When a Picture-Perfect Day Isn’t So Perfect for Pictures
By F. M. Kearney
“Picture-perfect” is a term used to describe something that is exactly as desired, hoped for or imagined – in a word … flawless. It’s believed that its origin is traced back to the early days of photography, which was very expensive and labor-intensive. Photographers took pains to ensure that everything was arranged as perfectly as possible for the photo. By most accounts, a picture-perfect day would probably be one with a clear blue sky, little to no clouds and abundant sunshine. Whenever I’m shooting out in the field on such a day, someone will invariably approach me and remark, “Wow, such a beautiful day for pictures!” I’ll politely smile and nod in agreement, but inside I’m thinking: Are you kidding? This lighting is terrible!
I shot the opening photo on one of those “picture-perfect” days on Daffodil Hill in the New York Botanical Garden. It was at the beginning of Spring and the daffodils and crabapples were in peak bloom. Scenes like this always tend to look better in person than in photos. That’s because your eyes are much better at decerning details in harsh shadows and highlights than a digital sensor… and infinitely better than film. In photography, this is referred to as “dynamic range.” The higher the dynamic range of your sensor, the better it will be at handling high-contrast situations. A sensor with a high dynamic range does quite a good job with wide-angle landscape scenes such as this, but it doesn’t do so well when it comes to close-ups. Heavy contrast becomes much more obvious. Although details may not be completely lost, they’re certainly not being seen at their best… nor is the subject’s color. This is why most photographers prefer to shoot floral portraits on overcast days. The flat, soft lighting provides even-toned images that are saturated in color and free of contrast. (Personally, I prefer to shoot flowers on bright sunny days, because I often like to add special effects in post that look best in high-contrast light. But… that’s another article.)
Nature photographers are always at the mercy of the weather. It’s guaranteed that perfect conditions will not exist every time you want to photograph something. If you’re unable (or unwilling) to wait for an overcast day to shoot your favorite flowers, you will have to use lighting aids to get the best results. You can use either a reflector or a flash. On some occasions, I’ve actually used both. I prefer to use a flash, because it’s far more versatile than a reflector. But I’m not talking about a built-in, pop-up flash. I’m referring to a separate flash unit, which offers more control over the light than a pop-up version. Quality flash units can be a little pricey, but they’re worth it if you want to take your photography to the next level.
It may seem counter-intuitive to use a flash on a beautiful, sunny day. However, Photos A and C clearly show the poor results of white cherry blossoms taken on such a day. I used a flash to shoot Photos B and D – revealing so much more details and colors that the difference was literally like night and day.
While the benefits of using a flash on sunny days are evident, it should not be automatically assumed that these benefits are necessarily better in every situation. The flash really opened up the shadows and revealed the true colors of the cherry blossoms in Photo F. However, there was something about the dappled lighting of the “unflashed” blossoms in Photo E that kind of intrigued me. It was as if little spotlights were strategically highlighting the dew drops in key areas of the cluster. The color didn’t really add anything to the photo, in fact, it was almost a distraction. I wanted to see what it would look like as a monochrome and I was pleasantly surprised. The lack of color (and extra light) really made the dew drops pop in Photo G. Sometimes, it might be better to keep the shadows (or even enhance them) in order to create a more artsy type of image.
The flat lighting of an overcast day will definitely eliminate annoying shadows, but it still doesn’t mean that the lighting is perfect. I shot a series of plantain lilies on a cloudy day that illustrate the subtle (but definite) improvements a flash can make. Photo H shows how the lilies look without a flash. At first glance, they look fairly decent in the soft, even lighting. But, the benefits of a flash are clearly seen in Photo I, by providing better lighting and color on the stamens and within the interior of the bulbs.
Dealing With White Balance
You’re probably familiar with adjusting the white balance on your camera, so that objects that are white remain white in any type of lighting. However, there is no such setting on your flash. The light output from your flash is always white light. This means that regardless of the ambient light around your subject, the flash will illuminate it in lighting equivalent to that of the midday sun. This may or may not be to your liking. Although the flash gave me better lighting in Photo I, it was a very “cool” type of lighting. To make it a bit more pleasing, I placed a warming gel filter over my flash head for Photo J. In fact, I typically use a warming filter whenever I use my flash outdoors. Of course, this all comes down to personal preference. If you don’t mind (or prefer) the look of white light on your subjects, then don’t worry about altering the tone of you flash.
An important thing to keep in mind when using a flash is that it shouldn’t look like you used a flash. This means controlling its output and direction. The first step is to set it to the TTL (through-the-lens) setting. This will automatically adjust its output to the exposure coming through your camera’s lens – an important feature that prevents an overexposure when shooting outdoors in bright sunlight. A TTL setting will only put out enough light to open up the shadows. Nevertheless, I usually reduce its output even further by setting it to -1/3 or -2/3 stop.
The main benefit of a dedicated flash unit over a pop-up is the ability to control the direction of the light. A pop-up flash can only provide direct lighting – not the most attractive in most situations. With the aid of a TTL flash cord, a separate flash unit can be used off-camera. By attaching one end of the cord to your camera’s hotshoe and the other end to your flash, you will be able to handhold your flash and point it in any direction. This is extremely helpful in controlling where the shadows fall, as well as avoiding obstacles which might cast their own shadows onto the subject if the direction of the light isn’t controlled. Of course, the use of a tripod is highly recommended.
So, remember, just because a day may look “picture-perfect” to you, your camera will see it much differently. A flash will definitely improve your close-up images on a sunny day. And even though its effects are difficult to see without a side-by-side comparison, it will benefit your images on a cloudy day as well.
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at email@example.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).
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