When taking a photograph, light can make or break the image. Light is undeniably one of the most fundamental parts of photography. Photography is defined by Merriam-Webster as being “the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface”. Photographs are created with light and utilise light within them. As such, light is a crucial feature of photography. But just because it is so integral to photography and elemental in concept does not mean it is easy to understand in theory and application! Great light can look like a lot of things, and many people use light flawlessly to technically perfect standards. Others play with it to create unique and creative shots. However, light can just as easily break an image. A photograph with bad lighting has some tell-tale signs, namely, too much contrast, an abundance of harsh shadows and over exposure! These are all symptoms of what can happen when you shoot with light that is too bright and direct, such as the sun light at high noon. Let’s explore the three big issues of shooting in intense lighting and why we say “Never at Noon!”. 1. Shadows At noon the sun is at its highest point in the sky and it is when the light is at its brightest and most direct. When light hits us in this intensity it creates quite harsh and unflattering shadows. These show up especially well on photographs where the shadows can contour your models face in uncomplimentary ways. The harsh light does not soften the skin, it instead highlights texture and imperfections in it. It is also really hard to work with such contrasting light as a photographer because the light is not even across the frame and so it is hard to take an accurate light reading. This often results in parts of the image becoming under or over exposed. The best thing to do is to avoid shooting in light that creates these harsh and unfavourable shadows when you can, but second to that, do anything you can to diffuse the light in some way.
Below is an example of a photo taken at noon, when the sun light is at its highest point:
As you can see the sunlight is creating some heavy shadows under their eyes and other parts of their faces and making them squint.
2. Lens Flare & Blown Out Highlights Lens flare can be very distracting in your photographs. Sometimes, it is possible to use it to your advantage to create ethereal dreamy photographs. But usually when you are working with a client you will want to avoid lens flare. Lens flare is an effect that happens when a strong and direct light source, in this case the high sun, hits your camera lens. This results in one of two things happening to your image. You will either see small ring like shapes in the frame, or, you will see that your entire photograph looks hazy. This adds a washed out and bleached effect to your photograph which ultimately can ruin countless images ultimately wasting your and your clients time. Another issue caused by the effect of light on your equipment is the presence of blown out highlights in the image. If this happens in the original exposure you won’t be able to rectify it in post-production and it can ultimately ruin an entire shoot. Shooting in very bright conditions can put you at a much higher risk of this happening to your photographs. This is because your cameras sensor cannot deal with the amount of light it is receiving. 3. Consider Your Subject Last but definitely not least to consider is your model. You should always be considerate and tuned in to your model and work with them to ensure they feel as comfortable as possible. This gets progressively more important as you enter more intense working conditions. When the lighting conditions are extreme, as photographers we start to think of the tricks that we can pull out to make sure that we can cope with whatever is thrown at us. This often looks like grabbing a bunch of reflectors and umbrellas and scanning the area for the shadiest spot with the prettiest background. But, one of the most important parts of the frame is the model so don’t forget how important their comfort is! Ultimately, you can be the most technically respected photographer in the world but if you are not considering your client then the shot will reflect it. The sun makes it hard to open our eyes and relax the muscles in our face so one problem your model will face when shooting at high noon is that they will be squinting. This is a response from our body to protect our eyes and so there is not much you can do about this when it inevitably happens. Another thing to consider is when the sun is at its highest point, it is usually beating down at us uncovered by the clouds. This naturally makes us sweat! Not only is this unfortunate in that no one wants to look sweaty in a professional photograph, it can also affect your model’s confidence as well as ruin things like their hair and makeup.
There are a few things you can consider in this scenario. If you find yourself with no choice but to shoot at high noon there are lots of tips on how to adapt and take advantage of intense direct sunlight. But if you are caught off guard at noon then simply utilise what nature has to offer. One idea is to wait for clouds to roll over the sun before pressing the shutter. The clouds will work at softening and diffusing the light which will take away lots of the harsher shadows and lessen the likelihood of getting lens flare. You can also use your surroundings to your advantage, for example try looking for natural and manmade structures that offer some shade. Often, the same natural structures and objects will offer interesting and fun shadows and reflections that you may be able to bring into the frame for an artistic and creative shot.
The best advice is to shoot at times of the day where the light is kindest to your camera, surroundings and model. No doubt you will have heard of golden hour (see picture left) and how it provides us with the perfect lighting conditions to shoot in. Golden hour is the first and last hour of light in each day and it provides a warm, golden light. This is the light that is accepted to be one of the most flattering for portrait photography. The diffused light means that it acts as a kind of soft box, covering all of your subjects’ skin softly and evenly. The model is also able to face the sun directly meaning they are completely bathed in golden sun light with no fear of a squinting expression!
"Learn about the light and science. The magic will happen." - Fil Hunter