GO BEYOND THE GOLDEN HOURS
Photography week|September 17, 2020
Don’t like getting up early, or staying out late? Peter Eastway reveals how to capture amazing landscapes in the middle of the day
Peter Eastway

We’re taught that the best times of day for landscape photography are early in the morning and late in the afternoon, because the angle of the light can bring a wonderful dimensionality to the land, and there may be a little extra colour as well. However, as more and more photographers travel the world, it’s not always possible to be in a particular location in the best weather or at the best time of day. We’re often presented with a take-it-or-leave-it opportunity, often in the middle of the day, and so the challenge is to devise ways to capture interesting images in midday lighting.

When we talk about midday lighting we tend to think of clear skies and overhead sunshine – but of course, the weather can change all this. Under overcast skies, midday light is often superior to the overcast gloom you can find at sunrise and sunset.

Let’s look at four different ways in which you can take advantage of what you might write off as sub-standard lighting, and turn it into something that’s creative, eye-catching and appropriate.

EXPOSE FOR IMPACT

Long-exposure images at midday might seem counterintuitive, but the results can be striking

HOW LONG TO EXPOSE?

Whether you need a long exposure to create blurred water or clouds depends on many factors. A fast-moving subject, or one moving across the image frame, won’t require as long an exposure as a slow-moving subject or one that’s moving towards or away from you.

MOVEMENT CREATES INTEREST

The larger icebergs were stationary on the beach, while the smaller iceberg slush moved with the ebb and flow of the sea, and blurred during a 10-second exposure

One of the challenges photographers face is creating images that stand out. With smartphones and fully automatic cameras making capturing excellent exposures very easy, it’s up to you to learn a little more about the craft and produce images with a difference.

One satisfying technique which can’t (yet) effectively be done with a smartphone is the long exposure, ranging from 30 seconds to several minutes. During this time, water and clouds can move significantly, creating wonderful blurs that contrast strongly with stationary subjects such as buildings and mountains.

By using a strong neutral-density filter, the amount of light reaching the sensor can be reduced, enabling the use of much longer exposures. A 10x or 10-stop ND filter requires exposures of around 30 seconds at f/11 and ISO100 in the middle of the day (depending on the season, latitude, and atmospheric smog). If you were purchasing two ND filters, a 3-stop and a 10-stop would be a good start – and you can stack the two filters together for stronger effects.

When you add a 10-stop ND filter to your lens it’s impossible to see your subject through your camera’s viewfinder. However, electronic viewfinders and the Live View mode on your camera should have no problem, allowing you to compose your image. You may need to focus manually, though, as the autofocus function may not work correctly. You’ll also need to use a sturdy tripod, as any camera movement at all will ruin the effect; shooting in strong wind can be challenging for this reason.

To take exposures longer than 30 seconds, you may need to switch to the B or Bulb setting on your camera and use a remote control to keep the shutter open. You may also find it easier to use manual exposure control, but checking the histogram will ensure you get the exposure correct.

Many DSLRs have a viewfinder blind, which stops light from entering the camera through the optical viewfinder. Normally your head is over the viewfinder eyepiece, but during a long exposure with the camera on a tripod it’s a good idea to use the blind or cover the viewfinder somehow – this won’t be a problem if you have a camera with an electronic viewfinder.

EXPOSE FOR IMPACT

Shooting in the middle of the day doesn’t always mean that you’ll have a clear sky or interesting clouds. Some weather conditions produce flat, uninteresting skies that can be greatly improved by introducing a sky shot captured on another day, and many photographers keep a small library of interesting clouds and skies for these situations.

One challenge when introducing a new sky is to ensure that it looks believable – a colorful cloud shot at sunset is unlikely to sit well with a middle-of-the-day landscape beneath. Probably the biggest challenge will be the horizon line. If you have a busy horizon, merging the sky can take some time. One solution is to choose a replacement sky that is similar to the existing sky along the horizon, so that you can retain the original sky along the horizon and blend in the new one further up, where it’s a lot easier to disguise.

BLAND SKY

Long exposures are great for blurring moving water – but above in the heavens, the clouds can turn rather featureless and unsatisfactory

SOURCE A BETTER SKY

Depending on the photo, you can just replace the sky you have – or, as in this case, replace and extend the image area to suit

SIMPLE BLENDING WORKS

Note how easy the blend has been. Rather than merging the new sky along the jagged horizon line, it is merged higher up, with the original sky along the horizon retained

COMBINE DIFFERENT EXPOSURES

Achieve still clouds and blurred water in the same image

There can be situations where you want to blur one part of the image and keep the rest sharp and frozen. For instance, you might like to blur the water on a lake or the sea, but you don’t want the clouds above to be blurred. This is relatively easy to achieve if you make two exposures and blend them together in Photoshop using layers. To make your post-production easy, take care not to bump your camera between exposures, especially as you put on or take off the ND filter.

1 SHORT EXPOSURE FIRST

Set up your camera on a tripod without the ND filter and shoot. If your shutter speed is 1/30 second or faster, this should mean all elements are sharp.

2 LONG EXPOSURE NEXT

Carefully attach the ND filter and adjust your exposure. Leave the aperture and ISO the same – just change the shutter speed. Take the second shot.

3 BLENDING FOR CREATIVE CONTROL

Load the two photographs onto separate layers in Photoshop, and use a mask on the top layer to brush in the areas you want to reveal.

EDIT CREATIVELY

Learn to see beyond the glare of the midday sun, and consider all the possibilities

Sunlight in the middle of the day isn’t always perpendicular to the earth – or at least, not the whole time. If you look around, there’s usually a slight angle one way or another – and this angle is important because while you can do wonderful things with post-production, creating and changing light isn’t one of them. Yes, you can improve the light in a scene, but creating it from scratch is very difficult, so you have to get the best capture you can in-camera.

If the sun is behind you, then what you’re looking at is top-lit and front-lit, and there will be a very little shadow or relief. Look to the left or the right, however, and you’ll see some shadows forming. Is this a little more interesting? Obviously, this will depend on what you’re photographing.

Once you’re sure that you’ve found the best light for your subject, you can let your imagination wander a little further with post-production. What can you do with the tonality, with color, with focus? Which areas of the image are important – and which areas are less so? It’s more productive to create an idea that you already have in your mind, rather than fiddling around with the editing sliders and hoping something good happens.

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