How To Photograph Dappled Light

Looking up through the leafy canopy, towards the light, on Mount Tamborine, Queensland, Australia.

The above photo was made on Mount Tamborine in the hinterland region about an hour and a half drive from the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia.

The scene was beautiful, but it was a bright, hot day and the light coming through the canopy was intense. Such light is, more often than not, the death of good landscape photography.

Experience told me that it was going to be tough to maintain detail in all but the lightest shadows. 

You see under a dense canopy, on a bright day, shadows are going to fill up quite a bit of your composition resulting in a very high dynamic range between important highlight and shadow areas.

The challenge was to find a way to resolve some of those difficulties on the way to making a successful photograph.

Needless to say a bit of technique allowed me to produce an acceptable result and a reasonable representation of what was a fun exploration of the rainforest.

Photographing dappled light is fiendishly difficult due to the usually high contrast (i.e., high dynamic range) under which you’ll likely be working.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

I achieved this by doing the following:

  • Exposing for the highlights which means I adjusted my camera’s light meter so that the bright leaves and ferns would record as very light tones, without burning out.

  • Given the high contrast conditions under which I was photographing I composed my photo around the sunlight leaves and ferns and allowed the darkest shadows to render as black and act to surround (i.e., frame) the illuminated plants.

Strong backlight illuminates tree ferns and foliage on Mount Tamborine, Queensland.

What Is Photography’s Most Important Mantra?

Rules were meant to be broken, right!

Well, that’s assuming you first know the rules; understand where they apply; and how and when you might go about breaking them to achieve the desired result.

I’ve been teaching photography for many years and there are a number of mantras I continually return to when providing folks with technical feedback. The first one on my list is as follows:

A close-up view of a backlit fern on Mount Tamborine in Queensland.

The Brighter The Light, The Darker The Shadows Will Photograph

Most people make most of their photos on bright, sunny days. It’s when we feel good and are more likely to be outside enjoying life.

Sadly, this kind of lighting is far from ideal when it comes to making good photos, particularly where people are involved.

You can do it, sometimes with brilliant results. But it's tough, particularly for folks who's approach to photograph is to say smile and then go click.

One of the difficulties folks experience, along their journey in photography, is to learn to predict how the camera will record the world.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru
 
Water Abstract, Mount Tamborine, Queensland

About To Travel?

 

Of course it's so much easier these days than it was in the days of film-based photography. With a DSLR camera you can see that there's a problem moments after releasing the camera's shutter.

With a mirrorless camera it’s even better because you can see the very same problems, and then the results of the solutions you apply, even before you'd made the photo. It's incredible!

Of course you still need to know what to do to fix the problems in question. But that's not difficult to learn, nor to put into practice, if you're well taught.

Our Future Behold Current Technology

No doubt the ability of camera sensors to more adequately record a scene of very high dynamic range will largely resolve the problem of photographing under high contrast conditions that has plagued photography from its inception.

Digital camera sensors are getting better all the time, but there's still a long way to go. It's most definitely a major area of research and development, now that megapixel count and high ISO noise performance has advanced so much.

Is Live View The Answer?

While live view and electronic viewfinders (i.e., EVF) don’t actually fix the problems associated with photographing under high levels of dynamic range, they can help us by providing a real time view of how the scene in question will photograph.

But it can be extremely difficult to properly access an image on an LCD screen when bright light is reflecting off it.

Why I Love And Recommend Mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras are the best solution as you get a real time view of the image, in the camera's viewfinder, before you've actually make the photograph.

This allows you to adjust for exposure, contrast and white balance problems before releasing the camera's shutter.

With that extra certainty you can now concentrate more on composition and the emotive elements within the image which are, ultimately, the reason you make photos and what you audience connects with most of all.

I can remember checking out the quality of images, displayed in the camera's viewfinder, on a number of high end mirrorless cameras about 6 years ago.

They were rubbish, particularly under high contrast and very low light conditions. But that all changed and the experience of using a newer model mirrorless camera, as I do, is both fun and very empowering. 

It can be a difficult concept to accept, particularly after you've spent a whole bunch of money on a brand new camera, but the fact is your camera records the world in a way that is, quite often, very different from the way you perceive it.

Why?

Put in the simplest of terms, you are human while your camera is a machine that's been manufactured (hardware) and programed (software) to record and render a subject or scene based upon a range of parameters to approximate what we see.

It's important to understand three critical limitations associated with your camera.

Colorful leaves submerged under flowing water on a waterfall on Mount Tamborine in Queensland, Australia.

Your camera has little or no concept of subject. It doesn't know whether you are photographing a bowling ball, a bar mitzvah or a birthday cake.

Because of the above your camera has difficultly accurately recording mostly light or dark toned subjects or scenes.

Thankfully many weddings feature brides and grooms wearing clothing of opposite brightnesses to each other. Photographed together the white dress and black suit average out as a mid tone which your camera will likely base its exposure upon.

Being brighter than a mid tone the wedding dress will record as a very light tone while the groom’s suit, which is darker than a mid tone, will photograph dark.

As long as there’s not a huge difference in brightness between the two, which you can achieve by photographing the bride and groom in the shade, you might get lucky with your exposure.  

As a way of concentrating our attention, many cameras (mirrorless and DSLR alike) even warn us when areas within the image are going to be recorded as either black or burned out highlights.

Just be aware that you may need to turn those warnings on in your camera's menu.

Such warnings should prompt the photographer to take immediate, in camera action to reduce the scene brightness range within the frame to produce a more acceptable result.

And the easiest way to do that is to change your composition. Simply move your camera around to include mostly light or mostly dark areas to reduce contrast and achieve a more desirable result.

Over time you’ll begin to understand, intuitively, what can and cannot be photographed and you’ll begin to compose your photos, from the get go, with this in mind.

Water spurts out between rocks at a waterfall on Mount Tamborine in Queensland, Australia.

Paying Attention To Composition

Many of the scenes in this post are quite complex. That makes it hard for the viewer to quickly navigate their way into the photo and focus their attention on a particular focal point.

To help overcome this problem I made sure I focused my lens on an area within each image that was illuminated. I then framed the scene in such a way so that the area in question was positioned prominently within the frame.

By allowing the darker shadows (e.g., tree trunks, rocks) to record black I was then able to employ them as a compositional device (i.e., leading lines) to draw the eye towards the main focal point (i.e., point of interest) within each image.

Put simply: compose around light and allow the shadows to shape and frame the scene.

Consider, for example, the ferns in the photos near the top of this post. The fact that the majority of trees that surround those ferns are dark also helps lead the eye to our 'hero' ferns. 

It may not be possible to make a truly great photo under such high contrast conditions. However, with a few simple techniques it’s possible to make interesting images that make sense of an otherwise overly complex and hard to photograph scene.

Good photography is rarely about photographing amazing scenes. More often than not it’s about making good pictures at interesting places that, for whatever reason, may be very hard to photograph.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru