Making Beautiful Photos On A Sunny Day

Water cascades down the face of Steavenson Falls near Marysville in north eastern Victoria.

Making beautiful photos on a blinding bright day is not easy. Perhaps it's photography's greatest irony that the weather under which most photos are made is so often the worst possible light by which to make a beautiful rendition of the subject or scene depicted. I've been known to go so far as to refer to such light as being the death of photography

Black Sunday Bushfires

The above photo was made at Steavenson Falls near the town of Marysville about 100km northeast of Melbourne, Australia. I had made the trip with my old friend Ashley a year or so earlier to look for signs of nature renewing itself following a devastating bushfire that swept through the town in February 7, 2009. On that day, known as Black Saturday, around 400 bushfires ravaged the state of Victoria resulting in the loss of 173 lives, injury to 414 people and tremendous loss of property, wildlife and natural habitat. Ashley and I decided to revisit the area around the end of 2012, when the above photo was made.

Bushfire is a terrible thing. A former work colleague and his wife had owned a lovely house and beautiful garden in Marysville. He's planned retirement was largely unmade by the bushfire which totally destroyed his home. Last thing I heard was that he and his wife were living in a caravan in the backyard of the home owned by one of their children.

As far as a day out this particular trip was spectacular. A beautiful sunny day under a deep blue sky made for a great driving experience. But, as the goddess of photography gives with one hand and takes with the other, such great weather presents problems for the photographer. We can summarize these problems as follows:

Flat Looking Images

Bright light tends to washed out detail and color, as it reflects much of the fine detail and color off surfaces within the scene. A polarizing filter can be helpful under such conditions.

Difficulty Achieving Creative Blur

Bright light can make it difficulty to achieve the slower shutter speeds normally required to blur moving water.

High Contrast

The brighter the light the darker the shadows will photograph (one of my favorite photography mantras), resulting in the loss of potentially important shadow detail.

The Solution

My approach was to employ a polarizing filter to reduce reflection and, thereby, hold onto detail and color in the brightly lit rocks which, due to the spray from the waterfall, were particularly reflective.

To produce the desired amount of blur in the water I set my ISO to the default ISO 100, closed my lenses aperture down to f11; and benefited from the further reduction of light reaching the sensor, due to the use of the polarizing filter.

The final, and most pressing issue, was the high contrast conditions under which I was working. While I was happy for certain elements (e.g., trees in the background) to render quite dark, I wanted to ensure I retained sufficient detail in the rocks and foliage around the waterfall. I made a series of images, at different brightnesses, so as to record as much detail as possible. It was simply a matter of ensuring little or no movement of the camera and subject matter (except, of course, for the water and the odd fern) throughout this series of exposures.

The resulting images are converted into a single, new composite image containing far more information than any of the original exposures. The composite .tif image, produced by a process (both in camera and on the desktop) known as High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography was then processed in a RAW converter (I usually use Adobe Lightroom) prior to final processing, including conversion into black and white, in Photoshop.

Photography As Art

If I'd decided to keep the image in color I'd probably have tried to lighten the shadows. That's because, in a color photo, folks except to see green leaves on trees, even dark trees. But black and white allows the artist photographer to opt for a higher contrast result, which is often more visually arresting.

The trees in the top left of the image are now really more shapes and textures than they are trees. That's what removing color from an image can do for your photography. It removes subject matter from reality and brings it a step closer to abstraction. This process seems to open up new possibilities for visual and, sometimes, spiritual exploration. And so photography becomes art.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru