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Phil Douglis | profile | all galleries >> Galleries >> Gallery Sixty Nine: How to make expressive photographs in “bad” light tree view | thumbnails | slideshow

Gallery Sixty Nine: How to make expressive photographs in “bad” light

Photographers who make images to convey atmosphere, mood, beauty, and meaning, usually prefer to shoot during the first and the last few hours of the day. That’s when the light is warmer, the shadows softer and less harsh, the colors warm and the low angle of the sun can bring out texture and detail with striking dimensionality, clarity and relief. Some kinds of travel photography, such as landscapes and architectural studies, depend almost entirely on the beauty of the light for their meaning. For example, trying to make a landscape photograph with the sun high overhead invites a flat, evenly illuminated scene with harsh pockets of shadow.

As much as we would like to shoot during these “golden hours,” there are many times when our schedules simply make it impossible for us to do so. And so, we must often cope with light that is less than ideal for our purposes and hope for the best. How, then, can we make expressive photographs when the mid-day light is high in the sky, falling straight down on our subjects, creating harsh shadows and difficult contrasts?

This gallery demonstrates some approaches that worked for me, and may work for you, in the mid-day light. I start it off with fourteen images that I made while accompanying one of my tutorial students on two mid-day shoots: the first between one and three in the afternoon, and the second between ten and noon in the morning. On both days, the skies were clear, and the Phoenix, Arizona sunlight mercilessly poured down on us from straight overhead.

As you will l see, I often try to make use of the harsh light itself to tell part of my story. I underexpose many of these images to avoid burning out highlights, and in the process, I create shadows that can abstract the subject and imply meaning. I often look for shadows that create patterns and rhythms to enrich expression. (To systematically under-expose to avoid burning out highlights, simply adjust your “exposure compensation” control to “minus two thirds of one stop” and using your spot-metering mode, take your exposure reading on the brightest spot in the frame. Your image will become darker than usual, creating abstraction. You can restore any essential details later in post processing.)

I also try to make use of backlighting, which creates silhouettes, as well as shooting subjects within shaded areas such as windows, awnings and umbrellas. I often shoot towards the sun, using backlighting to create luminosity, causing some subjects to glow as the light passes right through them. I will photograph in completely shaded areas, looking for soft reflected light bouncing off nearby surfaces as my illumination source. I may even forsake outdoor photography itself and choose to work inside of buildings during the hours of “bad light,” photographing my subjects in the indirect natural light passing through doors and windows.

I present this gallery, as usual, in "blog" style. A large thumbnail is displayed for each image, along with a caption explaining how I intended to express my ideas. If you click on the large thumbnail, you can see it in its full size, as well as leave comments and read the comments of others. I hope you will be able to participate in the dialogue. I welcome your comments, suggestions, ideas, and questions, and will be delighted to respond.