On a recent photography cruise to the Galápagos Islands, my group and I had just finished a long walk at Urbina Bay on a successful search for big, yellow land iguanas to photograph. Just before 11 a.m., the sun had broken through the light clouds, and it was obvious that we were finished shooting—the light was simply too harsh.
Backlight not working for you? Try the exact opposite strategy: direct frontlight. Even at midday in summer, the sun is almost never directly overhead. Look for your shadow, and position yourself so that the shadow is pointing directly at your subject. This puts the sun precisely behind you.
Now position yourself low, or level with your subject, and move in or zoom in for good framing. Watch for the perfect head angle—when the subject’s face is fully lit, fire the shutter. I used this technique for both the spoonbill in Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary in Tampa Bay (far left) and the northern gannet on Bonaventure Island in Percé, Québec, shown in the gallery. (For the spoonbill, I was sitting chest-deep in water.)
When working frontlit, especially with light-colored subjects, you’ll almost always need to add exposure. With the spoonbill, I went 1/3-stop over the reading; with the gannet, a full stop.
Another strategy is to find subjects in open shade, or wait for your subject to move into shade. Look for trees or other vegetation, a large rock, a hill, a mountain, or a building. With a subject in shade, try to include a sunlit background.
In most cases you will need to add exposure over the meter reading. Another option is to spotmeter the subject, adjust for its tonality (add exposure for light subjects, subtract exposure for dark subjects), and then set that exposure manually.
Example: This northern gannet chick, above, that I found resting right next to a viewing shelter on Bonaventure Island, Québec. To avoid the white down coming out as medium gray, I added 1.3 stops to the evaluative meter reading.
Make Your Own Shade
I’ve often said that 90 percent of all flower images could be improved by shading the subject— with a diffuser, a large piece of cardboard, a shirt, or even a friend’s body. The same technique can work well with other small subjects such as crabs, frogs, insects, spiders, and shells. And when setting up a bird feeder to attract photo subjects, never put it in direct sunlight.
Most nature photographers think of using flash only—if ever—as fill on cloudy days or when working in the shade. (In these situations, set flash exposure compensation at – 1 to –3 EV.) But flash can do a great job of filling in harsh shadows in bright, midday light, too.
The trick is to set your flash exposure comp somewhere between 0 and +1 stops. Many topend flashes can provide sufficient light to 60 feet and beyond. But if you frequently shoot at long distances, augment your strobe with an extender such as the Better Beamer ($40, street). Use highspeed sync (between 1/500 and 1/1000 sec), manual flash mode, and the 1:1 power setting—and you’ll often be able to illuminate a flying bird’s underwings.
I used flash for the northern parula warbler on Dauphin Island, AL, above. The bird was in shade, so I set my Canon Speedlite 580EX II (with a Better Beamer) to –2 EV for subtle fill light. I also added 1/3 stop to the ambient exposure to brighten the overall frame.
So, the next time that you’re in the field during the midday hours on a sunny day, consider these options before giving up. You just might create some great images.
Based in Indian Lake Estates, FL, Arthur Morris has published more than 11,000 nature images in magazines and books. Visit his website, www.birdsasart.com.