When I was new to photography I read everything I could get my hands on and tried to soak it all up at once like a human sponge: aperture, shutter speed, composition, custom camera settings, golden ratio, white balance, details, details, details ad infinitum. In the beginning my brain was like a sieve, absorbing very little, though thank goodness, I did keep shooting.
I’ve since come to understand that learning photography is a bit like learning a new language, or really anything with a lot of moving parts. Until a few foundational facts are locked into place in your brain, you have no framework or scaffolding upon which you can hook new knowledge. So, rather than remember those settings, I’d have to go back to my book or tutorial over and over again, wondering when any of this stuff was going to feel like second nature . . . until suddenly it did.
Funny thing, though, the few things that really lodged themselves in my brain from those early days of reading expert advice over and over and over again were rules, many of which I’ve come to find utterly useless in the years since I’ve learned my way around a camera. Case in point, “Don’t shoot in mid-day sun. How many times have you read that? Fine if you’re scheduling an outdoor portrait session, but not at all helpful if you’re on vacation somewhere sunny. People don’t sit around waiting for the golden hour to make their photographic travel memories.
I know some of you are already into the back-to-school routine, but where I live we’ve got a bit more summer to come, so I thought I’d share a few tips on how I deal with summer’s light and heat in my photography.
#1. You know you’re going to have shadows, so find some interesting ones.
Shadows can drive your composition
Highlight unique details
Or add drama to an image if you play the lightest spot, where you know the viewer’s eye will be drawn, off a darker counterpoint.
#2 Lurk in dark alleys.
Not really, but do seek out the shaded areas beside buildings or under the canopies of large trees or awnings. You want to find spaces large enough so that there’s plenty of room for your subject to be completely in shadow. At mid-day you’ll have more than enough ambient light, even in the shade, for a lovely, even exposure, and your subject won’t have sun-squint eyes for a bonus. What you may sacrifice in not having the “photo in front of monument in the plaza”, you’ll more than make up for in having the time to carefully compose your portrait without nearly as much visual street noise.
#3 Heat needs focus
Street shooting, a mainstay of travel photography, is a kind of still version of cinéma vérité. I want to remember and hold onto the closest thing I can get to my real travel experiences, so if it’s white hot out at mid-day, I won’t shy away from shooting. But in white hot mid-day you might have to get a little creative about how you frame your photo or where you place your focus to end up with properly exposed images.
Here, I shot through the protection of an awning to the foot traffic on the far side of the canal, focusing on items in the shaded foreground.
In this image, an iconic Burano photo that I felt compelled to take, even though it is cliché, there was a pretty wide difference in exposure between the shaded and sunny sides of the street. The reflections were an approximate mid-point, so I spent a bit of time getting the exposure spot on for the reflected poles. When I look at this photo, I can almost feel the heat radiating off of the wide, near sidewalk, but I can see details in the shadowed opposite side of the canal as well.
#5 Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun, but since, as we all know, that’s where the fun is, look for a work-around.
Reflective surfaces – which bounce light and soften it – are your friend in the high heat of mid day. I scout out shop windows, water, mirrors, anything that will help me paint the scene without shooting straight into the sun.
and depending upon the angle of your reflected surface, you may have the opportunity to create some interesting compositions ranging from the surreal, altered-reality to a sort of all in one image collage of your street-scene.
For the timid street shooter, waiting and fiddling with your camera while looking at a shop window or watery surface for your shot to emerge is so non-threatening to passers-by. You’ll be completely ignored while you compose your photo.
How do you manage summer’s light and heat in your photography? I’d love to know.
Keep your eyes wide open,