Looking on the Bright Side

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In the Northwest we spend a lot of time photographing in cloudy conditions.  The clouds act like a giant lampshade, softening and spreading out the light.  With light coming from so much of the sky we can shoot from many different angles relative to the position of the sun and get decent lighting.  But shooting under full sun requires us to be very aware of the sun’s position and what shadows are being cast.

An important first step when you arrive on location on a sunny day is to look where the sun is.  Usually you’ll want it somewhere behind you.  This will light up your subject and put a nice catch-light in their eyes.  The sun doesn’t have to be directly behind, in fact if it’s off a little to one side your subject will look a little more three dimensional.  With the sun coming in at an angle, some parts of your subject will be brighter and others will be more shaded.  Those bright and dark areas enhance the shape of your subject.  Try experimenting with the sun at different positions behind you while photographing your dog or cat’s face to get a great feel for this.

You can also get great photos with the sun in other positions.  The key is to watch the light and how it’s working with your subject.  And have fun experimenting.  Backlighting is a great example.  Backlighting is when the sun is behind your subject.  On very furry — especially lighter toned — dogs and cats, backlighting can create an unusual and fun photo by making the outer edge of their fur glow.  Other subjects on the other hand, like pure black dogs and cats, can become just a dark shape when backlit.  Side lighting, where the sun is off to one side, can also create interesting and sometimes dramatic photos.  The great thing about the sun is you can use your eyes to see what’s happening. 

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Full sun creates shadows to be particularly aware of.  Our eyes can see a much broader range of light and dark than our camera’s.  So a mix of sun and shadow may well appear as relatively lighter and darker areas to our eye.  But to the camera those shadows may turn completely black and the bright areas may become completely white.  Further complicating things, our brains tune shadows out for the most part, seemingly assuming they aren’t important.  So as photographers we have to make a conscious effort to really see shadows.  Otherwise a shadow falling across your dog or cat’s face which just appeared a little darker to your eye while shooting may be completely black in the resulting photo. 

So when you arrive on location, first position yourself relative to the sun.  Then scan the environment for existing shadows.  You may find static objects like trees creating shadows that you want to keep in mind as you photograph.  But also remember you and everyone else are casting shadows too — so be constantly aware of the shadows you and your assistants are casting.   If someone is helping you with the shoot it can be helpful to ask them to help you watch for shadows.

This month’s assignment again uses sunlight to create a photo.  But this month I’d love to see you try something experimental, whether it’s backlighting or using shadow in an interesting way, or any other use of sunlight.  The key is to use a technique you haven’t often used.  I look forward to your photos and please also let me know how it went — what you liked about the process and what you learned.

Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: David@DavidChildsPhotography.com. Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Visit Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in October for your next session!
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David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at www.DavidChildsPhotography.com