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.