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Outdoor photographers are trained to recognize good light. For most situations, this means the “golden times” right after sunrise and before sunset, and sometimes the pastel light just before dawn and at dusk. Of course, depending on your latitude, the “golden hour” can sometimes be more like the “golden ten minutes.” Other times, sunrises and sunsets just don’t happen. Clouds in the wrong place on the horizon can kill your chance at amazing light, and weather conditions are often unpredictable, as my students discovered a few weeks ago in South Dakota, where we got fogged in until after 10AM one day.
While there is no question that the “golden times,” offer the best conditions for landscape and outdoor photography, by restricting yourself to these times, you may only get two or three total hours of suitable shooting conditions each day. When you’re traveling, you can’t always be at every spot at the perfect time, and mid-day light is notorious for creating harsh, unflattering scenes. By adding some post-processing techniques into your bag of digital tricks, you’ll be able to keep your camera out longer and get more “keeper” shots.
Probably the easiest way to counteract harsh light is to convert your images to black and white. When you discard color information, you can get away with making radical adjustments to tone and contrast that would look awful in color. You also mask color noise that can appear at higher ISO settings. With black and white, you can choose to accentuate skies and clouds in a scene, adding a level of depth to the image that you wouldn’t have in color. The classic “Ansel Adams” sky, for example, can add drama to a shot and is a look that is easy to create. Black and white conversion also works really well on overcast days, where a blown-out sky is common. Try underexposing your shot a little to capture some texture in the clouds, and then recover the shadow details. Just about every photo editing package out there offers some form of black and white conversion, but my current favorite is Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2.0, which gives photographers a massive degree of control over the conversion process.
Badlands in mid-day light
Black and white conversion with Silver Efex Pro 2.0.
Sod house in mid-day light
Black and white conversion with Silver Efex Pro 2.0
Not only is the light beautiful before dawn or after sunset, but it presents a scene with reduced contrast. For film shooters, shooting at these times of day was important because the latitude (dynamic range) of most good color slide films, like Velvia, was quite narrow. While DSLRs have better dynamic range than color slide films, once the sun is up you can quickly find yourself in a situation where the tonal range of the scene exceeds what your sensor can accurately capture. Images captured in harsh light will have strong, clipped shadows and/or blown highlights, and will usually look like snapshots. While some locations work great for mid-day shooting (under a forest canopy, for example), other spots are going to require a little more adventuresome post-processing to capture during normal daylight hours.
By adding High Dynamic Range software to your “bag of tricks,” you can create interesting scenes even in the harshest conditions. To produce a quality HDR image, you’ll want to use a tripod and work with a static scene. Shoot a bracketed exposure sequence that goes from at least -2EV to +2EV beyond the metered value. Then combine the resulting images into your favorite HDR tone-mapping software, like Photoshop CS5, Photomatix Pro, or HDR Efex Pro. Depending on the settings that you choose, your images can go from being very natural to extremely stylized. No matter what your preference is, you can create visual art from mid-day light. You can even go a step further and convert your HDR images from color to black and white!
Juniper on a gloomy, overcast day
HDR Image tone-mapped in HDR Efex Pro
By utilizing black and white and HDR techniques, outdoor photographers can extend their shooting day beyond the traditional “golden times.” Having these techniques at one’s disposal can be really handy when you are traveling, or when the weather isn’t fully cooperating. Instead of putting the camera away, you can continue to shoot and create visual masterpieces.