4 Ways to Take Great Photos in the Middle of the Day
- Look to the Shadows
- Use the Blue Sky
- Document the Day to Day
- Use Neutral Density Filters
We all know the best time of day to take photographs is around sunrise and sunset. Golden hour and blue hour offer the best natural lighting, beautiful colours, gentle shadows, and typically the most fantastic look for your photo. And we all want that photo of the famous landmark with the beautiful sky taking during these times. But, this isn't always going to be possible. When we're travelling, there will be many times where you will only get one chance in a location, and it's not going to have the best light. It'll be high noon, shadows will be deep and harsh, and you will have to make the most of it. That's travel for you; we don't always get to control situations the way we would like to. And in these situations, you don't have to put your camera away. You can still create some fantastic photographs. It just takes a change in thinking from the way you would shoot early and late in the day.
So, what can you do when the sun is high, the sky is blue, and the light is terrible.
Firstly, don't bemoan the lighting. There is nothing you can do about it. The sun will shine or not. There may be clouds; there may not. A tornado may drop out of the sky. Or you could have the most beautiful day ever. We have no control over the weather. So instead of complaining about the lighting at high noon, accept it. Embrace it. And look for the ways you can make it work for you.
Let's get into four ways you can take great travel photos when the lighting isn't great.
1. Look to the Shadows
One surefire way to create better images in broad daylight is to look for shade. Shooting in the shade reduces harsh sunlight and hard shadows, giving you a more even picture than one taken in the sun. This works for tiny details, shooting portraits, or pretty much anything. Give this a try the next time you're shooting a portrait in mid-day. Find a shaded area barley out of the sun, like an open door onto a parking lot. Have your subject stand just within the shaded area, so there is no sun on them, then take their portrait. This is called, by some anyway, cave lighting. You are essentially using the ground outside to act as a reflector to fill in your subject's face while using the doorway as a flag to block the sunlight from hitting them directly. It makes for some beautifully lit portraits.
Shadows can also be really useful to include in your composition. In broad daylight, shadows are typically very harsh and well defined. You can easily see whatever the subject is via its shadow. And this can lead to the opportunity for some unique compositions that you can't get at other times of the day when shadows become less defined. Maybe you will use well-defined shadows to add texture to a portrait or place some geometric shapes across someone's face. Or you can catch a unique pattern as the sun filters down. There are so many possibilities, so keep an eye out for how the sun creates shadows.
2. Use the Blue Sky
Bright blue skies can create fantastic backgrounds for isolating subjects. You don't need a wicked depth of field for the subject to stand out, and a lot of colours really pop against the colour of the sky. The sky makes for a pretty simple backdrop. We talked about using simple backgrounds on last week's episode of the podcast (if you haven't listened yet, it's all about making your subject pop. Go back and give it a listen).
Blue skies can also make a place feel more 'real.' Frequently, we see these fantastic images of areas with orange skies and golden glow, and they look stunning, but they aren't how most people will experience a place. If you look at a lot of travel advertising, you'll see many of the photos are taken in the middle of the day with bright blue skies. This is intentional. It helps the viewer relate more to the location. This is because blue skies are how most people will see a place, so it feels more realistic. Suppose you are hoping to get something published. In that case, some blue sky images of how people will typically see a location will help your cause (of course, to go along with those fabulous sunset and sunrise shots).
3. Document the Day to Day
Broad daylight is when most of the world is up and moving, and as a traveller, this is your chance to document the day-to-day life of wherever you are. In many places, people won't be starting their days before sunrise, and many shops close up before sunset. That in-between time is when you can catch all the routine interactions that make up a day in that culture. This is a great way to learn more about where you are and how they live. And likely a great way to make some new acquaintances as you will have the opportunity to meet more people. To get some shots, particularly those through windows, you will need a circular polarizer to cut down reflections. These are great items to have in your day-to-day photography kit.
Try using this to document the moments during big celebrations as well. In Calgary, you won't get to see much of the regular everyday interactions as most people work inside offices and warehouses where it's a lot harder to photograph them. But, the city changes during the annual Calgary Stampede, an outdoor rodeo and festival that takes over Calgary for 10 days every July. There are a lot more people on the street during the middle of the day, lots of urban cowboys (those are office workers who dress up in their cowboy hats, wranglers, and plaid shirts and have nothing to do with actual ranching), and a sense of general merriment throughout most of the city centre. It's 10 days where Calgary turns back into a small town. Commonly, people focus on photographing the carnival and entertainment at night when the lights are shining, and everything looks magical. But there are so many little moments that happen all throughout the day that you would be remiss not to have your camera out to document it. So the next time you are somewhere for a big festival, don't look for just that big closing shot. Look also for those tiny moments that happen in between the big ones. And a lot of those happen under big blue skies.
4. Use Neutral Density Filters
A 3 minute exposure at the Peace Bridge in Calgary.
I recently purchased some Polar Pro neutral density filters, and they are a game-changer. I had a bigger kit before, with the square drop-in filters, but I found it cumbersome to use and took up a lot of room in my bag. So I've switched to mainly carrying neutral density filters from Polar Pro to do my long exposure work. I own a 10-stop polarized ND and a 6 stop polarized ND that can be screwed together to create a 16-stop ND. Which, at noon on a bright sunny day, is awesome. You can make full three to five-minute exposures at f/16 - f/22. If there are some clouds, you get those long pulled-out clouds, but the best part is that you can mostly remove other people from the image. So you can make it look like you were all alone at the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum or wherever in the middle of the day. This is insanely cool. To me anyway.
Using a 10-stop filter in the middle of the day means you can cause motion blur and intentionally leave the after images of people in your photograph. This is a great way to express motion or give context to an image without including people directly. Plus, this is something you can't easily complete with just a phone or standard camera (you need something extra), so it is a way to help your images stand out.
5. Use Starbursts
A starburst coming off the Peace Bridge at 1:00 pm.
A fifth extra one for you here today to. A few weeks ago, I talked about how to create starbursts in your images. Starbursts are a fabulous way to add an extra element to your photograph in the middle of the day. To make a starburst, you will need to use at least an f/11 aperture, and you will want to use an object to partially block the sun. By keeping the sun in your frame and turning it into a starburst, you can give your image uniqueness and help it stand out from other travel shots.
Those are my five tips on how to make the most of shooting on sunny days. I know the light isn't nearly as splendid as shooting at sunrise and sunset. But, there are still a ton of great photos to be had when the light gets harsh. Learn to use the light around you, and you will start seeing photos everywhere you go.