Taming those Harsh, Midday, Summertime Blues


June is the hottest, harshest month of the year. The heat and humidity index might be higher in July and August, but light-wise, June is hands-down hotter and harsher. What I'm referring to is the quality of light that washes down upon us as the sun rises to its highest midday point in the sky—and the net effect of all this bright, high-angle light, photographically speaking, is an excess of blue tint and harsh contrast levels.

Despite the image-enhancing tools built into the simplest of digital cameras nowadays, the effects of summer's midday light can be greatly controlled by a bit of thought on the part of the person pressing the shutter button.

In the northeast portion of the U.S., the "hottest" day of the year occurs on the summer solstice, which, thanks to traffic conditions on the Long Island Expressway, occurred this year on June 21st at approximately 7:28 in the morning (and not at noon as one would assume). In the weeks preceding and following the summer solstice, midday light is excessively harsh and contrasty, and your photographs reflect these conditions. The reason winter light is warmer-looking compared to summer light is because during the winter months the sun tracks closer to the horizon, which means sunlight has to travel through more atmospheric dust, smoke, smog, humidity and the occasional plume of volcanic ash than it does in the summer when sunlight showers down on us from a much higher angle.  

Note: Polarizing filters are most effective earlier and later in the day when the sun is lower to the horizon and  with the sun to your back, shining in the direction of your subject.

To give you a perspective of how high the sun climbs this time of year, the highest angle of the sun at the winter solstice (December 20th or 21st) is the same as the angle of the sun at about 7:30 in the morning on the day of the summer solstice... and it keeps climbing for another six hours. This is why pebbles cast long shadows at noon during the winter months, yet appear near shadowless in the longer days of May, June and July. (This is also why you don't get sunburns during the winter months.)

The blue cast that invariably soaks your sensors when shooting midday landscapes and cityscapes during the summer months can be dampened to a certain degree, post-capture. However, it's always a good idea to nip the culprit in-camera especially if you are only capturing JPEGs, which due to their nature, are less "fixable" than RAW files.

In the days of film, pink-tinged Skylight filters usually dampened the inherent blue tint of summer, and even if you're shooting digitally, a Skylight filter can prove to be advantageous, especially if you want to save editing time when you get back home. In fact, Skylight filters are quite effective for reducing blue levels when shooting with a digital camera, and the key to using them successfully starts by properly setting your camera's white balance (WB) setting.

With Skylight Filters Without Skylight Filters

Most shooters set their WB to "Auto" and go happily along their way regardless of the season, time of day or whether they're shooting under daylight, clouds, tungsten or sodium-vapor lamps. For the most part the resulting photos are "fine," but with a bit of foresight and thought on the part of the person pressing the shutter button, these very same pictures can turn out better than merely fine.

Note: It's not a bad idea to always keep your camera set to the "Sun" setting or 5600°K ( the color temperature of daylight in a perfect world) even when shooting earlier and later in the day, because the job of the Auto setting (AWB) is to maintain a neutral cast, and when shooting earlier and later in the day the last thing you want to do is neutralize the warmer tones that make dawn and dusk photographs so appealing in the first place.

For combating the effects of the midday blues, the first thing you should do is set the WB on your camera to the "Sunny Skies"' setting (assuming the sun is shining). You can also set your WB to 5600°Kelvin, which is the color temperature of midday summer sunlight. (As for which setting is better, you'll have to test your particular camera and examine the color qualities of your results, as there's no universal answer to this question.) By keeping to these WB settings, you eliminate some of the variables that go into creating "clean" tonality and color.

Haze, a major detail-robbing reality of summer shooting, can only be addressed at the time of capture—there's little, if anything, you can do after the fact. Haze (UV) filters work their magic by cutting through the stray ultraviolet (UV) light that goes hand-in-hand with sunlight, and they are available in several flavors, based on your shooting needs. Standard UV filters do a decent job of earning their keep, but if you're going to be shooting in scenarios that include excessive levels of UV radiation such as beaches, mountains, deserts or snow-covered landscapes (yes, even in the summer!) there are stronger grades of UV filters you can purchase including Tiffen HT (High Transmission) Haze 86 filters, Heliopan SH-PMC series filters (which feature 16 layers of UV-reduction coatings) and Hoya UV (0) S-HNC series filters.

With UV Filter Without UV Filter

The last and perhaps the most versatile filter you should consider is a Polarizing filter, which along with UV coatings inherent in their design, also eliminate glare and stray light, which in turn increases the saturation of color. Regardless of time of day, or time of year for that matter, Polarizing filters should always be included in your camera bag because you never know when or where you're going to stumble upon the best picture you'll ever take.

With Polarizing Filter Without Polarizing Filter

Contrast issues can often be addressed fairly easily by using fill flash or any number of folding reflectors we stock at B&H, assuming of course your subject is within a reasonable distance of your camera. For outdoor portraiture, or opening the shadows of flowers and any other number of subjects you can walk up to, folding reflectors are amazingly easy to use, are available in a number of sizes, are nearly weightless and are easy to stow away. Collapsible reflectors are dual-sided and are available in a variety of color choices, with the most popular being Silver/White, Gold/White and Silver/Gold.

For opening shadows while increasing warm tones (add a healthy glow to portrait subjects), gold reflectors are ideal, while white and silver allow for a more neutral tonality. When using fill flash during the midday hours, you can temper the brassiness of the light by covering the flash head with a warming filter, which if not included with your flash, can be purchased optionally in kit form.  

Subjects that are larger and/or farther from your camera can usually be addressed by adjusting the image's Curve levels, post-capture, in Photoshop or similar photo-editing applications. Comparable results can be realized in-camera as well, through the use of image-editing tools such as Nikon's D-Lighting, Canon's Auto Lighting Optimizer and Sony's D-Range Optimizer.

Another approach is to utilize filters such as Tiffen's Ultra Contrast filters, which are available in a number of thread sizes and strengths. Tiffen Ultra Contrast filters reduce overall contrast levels and open up the shadows with far less loss of detail compared to other contrast-reducing filters, which invariably reduce contrast at the cost of sharpness.

Please feel free to regale us with anecdotes about your own shooting experiences or ask questions in the Comments section below.



Nicely written article, Allan - thank you. I have a few questions.

1) A UV haze filter has, if I'm correct, none of the warming quality provided by a Skylight filter. But, does a quality Skylight filter (I typically use B&W filters) include the benefits of a UV filter, or does one actually need to stack both a UV and Skylight filter in front of the lens?

2) If one is shooting RAW files, does white balance have any effect on the data in the RAW file, or is white balancing performed in-camera only on .jpg files? I almost alway shoot saving RAW files.

Thank you,


A polarizer helps you see into the 1980s.

Interesting advice about switching off Auto White Balance. This is my first DSLR purchase and at first, I used auto white balance; then I decided to treat it like a film camera, setting the white balance according to what film would be loaded in my film camera. There are no films for cloudy or overcast skies, so I am experimenting with the daylight settings. I do use the exposure compensation for the appropriate conditions.