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Dealing with daylight (01/22/2006)
By Tom Hirsch

It has been said (I know, because I've said it) that the best times of day for photographing scenery, landscapes, cityscapes, people, flowers, events (well, almost anything outdoors) are within the first three hours after sunrise and the last three before sunset. The reason is that during these times, sunlight is warmer, and shadows produce the best modeling effects. This is true, but not everything happens during these time periods.

It's possible to get great pictures during the middle of the day, but one of the bugaboos caused by midday sunlight is harsh shadows, and we can never rely on soft clouds to provide a little subdued lighting. So how do we cope on those days when we want to shoot under bright midday sunlight? During the middle of the day when the sun is shining brightly, try to avoid sidelighting, unless you're after dramatic shadow effects. Sidelighting during midday usually results in overexposed highlights on one side of the subject, and shaded areas that tend to lack detail.

Backlighting can provide interesting silhouettes if the exposure is determined by a bright background. If you want detail in a backlighted subject, you can use the backlight button or increase exposure one or two stops, but there will be little depth perspective produced by shadows. You'll have to rely on lines, forms and shapes to add interest and depth to your pictures.

During midday, when taking scenery, landscapes or cityscapes, you'll get the best lighting effect with the sun coming from about a forty-five degree angle. This will provide good modeling, along with detail in the sunlit areas of the subject. It might cause a loss of detail in the shadows, but, hopefully, there won't be much to interest the viewer in those areas anyway.

Another factor to consider when the sun is at its zenith is that any image-recording medium tends to exaggerate contrast. Much of the detail that you see in the shaded areas won't show up in the resulting photos. This is especially important when taking people pictures because in order to get decent shadow effects, the subjects must look more or less toward the sun. This makes them squint, and their eyes are often lost in shadows.

When taking pictures of people during the midday hours, the effects of strong shadows can be offset by the use of fill-flash. This is a very valuable technique, and one that's under-used. Fill-flash will provide light to the shadow areas, and will have little or no effect on the parts of the subject that are illuminated by the sun.

Most cameras with built-in flash will automatically adjust for fill-flash under bright light when the flash is turned on, but that's the secret; the flash must be in the "On" mode, not "Auto." For fill-flash, Auto would only work when lighting is very subdued, which is not the case on a bright, sunny day.

But many compact cameras lack on "On" switch for flash; it comes on automatically under subdued light. To turn the flash on manually, you must cover the camera's electronic eye, and press down part way on the shutter release. The flash will either pop up or the flash indicator light will come on, depending on the type of camera you have.

Remember, though, that on most cameras with built-in flash, the distance range of the flash is only about twenty feet with ISO 400 film or the ISO 400 setting on a digital camera, and only about ten feet with ISO 100 film or digital setting. This is fine for people shots, but with many distant subjects, it leaves you with the options of accepting the lighting as it is and hoping for the best, moving in close and using fill-flash, or limiting your shooting to light coming from the front of the subject.

Okay, it's still true that the chances of getting the best photographic results are during the times when shadows are longer, but there are ways of making interesting and very good photographs over the "off hours." 


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