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Descriptions of Basic Daylight
Lighting Conditions

Bright or Hazy Sun, Average Subjects
Bright or Hazy Sun, on Light Sand or Snow
Weak, Hazy Sun
Cloudy Bright
Open Shade
Heavy Overcast
Bright Sunlight
Sidelighting and Backlighting
Reduced Lighting Contrast
Fill-In Flash
Reflectors
No Direct Sunlight
Sunsets

The lighting outdoors in the daytime is quite variable. Sometimes it's brilliant sunlight that might be shining on the front, side, or back of your subject. At other times it may be the shadowless light of an overcast day or the dim light of a deep forest. Knowing how to make the most of the various daylight lighting situations will mean better pictures for you. Understanding outdoor lighting will make you aware of more interesting picture possibilities and increase your creative abilities.

To become familiar with the nature of outdoor lighting, you should have a clear impression of the basic daylight lighting conditions and the exposures they require. Even though most 35mm cameras have built-in exposure meters, you can use the exposure guidelines to verify that you're using your exposure meter correctly or to determine the correct exposure to use if your meter is not working properly.

Bright or Hazy Sun, Average Subjects

The sun is shining with a blue sky or the sun is covered with a thin haze. The sun is unobstructed and clearly defined, though scattered clouds may be present. Shadows are sharp and distinct.

You can determine the basic exposure for frontlighted, average subjects in bright or hazy sun by a simple formula: 1/Film Speed second at f/16. For example, if you're using a film with a speed of ISO (ASA) 64, the exposure would be 1/64 second at f/16. Use 1/60 second, the speed nearest to 1/64 on your camera. You can use this formula to find the exposure if you don't have an exposure meter or if your meter is in need of repair. We will refer to this basic exposure in our discussion of other lighting conditions. 

Bright or Hazy Sun, on Light Sand or Snow

The sun and sky condition is the same as for the first lighting condition given above, but the subjects are on very light sand or snow. Since these bright surfaces reflect a lot of light, the recommended exposure is 1 stop less than the basic exposure for average subjects.

Note that the exposure corrections given in this section are for use with the basic daylight exposure defined on above, not with exposure meter readings. Refer to exposure for how to use in-camera and handheld exposure meters.

Because reflected-light exposure meters can be fooled by such light backgrounds, to determine the proper exposure make a close-up reading of the subject. If this is not practical, be suspicious of a meter reading that calls for an exposure much less than 1 stop less than the basic exposure for average, frontlighted subjects in bright or hazy sunlight. If the meter reading is too high because of the bright background, you'll probably get better results using the exposure recommendations given here.

Weak, Hazy Sun

The light from the sun is weakened by a heavy haze and the sun's disk is visible but diffusely outlined. Shadows are weak and soft but readily apparent. Since there are no harsh shadows, these conditions are wonderful for photographing people.

With weak, hazy sun, you use 1 stop more exposure for average subjects than the basic exposure for bright sunlight.

Cloudy Bright

The sun is hidden by light clouds. The sky may be completely overcast or there may be scattered clouds. You can't see the sun's disk, but you can tell where it is by a bright area in the sky. There are no shadows.

Cloudy bright requires an exposure 2 stops greater than for bright sunlight.

Open Shade

This is the kind of lighting you have when your subject is in the shadow of a nearby large object such as a house or a building. But you can still see a large area of open sky overhead, in front of the subject. 

Open shade usually requires an exposure increase of 3 stops over that for bright sunlight. 

Heavy Overcast

The sky is filled with heavy clouds and there's no bright area to show the location of the sun. There are no extremely dark areas to indicate an approaching storm and there are no shadows. 

Use 3 stops more exposure for heavy overcast lighting than for bright sunlight. 

Bright Sunlight

Most outdoor pictures are made in bright sunlight. This type of lighting offers the advantage of making colors look their brightest and snappiest. Exposure calculation is also simpler in bright sunlight because you can use the same exposure settings for most subjects. As long as you take pictures of average frontlighted subjects, you can shoot during most of the day at the same exposure settings. 

A basic way to take pictures is in bright sunlight with frontlighting. The sun is behind the photographer's back or slightly off to the side. When the sun is at a slight angle to the camera axis, modeling from the highlights and the shadows on your subject gives it a three-dimensional quality.

Sidelighting and Backlighting

If you photograph all your subjects by frontlighting, you'll miss some excellent picture possibilities. Sidelighting and backlighting can help create interesting and pictorial photographs. You can use sidelighting and backlighting to produce strong separation between a subject and the background because the lighting creates a rim of light around the subject. You can use this type of lighting to emphasize the shape of the subject since sidelighting and backlighting create highlights and shadows called modeling. You can also use strong sidelighting to bring out surface textures and backlighting to capture the translucent quality of flowers and foliage. These advantages are lost when the sunlight comes over your shoulder and falls directly on the front of your subject. 

When you take pictures of backlighted and sidelighted subjects, shielding your camera lens from the direct rays of the sun will help to avoid lens flare. You can use a lens hood or the shadow from your hand or a nearby object. Also be sure the sun's rays don't strike the light-sensitive cell of an automatic camera or exposure meter. 

You'll usually need to use larger lens openings or slower shutter speeds for this type of lighting than for frontlighted subjects. In close-up pictures, especially of people, the shadows will probably be large and contain important details. To capture this detail, increase exposure for sidelighted subjects 1 stop over the normal exposure you'd use for frontlighted subjects, and give backlighted subjects 2 stops more exposure than normal. When you're photographing subjects at a medium distance and shadows are part of the scene but not too prominent, increase exposure by only 1/2 stop from normal for sidelighted subjects and 1 stop for backlighted subjects. If you're photographing a distant scenic view in which shadows are relatively small and don't contain important detail, usually no exposure increase is necessary. 

Reduced Lighting Contrast

The contrast between shadow and highlight in brightly sunlighted conditions is frequently greater than film can reproduce. The answer is to reduce the contrast by brightening the shadows of important scene elements to preserve valuable detail. 

Fill-In Flash

Fill-in flash is especially useful for brightening the shadows in scenes with nearby people or objects with detail you want revealed. With people, you'll probably get more relaxed expressions because your subjects will be looking away from the sun. Now they won't have to squint. 

SLR cameras with built-in or dedicated accessory flash units make fill-in flash easy. Often you have only to turn on the flash or camera. The camera will then fire the flash with the correct amount of light to lighten the shadows. Low and medium-speed films, such as 100 ISO film, work best with fill-in flash. On bright days, these slower films allow you to use the correct synch speed required for flash. For detailed procedures on fill-in flash, see the section on flash photography

Reflectors

Another good way of reducing the contrast of a nearby subject on a sunny day is to use a reflector to bounce light into the shadow areas. The reflector can be almost anything that will reflect light-a large piece of white paper, crumpled aluminum foil, or even a white sheet. Don't use a colored reflector with color films because it will reflect light of its own color onto your subject. 

Try to have the reflector close enough to your subject, but not in the picture, to bring the light level in the shadows within 1 stop of normal sunlight exposure. Expose as you would for a normal frontlighted subject.

Sometimes you'll be able to take advantage of natural reflectors in a scene to fill in the shadows. If you can photograph your subject in surroundings including bright reflective surfaces like light sand, white buildings, or snow, the light reflected from them will often fill in the shadows to produce a pleasant lighting effect.

No Direct Sunlight

On overcast days or for subjects in the shade, lighting contrast is very low. In these situations you simply use an exposure meter to determine exposure or follow the exposure table in the film instructions. With this very soft and shadowless type of lighting, you won't need to use fill-in flash or reflectors.

When you take color slides on overcast days or in the shade, it's a good idea to use a No. 1A, or skylight, filter over the camera lens. This filter reduces the bluishness of color slides made with this type of lighting. No exposure compensation is necessary with the skylight filter. 

You're bound to encounter some unusual outdoor lighting situations, such as those found on foggy days or on the back porch during a rainstorm. In such situations, your best friend is an exposure meter or an automatic camera.

On rainy days keep your camera dry by shooting from under shelter, using an umbrella, or placing your camera in a plastic bag with only the front of the lens poking out. Use a skylight filter too keep the front lens element dry. 

Sunsets

Sunsets often cause built-in meters, whether in an automatic or manual camera, to recommend the wrong exposure. Set the exposure based on a meter reading of the sky next to but excluding the sun. This exposure will record the sky at the brightness you see and cause foreground subjects to become silhouettes.

Beautiful sunsets are superb subjects with rich, dramatic color and sunset pictures are easy to take. For proper exposure, just go by the meter reading of the colorful sky and clouds but do not include the sun in the metered area. Usually the exposure for 100 ISO film (Daylight) when the sun is partly or wholly obscured by a cloud is 1/125 second f/8. To have more assurance of obtaining saturated colors, it's best to bracket the estimated exposure by plus and minus 1 stop. When the sun is below the horizon, the sunset is dimmer, so try an exposure series of 1/60 second f/5.6, 1/60 second f/4, and 1/60 second f/2.8 with the films mentioned above. With 200 ISO film use 1 stop less exposure than given above.

Your sunset pictures will be even better when you include a foreground object that will photograph as a silhouette with the sunset in the background.

Keep your lens sparkling clean because dust particles, fingerprints, or other foreign matter can cause considerable lens flare when you photograph sunsets.

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