun, and there's just no getting around that unfortunate geometry? All isn't lost. Go ahead and take the shot. But also consider an artistic variation designed to make the most of this kind of situation: the silhouette

To put your subject in silhouette, you'll want to lock your camera's exposure not on the subject--which is probably in shadow--but on the bright sky behind the subject. You can do this using your camera's exposure lock feature (usually by pressing the shutter down halfway) to set the exposure on the bright sky, then recomposing and taking the photo. For more details, read "Photograph a Silhouette."

Replace the Sky

Silhouettes are nice, but you probably don't want a steady diet of them. To take a more traditional photo in harsh lighting or with overcast skies, you have some other options. One is a favorite trick of mine: Replacing the sky with a better, bluer one in your photo editing program afterwards.

It's actually pretty easy to do. You can open a better sky in your photo editor and then add the photo with the poor sky as a layer on top. Select the blown out sky using your selection tool of choice, and delete it. The blue sky will show through from behind. See "Improve the Background in Your Photos" for a step-by-step on how to do that in Corel Paint Shop Pro.

Take a High Dynamic Range Photo

Finally, I've got a high-tech solution to consider. The problem with bright, mid-day sunlight is that it sends way more brightness information to the camera than the sensor is capable of handling. As a result, the camera has to optimize for one part of the brightness range--the brighter bits or the darker bits--and the rest gets discarded, rendering as pure white or pure black.

If you take a series of photos of the same scene, though, each with a different exposure, you can combine the images on your PC into a single photo that includes the full dynamic range (or at least a lot more of the dynamic range than you'd otherwise get). This technique is called High Dynamic Range photography, or HDR for short.

To take an HDR photo, you'll want to use a tripod and to take a series of photos using your camera's exposure bracketing mode or exposure compensation dial. And you'll need software on your PC that can stitch together an HDR image, such as Photomatix Pro. Check out "Stunning Photos With High Dynamic Range, Part 1" and "Stunning Photos With High Dynamic Range, Part 2" for details.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

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: "Wedding Day Lillies," by Lindsay Schaffer, Salem, Virginia

Lindsay says that she captured this picture at her sister's wedding.

This Week's Runner-Up: "Mist" by Lindsey Neby, Cumberland, Wisconsin

Lindsey writes: "I took this picture hiking to a palace in Sintra, Portugal. The entire mountain top was covered in white fog and gave the entire area a very mythical feel. I had to use the view finder on my digital camera because the screen was broken."

To see last month's Hot Pics, visit our slide show. Visit our Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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