I have mentioned on numerous occasions that most of my photography revolves around a lunchtime walk through Sydney streets. Many photographic teachings and tutorials will tell you that the best time to take photographs are at so called golden hour – the first and last hour of sunlight. This is because of the special qualities the light has at that time. Midday on another hand when I do my photographs is probably the least desired as it results in high contrast, difficult to control light conditions.
For a street photographer time of the day should not matter as the main subject of interest – the people – are most active at that time. The trick is to find spots in the city where the light may be reflected or diffused by surrounding buildings, overhead shopping awnings or event reflected of a poster stand glass. It even matters on which side of the road I walk and how am I positioned in relation to the brightest elements in my view and the person who I want to photograph.
Although the this photograph of Sydney Harbour Bridge is a typical landscape and not a street candid it demonstrates well the issue of light control. Just to the right of the image centre there are a couple of people having lunch at a table. They are completely black, reduced to silhouettes. This occurs because this photograph was taken in the direction of the bright overcasted, cloudy sky just above the Harbour Bridge. In cases like that finding the right point for your exposure is critical. If you measure of a point too bright the entire image will result in overly black photograph. On another hand if you measure light of too dark elements, the bright highlights in the sky will be turned into one big white blob in photographic terms referred to as “blown highlights”.
In this particular case I have used -2/3EV exposure correction assuming all but the very brightest spots in the sky and on the umbrellas will retain proper details. Could I have done anything else to improve this light balance? Yes. Firstly, I have used ISO setting, which was too sensitive for the light conditions. I have my camera set for quick people capture, not for landscapes and thus ISO400 is almost my standard. If I had planned this photograph I would also use gradual Neutral density filter which would prevent the sky from overpowering the reminder of the scene. The resulting photograph would have better tones but… if would not capture the nature of Sydney’s lunchtime weather as this one does.
Is there an easy way of dealing with light conditions like this? Again, the answer is yes for most modern cameras. Advanced photographers use the histogram all the time. Point-and-shoot photographers may not even know the function even exists on their camera. I strongly recommend you become familiar with this function and read the camera manual describing how to use this function on your camera. It will help you become a better photographer.