Don’t Let Sunny Days Ruin Your Big Fall Photo Trip!

I recently returned from an autumn photo weekend spent at Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia.   As bad luck would have it, the weather was absolutely perfect – bright warm sunny days without a single cloud in the sky.  Now, why would I be unhappy about perfect weather?  Actually, I wasn’t unhappy about the weather (I’ve learned to gracefully accept and embrace what Mother Nature has thrown my way), although I knew that the conditions would present some challenges.

It took me many years to get to the point where I now hope for rain and overcast skies.  When you’re first starting out, you always pray for sunny weather.  It’s not until you’ve clocked in a few forest or waterfall shoots do you come to the conclusion that shooting during sunny conditions is less than ideal.  As a matter of fact, it’s downright challenging.  As much as we’d love for our cameras to capture the same wide range of shadows to highlights that we can process using our eyes, this is just not possible given current technology – although camera manufacturers are continuing to make dynamic range strides with every model release.

With sunny day shooting comes harsh foliage reflections, de-saturated colors and specular highlight blowouts.  But this doesn’t mean that you should just pack up and head home.  While we may not be able to influence our conditions, we can most definitely change how we react to them.  In order to do this, we must be willing to throw away pre-conceived notions about what we we’re striving to capture – and open ourselves up to the ample shooting possibilities that are all around us.

Davis, West Virginia
Davis, West Virginia

In other words, there is no such thing as bad light, to coin a commonly used saying.  Rather, there is only appropriate light for any given subject.  And there are choices we can make that will increase our odds of capturing something special – even when the conditions tell us otherwise.

Here are a ten quick pointers that you can use when the sunny conditions just aren’t conducive.  So lather on the sunscreen, grab your water bottle, and let’s get shooting:

1. Shoot during early morning or late afternoon:  With the sun at a low angle, you’ll get plenty of great side lighting.  This gives our subjects greater form and shape.  Harsh midday lighting is often flat, whereas early morning and late afternoon light is much more inviting.  Morning light tends to be cooler, whereas late afternoon light exudes a beautiful warmth.  Both project different personalities and moods.  No matter which time you prefer, the light is generally more tempered and even during these times.

2. Extract the scene: There is no better method for dealing with high dynamic range/high contrast situations than extracting the scene.  Typically this will involve pulling out a smaller, more intimate piece of a larger grand scenic – such as a group of leaves on the ground or an interesting section of bark on a tree.   This works best when you exclude any aspect of the scene that would blow out highlights, such as a bright sky or strong specular reflections from a creek.  Zoom or macro lenses can be quite effective for these type of shots.

3. Use a polarizer:  Polarizers are great for reducing reflections and adding contrast to subjects like leaves or water surfaces.  If you’re shooting water subjects like waterfalls or creeks, they can reduce the light by a few stops, which can be helpful when trying to extend your shutter time in order to create those creamy dreamy water effects.  Be careful not to over-polarize water, as you can completely erase some of the surface details that show water movement.  Polarizers generally perform best when your subject is 90 degrees to the sun.

4. Look for luminescence:  Depending on where the sun is and where you’re positioned, certain leaves or forest fauna can look like they’re glowing.  These backlit subjects can be strikingly beautiful.  Use your lens hood to help minimize lens flare and remember to exclude any part of the background that would blow out your highlights.  Learn how to use your histogram (and blinkie indicators) and don’t forget to exposure bracket your images.

Jennings Park (Slippery Rock, PA)
Jennings Park (Slippery Rock, PA)

5. Find reflections:  Even during sunny conditions, you can still find gorgeous reflections that are worth capturing.  Often, these reflections are found in the shady parts of a creek, river or lake when the sun is striking the landscape at a certain direction or angle.  You’ll also find many good reflections during the magic hours of morning or late afternoon/early evening.

6. Use a neutral density filter: Are you a waterfall junkie?  A high quality filter like Singh-Ray’s Vari-ND can be quite effective for reducing your light as a means of extending shutter times.  Stop down on your aperture (to F/13, for example) and you’ll have a powerful combination to achieve that blurred water effect that you often see on calendars.

7. Use a graduated neutral density filter: Until cameras can capture what our eyes see, these filters will always be necessary under certain conditions.  These tools work best when you’ve got somewhat even boundary divisions.  For example, when you’re shooting an open valley with foreground land in the lower half of the image and the sky in the upper.  The job of these filters is to hold back the brighter parts of an image.  In doing so, the darker parts of the image will be better exposed and more detail will be visible.  Without them, your sky will be properly exposed, but your foreground will be blocked up and too dark.  These filters excel during sunrise and sunset.  While you can always create a bracketed HDR image, GNDs do a much better job of retaining a natural look.  GNDs won’t work in uneven landscapes (like trying to reduce the light coming through trees in a forest).  In these cases, you’ll want to shoot at another time when the light is darker or more flat.

8. Shoot in the shade:  During sunny days, you can often find good subjects to shoot in shady areas.  Shady light tends to be on the cool side, so don’t be afraid to bias your white balance on the warmer side.

9. Give macro a try:  Somewhat similar to the idea behind extractions, shooting macro is a great alternative to grand scenics, especially when the sun in unforgiving.  This allows you to extract a very small piece of the landscape.  Diffusion panels can also be used to further soften harsh sunlight.

10. Try out a new genre:  When it’s sunny and you’re just not feeling it with landscape photography, maybe you should try something different like street photography, for example. Often when I’m driving around in search of interesting landscapes, I’ll come across old barns, interesting buildings and other cool subjects.  Give these a try for a change of pace, then come back to the landscapes in late afternoon or early evening when things soften up a bit.

Even if the weather isn’t what you were originally hoping for, there are still plenty of great subjects to capture.  Sure, we may have to work a little harder to find them – but they’re out there for the taking so long as we maintain an open mind and a keen eye.  And maybe the next photo trip you take, you’ll be lucky enough to get rained on.