Making the best of bad light

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Outdoor photographers are trained to use light to its greatest advantage to create stunning photos. The warm, golden rays of early morning and late evening, sun peeking through a sliver in the clouds after a thunderstorm, and the even light of a bright overcast sky are touted as the best times for creating memorable images. Folks trafficking in stock photography have the luxury of chasing perfect light. Shooting on assignment yields different realities.
With a circumscribed period of time to produce photos, assignment photography often demands shooting in poor light. Last month, I completed a two-day photo project for a conservation organization in the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. The assignment called for numerous photos of people engaged in various outdoor activities, requiring a number of them to be shot in harsh midday light. Not an ideal time for photography, it’s nonetheless possible to create quality images in such poor conditions. When faced with a similar situation, here are some tricks you can utilize to beat bad light.
Elementary treatments of photography teach camera-operators to shoot with the light at their back, illuminating the front side of their subject. In poor, midday light, such photos look awful. However, by shooting the shadowed side of the subject with a bit of fill-flash to brighten the dark shadow, it’s often possible to create pleasing images when traditional composition fails.
Close-ups of small subjects such as wildflowers, mushrooms, insects or toads suffer terribly in bright, midday light. Shot completely in the shade, they’re much improved. Confronted with this situation, use an opaque umbrella to create a light shadow. If that’s not possible, have a partner block the sun with a garment to shoot the subject in heavy shadow. A little flash will give an added sparkle to images shot in deep shade.
At midday, the sky often creates a more pleasing background than the starkly lit landscape. The northern sky is deep blue and many days bring puffy clouds into the azure canopy overhead. By shooting at a low angle to the side of your subject, it’s often possible to accentuate the subject against a beautiful sky instead of a landscape in boring, flat light.
During a photography assignment you may not be able to choose when to shoot, but you’ll generally have some flexibility about where you shoot. Look for interesting backgrounds such as the reflection of dark pines upon water, patterns of multiple tree trunks or dappled shadows created by sunlight through leaves. Sometimes just changing the location of a model’s activity by 20 feet makes the difference between an amateurish snapshot and a professional-looking image.
Like many photographers, I used to park my camera in its bag when the light was poor. But I was forced to adapt when under pressure to produce. With a high degree of stress and frustration, I learned to create useable images in poor light. Now I shoot whenever I see an interesting subject, even in poor light.
The lessons learned in low-pressure situations can become lifesavers when losing to bad light isn’t an option.♦
–Jack Ballard, of Billings, Mont., is a freelance writer and photographer with credits in more than 25 regional and national magazines, and is the author of two books. He joined OWAA in 1998. Contact him at

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