JoziFolk - images of everyday life in South Africa


How to Tame Harsh Light and Improve your Photos

 We're blessed with incredible amounts of bright sunshine in Johannesburg, all year round. But that intense light can be a photographer's nightmare. 

 Many cameras simply can't cope with the extreme dynamic range. But what exactly does that mean?

 Dynamic range is the range of light from the darkest point to the lightest in the image. For example: Let's take the classic wedding photographer's horror formal portrait. 

 The bride is dressed in a sparkling white gown, decorated with intricate lacework, pearls and sequins. The groom wears a black suit. They must be photographed together, in front of a copse of trees with deep shade but within which is a carpet of white wild flowers. The sun is high and bright.

 For the sake of this example, let's settle on a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. A meter-reading off the bridal gown calls for an aperture of f22. The reading in the shade calls for an aperture of f1.8 and the groom's suit needs an aperture of f4. The dynamic range in this case is eight stops which, in many cases, is too much for the camera's sensor. 

 If the photographer exposes so there is detail shown in the bride's dress, the shadows will lack detail, as may the groom's suit and both could reproduce as black blobs. While the dressmaker may be happy with the picture, the bride and groom certainly won't! And, without some sort of external input from the photographer, the bright, overhead sunlight will cast shadows into the couple's eye-sockets resulting, in the dreaded "raccoon-eyes" syndrome.

 The truth is, it is much easier to make that shot work on a gloomy day when the dynamic range is much lower and the contrasts not as harsh.

Reduce the Contrast

 So what can be done to get better pictures in harsh light?

 Do whatever possible to reduce the contrast. Move the subject into bright shade if you can, for example, to the side of a building. 

 Choose a different time of day if possible. Pick the best times of day to go out and shoot - early morning or late afternoon often produces the most favourable light - that way you are working with the light, not fighting against it.

 If neither option is possible, you'll need to modify the light. This can be done by using a flash to lighten the shadows. Flash photography is a science in itself but the aim is to keep the image looking as natural as possible so the use of the flash is not apparent. You just want to open the shadows so detail is visible. A flash-power output-setting of -2 usually works well but you'll need to experiment.

 Contrast can also be softened by using a reflector. This can be a factory-made, fold-up, purpose-built, piece of equipment that allows the attachment of different coloured covers, such as gold, silver or even black.

 A white towel, white cardboard square, or even a sheet of newspaper, used to reflect light onto the subject. You can even place your subject in such a way that a white wall acts as a reflector.

 But sometimes none of that is possible and the shot simply must be made. Then the photographer must decide which end of the dynamic range he or she is prepared to lose. If shadow-detail is more important than the detail of the clouds in the sky, exposure will be biased towards that end and he or she will have to live with blown highlights. No-one ever said life or photography is fair!

 These adjustments are only possible if the photographer understands how to use a camera in manual mode.

 If you rely on the idiot-modes, you are going to have to accept whatever your camera dishes up which, may or may not be what you want.