When you first start taking photographs, you tend to greet a bright, sunny day with excitement, thinking this will be an ideal day for taking pictures.
Unless you happen to be Helmut Newton, and who is anymore, you’ll soon find you are mistaken. Sort of.
All things being equal, a sunny day can be ideal IF you are looking for a very high-contrast look – bright whites and deep shadows, and very little gradation in between. So your first definition is “contrast” – which is a measure of the difference in intensity between the blackest and the whitest point in the image.
You may want this as a creative effect for a black and white image. High contrast is arguably not so satisfying in the more realistic esthetic of color images; you will probably want the subtle gradations in the colors to come through.
Have a look at this snapshot, taken on my balcony, of a rose I’m growing this year:
I deliberately used the light “as is” to show a high-contrast image. The 12 noon light¹ here is very harsh, and you can see over-exposure in the petals that have been rendered with a silvery tone.
(Confession: I used the “recovery” slider in Camera Raw to pull back the blown out highlights, so this image is an improvement at least over “just out of the camera”.)
Beginning photographers end up with a lot of pics like this. You have to train your eye, but first you have to know what you’re looking for and how to troubleshoot.
You can improve this situation by diffusing the light.
This is the principle that you can spread and soften the glare by arranging for the light on your subject to be shining through something translucent – in terms of pro equipment, a softbox, or umbrella for example.
If you are photo-walking, you can have your subject (if it’s human and not floral) stand just inside the shade thrown by a tree, or just inside a doorway. Anywhere that’s not completely exposed to the unmitigated glare of sunlight.
With tongue in cheek, I simply grabbed a collapsible umbrella (the rain kind) and found a quick way to balance it so that it shaded the roses. You don’t always need fancy equipment, and it’s good to be resourceful…! Just be aware that if the umbrella had been brightly colored, that color cast would end up in the image.
Here’s the result:
I think it’s safe to say that this is an improvement.
Now we can actually see the subject without imagining we’re squinting; the colors are more subtly graduated. You can see the luscious reds of the rose in a way that conveys their soft, velvety quality.
I rest my case. Try this for yourself, if this idea is new to you, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
There really is no right or wrong way to do things, you know. Once you get stuck in that groove, you may as well give your camera a subway token and send it out by itself, because you will have relinquished your creative control.
focal length : 50 mm
Spot metering on the red petals (to avoid rendering them too dark)
1/180 s at f 8
¹ (By the way, this problem is worst when the sun is high; the golden hours of dawn and dusk, with a low angle of rising or setting sun, are a different matter: these times are traditionally exploited for gorgeous, soft lighting effects. Get yourself up at 5 am in July and get thee to your favorite spot – and you’ll see why.)