How to Shoot All Day
Between the hours of 11am
and 4pm, the daylight is too
harsh for good images. The
sun washes out color, produces
patchy shadows and will wreck
havoc on your histogram. But
a little landscape secret will keep
you shooting all day long.
Sunlight: A blessing and a curse
A photographer who works outside of a studio is dependent on the sky. The sun provides light, the clouds are floating scrims, and the moon lets us explore the silence of night time photography. The sun is a powerful tool for any street or travel photographer. The problem is that the universe forgot to give us a lighting dimmer. We can use the sun, but we cannot control it.
Last evening I was watching a film called “The Talented Mr. Ripley” which features a host of famous characters (Matt Damon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow) Aside from the well stocked cast, the film is shot all over Italy. Starting in the fictional town of Mangiabella south of Naples, the story heads north through Rome and ends in Venice. I have a tendency to pay too much attention to lighting in movies. My girlfriend endures the typical observations, but on this one even she noticed something was off.
While we were travelling to Sardegna last week, we stopped through Rome. Typical flights from New York City, leave in the evening and arrive the following morning. Our flight was delayed for a mechanical reason, so we did not arrive until lunchtime. The light was absolutely blazing. The Roman daylight is harsh. The sun is strong, it reflects off of the stone surfaces and makes for ugly daytime pictures. All of the scenes in the films were beautifully lit, by the sun, with soft colors. There were no glaring highlights and even my girlfriend agreed, Rome only looks like this in the early morning. As a result, my camera never left the bag.
Two ways to side step bad lighting conditions
① Alarm Clock
The first technique for surviving the midday sun is to take photographs the same way they shoot movies, EARLY MORNING. Movie producers know that on film, morning light looks like day light. Almost all of the scenes for the “Talented Mr. Ripley,” shot in Rome, were supposed to take place in the late morning to midday. The bohemian characters were always half in the bag from the night before and would not be caught dead at 7:00am breakfast. The movie never tells the audience that the scene you are actually watching was filmed at 6:00am. The director presents the scene as if it were day time. But its obvious to any photographer that the “daylight” in the film is actually beautifully subdued morning or early evening light.
There is a reason that professional photographers all agree on one piece of advice:
SHOOT EARLY, there are many advantages:
- The light is more forgiving.
- There will be detail in the shadows and no blown out highlights.
- The tonal or dynamic range of an image will be at its best.
- The streets will be less crowded so you stand a better chance of isolating a subject.
- If you want an iconic shot of a landmark without crowds or flat light, go early.
- Tourists are a lazy breed. They hoards of fanny-packed tour groups all need to eat at the hotel, so they don’t come out until 10:00am.
② Polarizing Filter
Do you need to wake up at 5:00am everyday of your trip? No. It is not recommended if you are traveling with a partner who is not a photographer. Life abroad needs to be manageable. There is a simple way to greatly improve your day time images. Use a polarizing filter.
Most people think of a polarizing filter as a landscape photographers tool for making blue skies or eliminating the glare on water. If you have not tried to see into water with a polarizer give it a shot. It removes the reflection on the surface and will let you see right into the blue depths.
A polarizing filter is second nature to a landscape photographer, but I do not see many street photographers using one. It is an indispensable tool for people photography. I find one of primary reasons why people are not beating down the doors of B+H Photo is because the stock examples for polarizers are terrible. Photographers who started in the digital era don’t know that a polarizing filter is a must. The promo photos show is how a polarizer will darken a sky. It leaves out an entire demographic of photographers.
And while we are talking about filters, take those ridiculous UV filters off of your cameras. Lenses cannot contract sexually transmitted diseases, so take the “lens condoms” off. The only time I is use a UV filter is at the ocean or in very dusty conditions. Sea spray and fine dust is a pain in the neck to clean off of a lens. But even in unpaved Indian cities I do not use a UV filter. I know some people use them instead of a lens cap, but I have never had any trouble with a lens cap. When I leave the house I take off the cap and put it in my pocket. When I stop for lunch, I put the cap back on. Its pretty basic. If you have to use a filter, use one that will help the photo.
Why use a Polarizer
A polarizing filter eliminates reflections on the surface of any object, whether its water, a car or skin. I took these two pictures (there is no post production on them) with a polarizer and one without. The exposures are identical in terms of lighting. The effect of the polarizing filter is dramatic. It removes all of the harsh light reflecting off of my friends skin and allows for the shadow side of his body to gain some exposure. We were out for a midday hike in Sedona (Arizona). I knew the light was going to be very harsh. Without the polarizer, there would not have been a shot. But with the filter, I now have a usable image.
Post Production Won’t Work
When people ask me, “Cant I just use software to fix the image?” I shake my head and tell them that you might be able to, but chances are it will never look right and it will take hours of masking, dodging, burning and a slew of other boring post production techniques. I am not a purist, but I prefer shooting to editing. Time at the computer is a tedious waste, especially if the image could have been better out of the camera. I am not saying that software is bad, I use it all the time. But get the picture as “right” as you can out of the camera.
Shoot More, Edit Less
By adding a polarizing filter to your daily practice you will greatly improve the tonal range of you image. Unfortunately it will not make your images any better, but it will give you a better exposure in many cases. It will allow you to shoot most of the day without a pile of throw away images. And if you decide to take a picture in shadow, just turn the filter a quarter turn to disengage 90% of its effect. This simple addition will make life and post production infinitely easier. While I don’t require it for participants at my workshops, it is highly recommended.
Hope you guys enjoy your new filters!