June 8, 2010
In a perfect world, every time you go outside to take pictures the light would be wonderful: soft, warm, directional sunlight under a rich blue sky with atmospheric puffy clouds. Unfortunately, life is seldom like this and much of the time you will end up battling haze, smog and light cloud.
In many places around the world, like Delhi and much of China, it’s a rare day when haze and pollution aren’t present. This will make your pictures appear dull, flat and uninteresting – especially if you shoot close to midday when the light is directly overhead.
Luckily all is not lost, and by exploiting a professional photographer’s technique, you can still create atmospheric and evocative travel photography on all but the very dullest of days. The secret is to shoot into the light, which reintroduces some level of highlight and shadow into photos that would otherwise be lacking contrast. This is also called back-lighting.
In order to do this successfully, you’ll need quite directional light. This might sound obvious, but it does mean that you will get more pronounced results at the beginning and end of the day, when the light doesn’t come from directly overhead.
This will also give you a warmer effect, but you’ll need to switch your white balance function from Auto to Daylight to preserve this warm cast (see How To: Photograph The Perfect Sunset).
Haze isn’t your only chance of shooting into the light. The same techniques will work with atmospheric morning mist, spray from waterfalls and even smoke from fires. Ideally all of these should be shot with at least partial backlighting, but obviously that won’t always be possible. If you’re planning a visit to a waterfall, it might be worth visiting both in the morning and afternoon to give yourself both options.
If you are shooting pictures with backlit haze, then you’ll have to change the composition to make the picture more effective. Large areas of blue sky can look visually attractive, but large areas of white haze don’t.
Use a more powerful lens and crop closer to the subject of your picture, whether it’s a series of hills or mountains stretching away to the horizon, or a silhouetted object such as a palm tree. When shooting hazy backlit subjects, strong lines and well-defined objects stand out more.
Exposure is always a problem when shooting into haze and mist. You want pictures that are bright and mystical, whereas the camera will tend towards producing under-exposed midtones. You’ll generally need to set a manual exposure, or auto-exposure compensation to over-expose by as much as two stops to make sure that bright white haze isn’t rendered a lacklustre grey.
When you’re shooting into the light, you will have to be careful of flare, when the light reflects off the inner surfaces of the lens elements. This will manifest itself as bright, out of focus shapes or highlights in the picture, or an overall loss of contrast.
The easiest way to minimise this is by using the correct lens hood that came with the lens. This will guard against any obliquely shining light, though you might have to supplement this by shielding the lens with your hand outside of the picture area, or even adjusting the composition slightly until the flare disappears from the photo. Dirty or dusty lenses will suffer more from this problem, so keeping the front element clean helps a lot. If you use a UV filter on the lens (always recommended for protection and picture clarity) then make sure it’s a good one with Multicoatings to reduce flare.
All photos by Steve Davey. Header image: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Steve Davey runs his own range of photographic tours to India and Asia. For more information go to www.bettertravelphotography.com/phototours