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How To: Take Great Photos in Poor Light

By: steve

June 21, 2010

To some extent, the old photographer’s maxim about only taking pictures in the so-called Golden Hours – the first and last hours of the day – completely rings true. This is when the light is soft, warm and directional, but without the harsh shadows that are often seen during the midday hours, when the sun is directly overhead.

I can virtually guarantee that the most beautiful and striking pictures that you see of many subjects, especially landscapes, will have been taken at the beginning or end of the day.

 

The Grand Canyon by Steve Davey

The Grand Canyon by Steve Davey

 

 

In the Midday Sun

Sometimes though you won’t be able to avoid taking pictures during the worst hours around midday. You might be on an organised tour, or on the sort of schedule that won’t let you be around for the atmospheric morning or evening light. Depending on the topography of the subject you’re shooting, this can result in deep areas of shadow in places where the contrast between the lit and unlit parts of the picture will be too great for the camera to handle. In other parts of the picture the lighting will be bland and flat, with little or no definition, and often a smattering of unattractive blue haze.

 

Luckily, there are a few things that you can do to mitigate this, but it is worth remembering that in essence, as the saying goes, you can’t make a purse out of a sow’s ear! If the light is poor, then your pictures will show poor light.

 

Get Up Close

The Grand Canyon by Steve Davey

The Grand Canyon by Steve Davey

 

One of the best ways to mask poor midday light is to avoid large sweeping landscapes altogether. Close-ups, especially those that manage to cut out the sky, will avoid showing the quality of the light, especially if you focus on areas in sunlight, as opposed to all-obliterating shadow. This doesn’t have to be an extreme close-up of a plant or a tree; just cropping out a part of a landscape using a telephoto lens can make your picture more visually pleasing.

 

Filter

Obviously, there are some subjects where you’ll want to take the wide shots. If you are lucky enough to visit the Grand Canyonfor instance, you won’t want to miss out on photographing the whole canyon. In these cases a polarising filter can help. This is a filter which fits over the front of the lens, and when rotated can reduce reflections. This can sometimes have the effect of minimising haze or darkening blue skies. If you don’t have a polarising filter then make sure to keep an Ultra Violet (UV) filter on the lens. This essentially clear filter cuts down on the UV in your picture and is also useful in protecting the lens. Many photographers keep a UV filter on their lens the whole time.

 

 

The Grand Canyon by Steve Davey

The Grand Canyon by Steve Davey

 

Another good way to come back with great pictures is to have an object such as a tree or an animal in the foreground, with the landscape in the background. This will make the poor light on the landscape less prominent and the overall shot more interesting and complex.

 

RAW Shooting

If you are shooting digital, then consider shooting in the more versatile RAW format. This will allow you to reduce the contrast by filling in the shadows slightly. You can warm-up the picture using the white balance function and also boost the saturation to make the colours more vibrant when you process the RAW file.

 

One thing to always remember though, is that sometimes memories are more important than prize-winning photographs! Don’t miss out on the chance of photographing one of the wonders of the world, just because you are only there at noon.

 

The Grand Canyon by Steve Davey

The Grand Canyon by Steve Davey

 

Steve Davey runs his own range of photographic tours to India and Asia. For more information go to www.bettertravelphotography.com/phototours Captured any great shots at the wrong time of day? Got any more tips for getting round bad light? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

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