As a photographer and a workshop leader, I often ask my students this question – “What is wrong with this image, and how can I correct it?” Inevitably, the answer gravitates towards a technical solution. Students suggest using a filter, or a tripod, or a different camera settings. They suggest processing the shot differently, or using HDR software, or choosing a different contrast setting.” There’s nothing wrong with any of those solutions if they take care of the problem, of course. But, I’m often looking for a different answer. Sometimes it isn’t about those technical options.
I posted this shot on social media recently, and asked the same question – “What’s wrong, and how can I fix it?”
I got over 50 responses – and most people noted that the sky was overexposed. They’re definitely right about that. There are no details in the sky, so the top half of the photo is pretty uninspiring. But, in response to my request for a solution, I found the same responses again and again. Every single person who offered a solution suggested something technical. Some suggested using a GND filter to reduce the brightness of the sky – that would work. Others suggested bracketing, and blending exposures later with layers and masks in Photoshop. That would work too. Some suggested that I delete the image, and then use in-camera HDR to create a blended image. These are all valid solutions, to be sure – but each requires additional equipment in addition to my camera or considerable post-processing skills. So, maybe they aren’t realistic options for a lot of photographers. So, what can the casual photographer do? Is there a way to capture the beauty of the scene without extra equipment or skills?
Actually, there is a way to do it… but it seems that it has taken a back seat in the photography world these days. We are all embracing technology – and for good reason – but it’s not the only way. Here are some tips for a casual photographers who want to avoid purchasing the latest and greatest equipment or software.
Look for evenly lit areas
The main problem with the image above is that the scene is not evenly lit, so the photographer has to choose between exposing for the sky, or for the foreground. The camera can’t handle bright sun and deep shade all at once. Look what happens when I waited until the sun lit up the foreground. It’s possible to capture a scene like this with a single shot if the light you are working with is relatively even. I took a single shot to capture this – and it required almost no processing.
As you can see this image is properly exposed for both the foreground and the sky.
Here is a shot from Cannon Beach I made with my old Canon 10D camera. When you have an interesting foreground, sometimes it’s not necessary to show detail in every part of the image. Strong shapes like these “needles” at Cannon beach make for a very nice silhouette.
Human figures can make good silhouettes too.
Focus on the details
When the light is harsh, try to focusing on small details. Flowers, patterns in the mud, splashes of water… small subjects make beautiful photos too. If the area is small enough, you can use your body to create a little bit of shade – or you can use a hand-held diffuser to filter direct sunlight. Here’s a shot from Death Valley that I took using my body to shade the area.
Please don’t think that I’m suggesting that post-processing skills are unnecessary. I believe in using whatever tools you have to make beautiful photographs. My point is just that it’s not always necessary to rely on technology as a quick “fix”. Sometimes, smart fieldwork is a better solution.
That photo I asked about earlier? Here’s another version of the same shot. For this one, I combined three bracketed images to produce a blended image using our iHDR manual blending workflow. It’s up to you to decide how you want to produce your finished images. Just remember that your options are wide open!