A great spot with not-so-great light.
As you may have been able to deduce from previous blog posts, I love travel photography. Whether it’s a couple of hours or a few days, I just can’t wait to point my camera at new things. Take this past week for example. I didn’t travel to Santa Fe for the specific purpose of taking lots of photographs (although I would love to have that opportunity). Instead, I took advantage of whatever free time I had while I was there and enjoyed some great scenery and took a few photos along the way. There is some downside to grabbing photo-time whenever the schedule allows and that is that you are seldom in the right place at the right time to really catch those key windows of opportunity when the light is just right. The reality is that a lot of the time, I end up shooting in broad daylight.
This can really present some challenges for any photographer. For one thing, the dynamic range will usually fall well outside of the camera’s ability to capture all of the highlight and shadow details in a single frame. Another challenge is getting a narrow depth of field without maxing out the camera’s shutter-speed. Getting f/2.8 means that you will typically have to use shutter-speeds around 1/2000 or 1/4000 of a second. That’s great for a baseball game but not so great for a waterfall. The other downfall to shooting mid-day is that everything will look flat due to the sun being overhead. One of the reasons that photographers love to shoot at sunrise and sunset is the low angle of the sun and the long shadows that are created. These shadows give depth and dimension to the landscape. Something that is hard to do in the mid-day sun.
There are a couple of items that I keep in my camera bag for those times when the sun is high. Specifically, two filters will really help at mid-day and they are a good polarizer and a neutral density filter. The polarizer is not only handy for making things look a bit darker and therefore allows for some slower shutter-speeds and larger apertures, It also adds some pop to colors and can darken blue skies. I prefer the circular polarizers that I can turn to get just the right effect. The neutral density filter can lower your exposure values by up to 3 stops, depending on the strength of the filter. This is an indespensable tool for shooting waterfalls when long exposures are needed for making the water look silky smooth. I usually use a screw-on ND filter but another excellent option is graduated filter that is dark at the top and graduates to clear at the bottom. This is especially handy for darkening the skies while acheiving a properly exposed foreground.
The polarizer makes the greenery look better and darkened the blue skies.
A Neutral Density filter will help you get those longer shutter-speeds for waterfalls.
Another solution for working in the bright lights of the afternoon is to use some HDR photography. Taking multiple frames captured at differing exposure values will help to tame those extreme luminance values between the highlights and shadows when combined in Photoshop or Photomatix. Depending on the situation, it can take between 5 and 7 stops of exposure between shadow and highlight to capture the entire dynamic range present on a bright summer day.
The challenges of shooting in strong sunlight can be hard to overcome but with the right equipment and techniques, it can still be a rewarding process. And let’s face it, it beats the heck out of sitting in a hotel room.