Shooting in Bright Sunlight
Photography is all about light, but if there's too much of it, it can get in your way, and things can get tricky. Here are some tips for shooting in bright sunlight.
The first thing to ask yourself is why you're trying to take pictures in bright light in the first place. I think most of us would agree that its easier to work in softer lighting conditions. For the uninitiated, bright light can create severe contrast problems, and even more severe glare problems. It's no fun. So, if you find yourself out there, persevering in the glare, it's worth asking yourself why. It may not be convenient, but you should at least consider coming back at another time. Sometimes, you have to be willing to call it quits. If you're not going to get anything good anyway, perhaps you could use the time better back at your base camp, reviewing the shots you do have or planning for other opportunities. One of those opportunities could just be to come back to that spot the following morning.
When I first got interested in photography, one of the first reference books I had was a small introduction to photography published by Kodak. In it, the authors actually recommended shooting at mid-day when the light was brightest. I suppose if you were using some really old Kodak film with a very low ISO and were hand-holding, bright light might be necessary to avoid motion blur and get acceptably sharp images. But hopefully none of us are so hobbled these days. First off, just about any digital camera today can do a decent job at higher ISO settings without noise. And second, get yourself a good tripod, and use it so your camera won't move during the shot.
Thankfully, I soon found other books to learn from. But it was the school of hard knocks that taught me the most. One can learn a lot from good old trial and error. If at first you don't succeed, as the saying goes, try, try again. Even when I knew what I should have been doing, every spoiled image served as a reminder and reinforced the need to pay more attention next time. If all your images have a common defect, figure out what to do about it. You may not be able to solve the problem completely, but I'm betting you can at least mitigate it.
If you have made the calculated decision that it's worth dealing with the light to get what you are after, or if perhaps you actually want bright light for one reason or another, then there are a few things you should do. No sense in all of us making every mistake possible.
Make sure your lens is clean. I mean as immaculately clean as you possibly can. Any fingerprints or smudges on the front element will act as landmines, waiting to blow up your images. You may luck out, but if the light catches them just right, the light will create glare with impacts ranging from lowered contrast with lost shadow detail to artifacts that blot out all detail in a portion of the frame. Even stray dust particles can ruin an image, or at least force you to spend time later, cloning out spots in Lightroom or Photoshop. Double check that your lens is clean, and then check it again. It will be time well spent.
Next, have a lens hood each of your lenses, and make sure you are use them. If you have an ultrawide-angle lens that doesn't permit the use of a hood, go back to my last paragraph and triple check that the front element is spotlessly clean. With no hood to save you, cleanliness is even more important.
If the angle of the sun is too close to the direction you are shooting, you may find that you are getting glare even when you have a hood. If you're wearing a hat, try holding it out in front of your lens just beyond its field of view. Move it around and you just might find a position where it blocks the light and solves your glare problem. In a pinch, even your outstretched hand can sometimes do the trick. Even if you have to place your hand in the frame to solve the problem, it may be worth it. Shoot two frames, one with your hand, and one without. It may take some doing, but the improvements in contrast and quality for the rest of the image may make it worth your time cloning out your hand using the problematic, but hand-free frame.
If you're shooting into the sun because you want the sun in the frame, you can provide yourself a bit of extra insurance by setting up early for sunset (or stick around a bit longer after sunrise) and shoot some frames when the sun is outside your field of view. Make sure your tripod is locked down and get comfortable. The sun moves slowly, but it does move. With enough time between your insurance frames and the ones with the sun where you want it in the frame, you can later blend them to get the best of each. While you're waiting, you'll have plenty of time to go back and quadruple check that your lens front is clean.
Glare can complicate your life in other ways too. If you're having a hard time seeing the LCD screen on the back of your camera, find something to shield it. Back in the early days, it was common for photographers to throw a cloth over their head to aid in seeing the image on ground glass camera back. Even today, this can be good advice if the situation warrants. The brim on your hat may help, but if you want to go for the go further, do what our forefathers did. I typically carry a black kitchen towel in my camera bag for just this purpose. When not needed, it can help cushion the gear in my bag, and in a pinch, I can use it as a towel. What a concept. I have to admit that I always feel a tad awkward if other people are around though. Maybe its just me, but I feel a bit goofy with a towel over my head when I'm working. But if it helps, I'll do it. This same advice goes for the viewfinder, too. No matter how much you try to hold your eye close to the viewfinder, stray light can find its way in between and make it hard to see.
Glare from bright sunlight can be tricky to solve. But with a bit of attention to detail and careful planning, you can get some great images. Take your time and be methodical. Problem solving is part of being a photographer, or at least it is for those of us who tend to shoot outdoors.