Field Practices to Improve Exposure

One of the challenges of outdoor photography is that you have very little control over your lighting.  Perhaps you've taken pictures on bright, sunny days only to find that on  your computer they simply don't look right.  The bright parts of your image have lost all detail, even though you could see detail when you were there.  Perhaps the colors just don't look as brilliant and saturated as they should look.  The scene looked beautiful when you were there, but your photograph simply does not do justice to your experience outdoors.

This frustration is common among beginning photographers.  The problem comes from the fact that your camera simply cannot see as much light as you can see. You can see about twelve stops of light. Your camera only sees about five to nine stops. This means that your camera cannot record many scenes like you can see them. High contrast scenes, like scenes with direct sunlight and shade, will simply have more contrast than your camera can record, so your camera must choose to expose for some parts of the scene, and by necessity some other parts will either turn too bright or too dark and lose detail.  Colors will also look less saturated on sunny days, since reflections from sunlight will obscure the colors on leaves, flower petals, and anything that reflects light.  You don't always notice these effects when you're outdoors, but they become much more apparent in your photographs.

There are some things you can do to help in situations like this:
  1. Shoot in the early morning or evening.  When the sun is low in the sky, the sun casts long, soft shadows, and the color of the light is often more warm and pleasant.  Shooting during the "golden hour" around the time the sun is rising or setting can be tremendously helpful.  With the sun lower in the sky, there is less contrast and your camera will be able to record most, if not all of the detail in your scene.  Long, soft shadows of morning and evening are also often more pleasing in a photograph than the harsh shadows of midday. 
  2. Shoot on cloudy days.  Most people pick sunny days to go outdoors and enjoy nature, but  photographers frequently prefer cloudy, overcast days.  Clouds act like a giant diffuser that spreads out the light and remove shadows.  You'll also notice that the colors will look more saturated, since leaves and petals are reflecting less sunlight.
  3. Shoot with the sun to your back.  If you put the sun to your back, the sun will come from behind you and light the scene you're shooting more evenly.  Try this exercise.  Go out on a sunny day, and shoot the same subject with the sun behind you, in front of you, and to one or both sides.  See how the placement of the sun affects your image.  You may be surprised at the results.
  4. Shoot with a diffuser.  This tip only works when you are shooting small subjects.  But suppose your subject is a single flower.  Your image (background and foreground) may only cover a small area, and you can use a diffuser to cut down on the harsh sunlight.  A diffuser is a large, white, translucent screen that blocks part, but not all of the light from the sun.  It will cut down on your exposure values significantly, but you'll find that the lighting will have far less contrast and you'll be able to take pictures with more saturated colors. 
  5. Shoot with a polarizing filter.  Circular polarizing filters are a great tool to use outdoors, especially on sunny days.  Rotate the filter, and it will minimize reflections in your scene--this cuts down on bright spots in your photo due to reflections and helps to saturate colors.  The filter will be most effective when you are shooting at a right angle to the sun.  The easiest way to determine which directions are at right angles to the sun is to point to the sun with your index finger and stick out your thumb at a right angle from your index finger.  Then you can rotate your thumb around to identify all directions at right angles to the sun.  Be sure to adjust your polarizer as the day goes on, and every time you change your camera's orientation.  Also be careful of shooting with wide angle lenses with a polarizer in shots that include the sky.  You will see the sky grow darker and lighter throughout the frame.
The photograph above was taken on a bright sunny day, but I brought with me a diffuser that was able to improve the lighting of the small area covered by my photograph, making the image far more saturated with color than it would have been otherwise.


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