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.
Or was it?
It’s taken as an article of faith that midday sun is simply no good for photography—you might as well use that time for a nap. But I don’t accept that, and neither should you. Had I adhered to this “rule,” I would have never captured the image of the Galápagos hawk.
Here are several strategies for getting good pictures in harsh midday light, all of which can be used for a variety of wildlife—not just birds—and other nature subjects.
Shortly after my traveling companions and I returned from our iguana shoot, several young hawks began hovering over the white sand beach, some landing on driftwood a good distance away. But with that area closed to protect sea turtle nests, we could not get into decent position—we had the sun directly in our faces.
In this case I followed a basic strategy—when the sun is bright, shoot tight—and went with my longest lens plus a teleconverter. By cropping tightly, you can eliminate many of the harsh and distracting shadows in the scene.
Get low, try to move as close to your subject as possible (while always mindful of the welfare of the animal and your own safety as well), and try for as clean a background as possible. If you can get nearer to your subject than the minimum focusing distance of your lens, adding an extension tube will let you focus closer.
Use Strong Backlight
Another strategy for shooting during the harsh hour is to exploit backlight. Keep in mind that on bright, sunny days, a subject backlit by the sun is very evenly illuminated from the front by diffuse ambient light. In the case of the Galápagos hawk photo above, the backlit bird is illuminated by reflection from the white sandy beach below.
The simple rule is to keep your subject on the line between you and the sun to minimize direct sunlight entering the lens. You will almost always need to overexpose from the meter reading to get good detail in your subject: In the hawk photo, I added nearly 2 stops of exposure over the camera’s evaluative meter reading.
When working with backlighting, there will always be some small parts of your subject that will be lit directly by the sun. To make sure you’re not overexposing important detail, enable the highlight warning on your DSLR, generally found in a setup menu. On playback on the LCD, this warning will flash “blinkies” on highlights that are blown out. Remember, though, that some loss of highlight detail may be unavoidable in backlit photos.
After shooting, you can lighten shaded areas in a variety of ways in numerous image-editing programs. A Curves adjustment in Adobe Photoshop is the one I use most frequently. A simpler Photoshop tool for this task is the Shadow/Highlight slider set. It’s easy to overdo filling with the Shadow slider, so be careful.
**Work Right on Frontlight **
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.
**Wait for Shade **
If the light is just too harsh for photography—as it was in the scene on Galápagos of the swallow- tailed gull chick shown in the gallery, try waiting for a cloud to diffuse the sunlight. In this case all it took was a very thin cloud to soften the light, and the evaluative meter reading proved perfect.
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.
**Use Flash **
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._