I take the vast majority of my photographs in the morning and evening when the light is at its most interesting. The midday light from the high sun tends to be harsher and cooler than the softer side lighting of the morning and evening. Generally speaking, harsh daytime light tends not to create the best conditions for outdoor photography. This is not to say that there are no opportunities to take excellent photographs during the day. Over the years, I’ve discovered that there are a number of situations where strong daytime sunlight can be used effectively.
Black and White Photography in Daytime Light
Strong sunlight tends to highlight the tones and textures in the scenes as well as creating strong shadows. For this reason, high contrast black and white photography is often a suitable option on sunny days especially on sunny days when there is plenty of scattered cloud in the sky. Take a look at these next two photos I took on my phone camera on a chilly January late morning.
This scene was photographed on a bright sunny day along the Copper Coast in County Waterford. The location was interesting and the composition is solid with the arrangement roughly following the rule of thirds. The colour shot is lacking something though. The light is very harsh and is quite cool in terms of colour temperature.
Look what happens when we convert the photograph to black and white however. Suddenly the contrast of the clouds against the sky and the different tones throughout the image become much more apparent and striking. The second photograph definitely has more visual impact. There is a more “dramatic” feel to the shot. This is a good example of how shooting with black and white photographs in mind can be very effective in strong daytime light.
Here are two more examples of black and white photographs taken on days when the sunlight was quite harsh:
Long Exposures in Daytime Light
I find that sunny days with plenty of scattered cloud are an excellent opportunity to try some long exposure photography. The photograph below was taken using a 10 stop neutral density filter. This allowed me to slow the shutter speed down to a very long 55 seconds, something that would normally be impossible in the daytime.
The long exposure time of almost a minute allowed me to capture the motion blur of the clouds as they moved across the sky. Combining this with a high contrast black and white conversion creates a photo with plenty of impact.
In this photograph, I used an infra-red filter. Not only did this allowed me to use a slow shutter speed of 22 seconds leading to plenty of motion blur in the clouds. Infra-red filters create images with a completely red hue in the colour version. This can then be used to create a high contrast black and white version of the photograph.
You are of course not completely limited to black and white photography in the strong midday sun. In the photo above, I again used a 10 stop neutral density filter to capture the motion blur of the clouds with a long exposure. It also has the effect of making most of the people in the scene disappear. Anybody moving the frame did not show up in the photograph. Bold colours like those on the beautiful Flemish style buildings in the scene are accentuated by strong sunlight.
Photographing Bold Colours in Strong Sunlight
As I have just said, subjects with bold colours can be look very striking when photographed in the strong direct light of the daytime.
The strong midday sun has really made the yellow flowers stand out in this photograph taken outside a Romanian farmhouse at the Goleşti Viticulture And Tree Growing Museum. Getting the exposure settings right can be tricky when there is mix of strong light and deep shadows in a scene.
As in the last photograph, we can see that the bold colours of flowers are particularly vibrant when photographed in strong sunlight. We saw this photograph in the previous section on composition. It was in a church very close to this spot that I received a smack to the head by a disgruntled worshipper. Later that evening I almost got arrested for photographing the Romanian National Parliament building. I don’t think they’ll ever let me back in to their country.
Countries in Southern Europe with plenty of bright whitewashed buildings with splashes of colour are almost always bathed in bright light. I like how the colour of the oranges contrasts with the bright white of the church and the deep blue sky in the village of Castro Marim in the Algarve.
Narrow streets are good candidates for daytime photography as the high sun illuminates this street in Tavira which is usually in deep shadow.
Portugal also contains buildings with some really beautiful colours. Again, the strong daytime sunlight makes these colours pop as well as bringing out the textures on the surfaces. I noticed this beautiful ochre coloured building in Tavira while out for a walk and couldn’t resist taking a photo of it on my camera phone.
Taking Photographs in Dappled Light
Searching for dappled light on a sunny day can lead to some very interesting photographic opportunities. Dappled light refers to that spotted light which typically shines through gaps in a tree canopy. This softens the harshness of the light.
The dappled light in this wooded area of a park in the Dutch city of Arnhem made for an attractive photograph of this waterfall.
The dappled light from the overhanging leaves of a tree has created an interesting mix of light and shadow on this little square in Tavira, A lot of the photos I took in Tavira were actually taken on my phone camera. It is often said that the best camera is the one you have with you.
It’s actually quite a pleasant experience to go for a leisurely stroll without all the heavy camera equipment. I have since bough a compact camera that I keep on me almost all the time in case an interesting photographic opportunity crops up. This camera has a one inch sensor which is significantly bigger than the tiny sensor in a phone which itself is capable of producing decent results. This means I can take high quality photos without being weighed down by lots of gear.
The dappled light in this forest led to an interesting photograph with plenty of contrast between the light and shadow in the scene.
Photographing Architecture in Strong Daytime Light
Sunny days with a completely clear blue sky are rarely conducive to capturing the more artistic style photos. Aside from the harsh light, the cloudless sky can seem uninteresting and devoid of drama. Such days, however, can be very suitable for architecture photography. In this case, it is the form, shapes, angles, and colours that are the most important elements of the shot. A clear blue sky does not distract from the main subject of the photo.
As we have already seen, the strong daytime light accentuates detail, colours and textures in the architecture being photographed. The photographs of my local council building on the next page were taken for use in brochures and online. They are not meant to be framed as art but rather to show off the architectural features, textures and shapes of the building being photographed.
Notice how the shadows in this photo lead the eye to the buildings. This is something we covered in the tutorial on creating a sense of depth in photographs.
In the second photograph, the trees act as a framing device for the building. There is also juxtaposition between the natural trees and man-made building in the second image. The person walking to the right of the frame along provides human interest and a sense of scale. We covered this in the tutorial on Subjects with Interest and Visual Impact.
I quite like the “DNA” sculpture that rises from the water. You will notice that this photograph of the building contains plenty of strong diagonals and triangles. We learnt earlier that this adds a sense of “dynamic tension” to the scene. They also contrast with the curve of the building. Just because, we are taking photographs for non-artistic purposes doesn’t mean we can’t use some of the composition ideas we covered in the composition series of tutorials.
Avoiding the Strong Daylight
We saw earlier that finding dappled light is a good way of reducing the harshness of the midday sun. Another method is to avoid it altogether. I know this series of tutorials mainly covers outdoor photography but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t consider moving inside or at least out of the strong light.
The strong sunlight streaming through the windows of this church has created an interesting
contrast between the light and shadow in the scene. Churches provide excellent subjects for indoor photography when the light outside is too strong or uninteresting.
Ornate covered galleries like this one in Brussels are fantastic locations for daytime photography or if it’s pouring rain as was the case when I took this shot. Paris and London also have some superb examples of these covered galleries. The whole scene looks wonderfully grand and genteel. It has the effect of transporting one back to the nineteenth century. I feel like I should be wearing a top hat while sporting a magnificent handlebar mustache and monocle as I stroll along with my carved wooden cane. I don’t know how such a look would be perceived back in Dublin. Although with all the hipsters around now, I might get away with it.
Markets can be excellent locations for indoor photography. There is always plenty of activity to capture. Many of these markets take place in interesting buildings such as the English Market in Cork City above. I really liked the wooden beams in the roof as well as the interesting patterns in the paving. This is another shot I took on my camera phone while out for a stroll.
This next photograph was taken in Bucharest. You may have noticed that a lot of major cities and towns seem to have at least one street that is covered by a canopy of umbrellas suspended above it. These streets can make for very interesting photography locations in the daytime. The umbrellas have the effect of softening the light in the scene as well as providing a vibrant splash of colour or multiple colours as in the next photograph.
The entrance to the souk of Hammamet provided me with an opportunity to get out of the strong North African midday sun. Being Irish; this was probably a good idea anyway. After ten minutes in the sun, I look like a beetroot with a fever.
In the next photograph, I captured a street musician playing the saxophone in the archway
that leads into the Temple Bar district of Dublin.
Remember that the harsh daytime light doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the camera at home. It’s certainly more challenging to find interesting photography opportunities in this light but as we’ve seen it is possible. In out next tutorial, we will take a look at taking photographs on cloudy overcast days with flat light. This is another another type of lighting that is often viewed as difficult to take good photographs in.
Improve your Photography Skills
The full collection of my photography tutorials covering exposure, camera settings, composition and light can be found in my Kindle e-book: Outdoor Photography Essentials. This e-book can be read on most Kindles or any tablet or smart phone with the Kindle app installed (€7.06 / $7.00 / £6.34).