You pack up the car for a gorgeous sunny day at the beach, head out, and everything is perfect: the breeze is warm, the drinks are cold, the children play happily, and you sit and doze in between the pages of a trashy novel, breathing in the heady mix of saltwater, sunscreen, and sweat. These are the days we work so hard for; the days we dream of from our cubicles in the dead of winter; the days we hope to remember one day in the distant future when we reflect on what we've done with our lives. So why is it that this is what you see:...but somehow, when you upload the photos from your camera, this is what you get:
Hard light, deep shadows, black eye sockets, and generally underexposed - the joys of shooting in bright sun! But it doesn't have to be that bad...
Today, as we approach spring and the beginning of another season of sunshine-soaked days, I want to let you in on a couple of little tricks that can dramatically improve the pictures you take in the direct sun.
***A disclaimer: these techniques can be applied by anyone using any camera, but are MUCH easier to manage if you have full manual control over your camera. Some point and shoots allow this, and all dSLRs do, but very few people ever take the time to learn how to take advantage of that ability. Do it! You won't regret it!)***
***Another disclaimer: I got kind of hung up on finding beach pictures to go along with my little story at the beginning, but the fact of the matter is that we don't get to the beach that often and don't have loads and loads of beach pictures, so some of these are not perfect examples of the ideas I'm illustrating... if anything isn't clear, say so in the comments & I will happily elucidate!***
Number 1 (and this is a biggie!): Stop taking pictures with your back to the sun! When you look directly into the sun, what do you do? Squint! And that's what your subjects do, too! Also, depending on where the sun is in the sky, your subjects might end up with raccoon eyes or you might get your own shadow in the picture. Instead, position your subject so that the sun is either behind or beside them.
This picture isn't taken straight on into the sun, but in some ways, it has the worst of all worlds: harsh sun making Judah squint, casting hard shadows on both Judah's and Oliver's faces, AND shading both of their eyes into oblivion. The only reason I even took this picture was that they were being so darn cute!
When the sun is high in the sky, it is a much harder, harsher light source, and any shadows on your subjects' faces will create hard lines. At that time of day, I generally turn my subject away from the sun altogether. In the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky, the light it gives is much softer. That's the perfect time to sidelight a subject to create that dramatic Rembrandt lighting you learned about in art history class.
Though by no means perfect, this image is better. Oliver's face is more evenly exposed thanks to the shadow from Judah's head; Judah's face is turned from the sun, so he loses the hard shadows and his expression is more relaxed. There are still hard lines, but it's getting there...
Then I moved, and the moment was over... Oliver ran off somewhere else and I got this backlit image of Judah. His face is well-exposed and there's plenty of light in his eyes. If I'd had my druthers, this is the direction from which I would've shot the whole series, but especially with kids, sometimes you don't get the opportunity to direct, and just have to go with it.
Number 2: Overexpose your images. Cameras these days can do some amazing things with little to no intervention on our part, but ultimately, they're machines and make decisions based on algorithms, and those algorithms don't always work. A camera sees every scene on the spectrum of bright to dark, and exposes so that the scene averages out to 18% gray. In many cases, that works just fine, but if a scene is very bright or very dark, it misses the mark... which is why the picture I posted up above as the "didn't quite do it justice" example looks so dark.
Another example: you've probably taken a picture on a snowy day where the snow turned out gray and the people's faces were so dark you could hardly see them, right? That's because the camera sees all that white snow and mistakes it for too much light, so it darkens the picture to compensate. The same is true in reverse: get a groom in a black tux standing on a dark background and let the camera do the work and you'll end up with a gray-clad groom whose face is way too light.
The solution? If the scene is white, add light (and if it's black/dark, take it away)!
On a bright sunny day on light-colored sand with the water reflecting everywhere, your camera is going to try to underexpose your image. Take control! Either shoot in manual and overexpose, or use your exposure compensation to bring it up one or two stops... you'll have much better images straight out of the camera!
When I captured this image, the meter claimed that I was 1.3 stops overexposed. If I'd followed the meter precisely, the picture would've come out too dark, but I knew to compensate given the overall brightness of the scene. If Erin hadn't been wearing a black shirt, I probably would've overexposed closer to two stops.
Number 3: Play with flare. Though it's not technically "correct", sun flare can create amazing atmosphere in photographs, at times adding so much visual warmth that your viewer can practically feel the sun on their skin.
To create flare, put the sun in or just outside of your frame, then watch the light through your viewfinder and press the shutter when you like how it looks. Play with partially obscuring the sun behind another object (i.e. a tree branch), and tilt your camera at different angles to see how it affects the light. If you have a dSLR, the cheapest lens you have and a small aperture will give you perfect beams with colorful flares.
This image was created with a 24-70 f/2.8 lens set to f/22 (ISO 200, shutter speed 1/640). Didn't quite get the banded flare I was looking for, but liked the silhouette.
That ought to get you started... questions? Comments? Other recommendations?