Worldwide Photographic Journeys

Photographing Nature in Harsh Light

22nd January 2019

Overcoming the challenges of shooting in difficult and or tough lighting conditions is a topic that comes up quite a lot on Wild Images photography tours, especially those trips where you’ll be spending the majority of the day out in the field.

We’ve all been there – the beautiful red, orange and yellow hues post sunrise, have all but faded and you’re rapidly heading towards midday. Even though subjects to photograph remain plentiful, you look disappointingly at your camera’s screen as you are presented with high contrast, often blown-out images that are no match for the dynamic shots you successfully managed to capture earlier in the day.

You may be inclined to think you’re heading into the period of the day that produces the worst conditions for working in colour, and you’d be right. In most cases these relatively poor images have nothing whatsoever to do with you and more to do with the existing conditions and the available light.

Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) at midday, Okavango Delta, Botswana (Image by Andrew Sproule)

As outdoor photographers we fully appreciate the lighting benefits of the ‘golden’ hour and will often shun these midday conditions. In spite of this and with a little knowhow, this harshly lit time of the day can yield some surprising results, especially if you think outside of the box and especially if you think in black-and-white.

I’m a big fan of black-and-white, especially as a tool for stressing the mood or accentuating emotion in imagery and therefore it’s often my main focus during the middle of the day. If there’s a willing subject and or location of interest, I simply redirect what is perceived as a negative set of conditions to an opportunity to try something different, something creative.

Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) bull taken at midday in South Africa (Image by Andrew Sproule)

Some Considerations While in the Field

These days, most cameras provide you with the ability to shoot in black-and-white at the point of capture, but this technique may not yield the most desirable outcome. What’s more, you will limit the extent to which you are able to make further enhancements in post processing.

A much sounder approach is to shoot in RAW and in colour. By shooting in RAW your images will contain a much wider range of tones to work with and therefore provide greater flexibility in post processing, with the added bonus that any changes performed will be entirely non-destructive, as the raw data will remain intact. By adjusting individual colour sliders in post processing you’ll be able to creatively take control of your images and really make them pop.

Adult male lion (Panthera leo) taken at midday in the Serengeti, Tanzania (Image by Andrew Sproule)

With a bit of practice, you’ll become familiar with the features that tend to produce the best black-and-white results. Typically these are images with:

  • Flat colours
  • Images with easily identifiable colour tones (think leopard in a dead tree) are prime contenders for conversion to black and white
  • Patterns, textures and or lots of detail
  • Specific colour tones
  • Sharp contrast

Filters for Black-and-White

A polarising filter is one of the few filters that are equally effective with colour imagery and with black-and-white. They can be used to:

  • Minimise or eliminate reflections
  • Darken skies
  • Cut through haze
  • Increase the saturation of colours

The great thing about using a polarising filter is that you can actually see the effect before taking the picture.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) taken at midday in South Africa (Image by Andrew Sproule)

Final Thoughts

A number of Wild Images photography tours benefit from not always having to return to base, so by being able to think in black-and-white, you’ll be able to extend the amount of time you’re able make usable shots.

Before you delete images (that you have taken during the tougher periods of the day) see if there are any contenders for black-and-white conversion. Also, think about going back through your archives, you’ll be surprised. Some of my best black-and-whites are from images that I had dismissed years ago, but luckily, had held on to!

Lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) Maasai Mara, Kenya, archived image (Image by Andrew Sproule)

You can of course make black-and-white images during the golden hours, or at any other time, for that matter. Will they be superior to those made midday? Not necessarily. However, black-and-white images made in sunny midday light will certainly be better than colour images taken at that time!

Author and Photographer:  Wild Images Leader Andrew Sproule