Working with Harsh Light

Imagine that it’s a beautiful overcast day. You head outdoors with your model hoping to make a few shots for your portfolio. All of a sudden, the sun breaks out, changing the light altogether and putting cold water over your plans. Harsh sunlight is a photographer’s nightmare. If you are a beginner, you would think that more light is better for photography and certainly abundant sunshine is the right ingredient for great images. I have seen amateur photographers asking their subjects to stand facing the sun so that they can get properly ‘illuminated’ faces. The result is not always proper though, with squinting eyes, deep shadows under the nose and chin making the images look far from great.

Working with Harsh Light

At least in photography, it’s not about the quantity but the quality of light that matters. In that respect bright sunlit days mean, deep shadows, high contrasts and a histogram that will stretch from end to end (pure white to pure black). While contrast is OK, you don’t exactly want deep shadows in your portraits, unless that’s the look you’re going for.

Bright sunlit days are what we call in photography as examples of harsh light. Harsh light is unsuitable for making decent portraits. It is unsuitable for making any good landscape images either. Softer light is what you would ideally want, especially when shooting portraits outdoors. But the problem is that Mother Nature has her own unique ways to play spoilsport. The best you can do is stay prepared and work around the problem. Here are some tips to help you do just that.

You’ll Need a Way to Create Some Shadow

Working with Harsh Light

Ask your subject to stand under a tree, preferably with thick foliage, or better still, under the shade of a tall building. That way you will get some solid shadow to work with. If you are shooting in the middle of nowhere, bring a foam core or some translucent fabric along. Ask your assistant to hold it against the sun so that the subject’s face is directly under the shadow and then shoot. This is obviously considering that you are only composing from the bust up. For full length shots, foam core may not be enough and you will need a larger blocking material, such as a reflector to block the sun.

Working with Harsh Light

The reflector comes good for another purpose and that is to throw some light back onto the subject’s face. Now, reflectors come in gold, silver, white and other variants. Each has its specific advantages. I recommend buying at least two – a gold one and a silver one. The gold reflector will make your images warmer, which is useful at times. A silver reflector is very handy for adding catchlight to your subject’s eyes, which make a portrait image pop.

Always Use a Lens Hood

The lens hood that came along with your kit lens isn’t for the look factor only. I remember the first compliment that I ever heard about the lens hood on my kit lens. “Wow, it looks kind of intimidating!” Well, besides intimidation there are other uses of it. The lens hood cuts down on lens flare and ghosting, something that natural light photographers have to deal with on a daily basis.

Balancing For the Difference in Background and Foreground Illumination

Working with Harsh Light

A typical problem that you will face is the difference in brightness between the subject’s face and the background. As the subject is in shade, and the background is washed out, if you meter for the whole scene the subject’s face will be darker. The key is in selecting the right metering mode for the occasion. An average DSLR will have three metering modes, they are – matrix, spot and center-weighted. Canon’s metering systems come with a fourth one known as partial metering. In the above situation, spot metering will give you an accurate reading off the subject’s face. Spot metering takes into account only about 3-5% of the scene ignoring the bright background which can otherwise put off the camera’s metering system, underexposing the face.

Post-processing Tip – Local Adjustments in Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom offers some excellent local adjustment options for your images. One of them is Radial Filter. In windows press Shift+M in order to select the Radial Filter (or you can select it from the right panel. Select the size and dimensions of the filter by placing it over the subject’s face. Now drag the exposure slider to give it more exposure. The only thing that you will have to deal with is a bit of noise, i.e.; if you increase the exposure.

This entry was posted by Rajib Mukherjee.

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