Have you ever picked up your camera, all excited about going out and getting some great shots, only to see that it is a cloudy day and, disheartened, put your camera back in the bag and look for some other activity? There is a tendency among many photographers to crave sunshine, and sometimes it is misplaced.
For sure, some scenes look much better in sunshine, but in many cases you will get a better photograph on a cloudy day or in open shade than you will in strong sunshine. And fog, rain, snow and hail can give you some extraordinarily beautiful photos too.
Here we’re going to look at shooting in the sun or in cloud or seeking the shade. Portraits are a major case in point. Strong sunshine with the sun behind you or to one side or particularly high in the sky is unfavorable lighting for portraits. You get heavy contrast, one side of the face black and the other washed out or, if the sun is high, horrible black eye sockets and other shadows. However willing your subject, they have to squint and their face looks strained. Every wrinkle and blemish stands out clearly. Compare shooting the same shot on a cloudy day or in the open shade of a tree or building and you get a much better lit photo, a more relaxed face and contrast that you can deal with. If the photo looks a bit on the cold side (bluey-green) you can always warm it up when you edit it. Thin, high cloud is perfect for portraits and a variety of shots. Here you really get the best of both worlds: a warm and bright photo without the heavy contrast created by bright sunlight. This is the kind of light you pray for with many subjects.
Back lighting is a different matter which we will go into in Lighting Tips 2.
So what do you do if you have a bright, sunny day and you want to shoot some portraits or take some close-ups of flowers, for example? If your subject can be moved (a person, pet, potted plant, objects) take them into open shade. Suddenly you can get the photo you wanted. If the subject can’t be moved, you still have choices. What you have to overcome is the heavy contrast between the parts of the subject which the sun is hitting directly and the heavy shadows where the sun is not striking. You can either put something in between the subject and the sun which will soften the light (a somewhat translucent material is best like the fabric of a reflector) or you can fill the shadows with flash or using a reflector to shine some light back into the shadow areas. Fill flash is probably the most practical if you are on your own with no one to hold a reflector. If you do have assistance, then a reflector (can be a foldable reflector but a newspaper or white cardboard or fabric work fine) lets you see the result before you shoot. Many photographers carry a folding reflector with them that can also be used as a screen to shine the light through as they are somewhat translucent. By filling the shadows you reduce local contrast and get a more pleasing photo of a face, a flower and so on. If the subject is too large to light (a street or building half in shadow) you either live with it or come back when the lighting is less harsh.
The moral of the story? Don’t avoid cloudy or shady lighting conditions for your photos of people, close-ups and so on. On the contrary, many photos look much better if the subject is not in direct sunshine. Try it. You’ll be surprised at the results.
David © Phillips is a professional writer and photographer living in Seattle, WA. You can find out more about him and his work at dcpcom.com. Photograph(s) in this article are © David C Phillips, All Rights Reserved.