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Photo Tip of the Week

A Sunny Day

Clear sunny weather can mean great times for photographers. But it can also present challenges.

There's an expression here in the Puget Sound region that "the mountain is out" whenever the weather is clear enough to see Mt. Rainier. The same expression holds true in many regions dominated by a major mountain peak. In the Portland, Oregon area, "the mountain" is Mt. Hood. Perhaps you have your own "the mountain" where you live, but if not I'm sure you get the idea. It's on days like that when throngs of photographers can be seen plying their craft with their lenses all pointed in the same direction. There's many a day when the cloud cover blankets the sky and it's as if "the mountain" isn't there at all. Even on otherwise clear days there may still be a cap of clouds stubbornly hanging over the peak. So when Mt. Rainier is out in all its glory, people take advantage of it.

Images shot when the first rays of sunrise fall on the mountain can be magical. The same can be true at sunset but the most reliable time in my experience is at dawn. But during the middle of the day, that same gorgeous weather can cause a very different effect. That same mountain in direct midday light is nothing but a large, glaringly white reflector whose brightness so overwhelms every other thing in a scene as to make it all but unphotographable without severe exposure problems. There aren't many things in nature that can reflect light better than white snow. I've noted previously how predictable yet unfortunate how families will drive down to Rainier National Park from Seattle to eat their picnic lunch at the foot of that big white glare, believing that this is just what Rainier looks like. Personally, I'm up before sunrise so I can be ready when the light is at its peak. By the time the sun gets very far in its climb across the sky, I'm often winding down for a break or a nap, leaving the visitors center parking lot to those picnicking families.

And that brings me to the topic I wanted to write about this week. As a photographer, what do you do in the middle of a sunny day?

I've already alluded to a couple of my favorite options. Since I'm generally up quite early, it can be challenging to even get out of bed let alone each much in the way of breakfast. I'm frequently getting more than a bit hungry by mid-morning, and if not, I may be getting a bit tired if I'm been repeating this schedule for too many days in a row. So after enough hours to call it lunch, I'm likely back at camp cooking a real breakfast. There's nothing better than a satisfying morning shooting images followed by breakfast cooked over a camp stove.

But that's not the only option of course. Midday can be a great time for intimate close-up shooting. While it clearly isn't practical to shade the whole of Mt. Rainier, even a modest sized diffuser can create a space where it is possible to have quite a bit of fun with whatever mountain flowers or other small subjects as may present themselves. One of the rights of passage of the aspiring outdoor photographer is learning how to fold up a Photoflex or similar diffuser or LiteDisc. These things collapse to one-third their fully expanded diameter, allowing you to carry one easily in your camera bag. And when the need presents itself, you can fling it out to full size, almost like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. Once you prop one up to diffuse or block light on a small subject, you will have created a small ecosystem of its own, separate from the glaring light of midday. To use a diffuser, generally position it as close to your subject as possible without blocking your camera view, so the light is softened and passes through it onto your subject. Placed too far away, and it will function more as a passing cloud than a diffuser, casting a shadow on your subject with a less pleasing cooler color temperature. Many macro subjects look their best in soft, diffused light, and such light can be easily achieved in broad daylight. Backlit subjects rendered primarily as silhouettes can be worth pursuing during midday too. Subjects with lots of texture can be rendered as rim lit, iconic forms against a bright background.

Midday can also be an excellent time to do research where to go for sunset that night or the next day's sunrise. A day hike to investigate a location I've never been to can be time well spent by allowing me to find good locations or rule out what I thought would be promising but doesn't live up to my expectations. I'd rather find out when I've got time to kill anyway that the wildflowers aren't blooming yet because the end of the trail is still deep in snow or that the peak flowers had already passed than to devote prime shooting time to such investigations. Even if I don't find what I'm after, the exercise can still be welcome.

I'll occasionally play tourist and browse in the visitors' center and gift shop, not to buy anything necessarily, but rather to avail myself of research done by others. If you want to find what iconic images can be made in an area, it's often not necessary to look beyond the postcard rack at the visitors' center. Although I wouldn't recommend limiting yourself to attempts at duplicating what others have done, it can still provide ideas you might not have thought of otherwise. Guidebooks in the bookstore can also prove helpful to identify an unknown species of plant or animal, or even an otherwise unidentified feature of the landscape.

One problem I have with sunny days is that I tend to sunburn easily. Getting up in the dark doesn't lend itself to applying sunscreen before I go out. Hopefully I remember to do so later, but such isn't always the case. Over the years, I've learned that if I apply sufficient SPF coating in time, I'm fine, but if I forget, I can definitely regret it. I don't have any particular recommendation here, since if I did I'd more reliably make user of it myself. On most extended trips I'm fairly certain to forget one morning when the shooting is good. As you can guess, I rarely forget twice since the first time leaves me with a painful reminder. Not everyone has this problem, but I'm betting at least some of you can relate.

Date posted: June 22, 2014


Copyright © 2014 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Shooting Into the Sun
Front, Back or Side
Soft, Diffuse Lighting

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