Beginning photographers are often cautioned to always keep the sun at their back because shooting into the sun or against a bright sky requires understanding how light works and how your camera meters for exposure. Understanding the limitations of your camera's dynamic range (the ratio between maximum and minimum measurable brightness of light...white and black) is key; while the human eye can see a range of up to 24 f-stops, your digital camera can only see 10-14 f-stops. When a scene encompasses a range of more than 10 f-stops of brightness your camera simply cannot expose properly for both the brightest and darkest values. If you have it set to automatic exposure the brightest whites will show as gray and your subject will be greatly underexposed and look like muddy silhouettes. That's when you need to decide from a creative standpoint if you want to expose the brightest areas properly and let the darker values go black, or expose for the darker values (such as people) and let the brightest value blow out (go pure white).
Saturday was the annual San Juan Capistrano Swallows' Day Parade, part of the Fiesta de las Golondrinas (Festival of the Swallow). After just about any Mardi Gras parade this is the most fun parade I've ever attended. It is the country's largest non-motorized parade and that means lots of beautiful horses. The parade celebrates the legend of the return of the swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano and is a wonderful display of heritage, history and culture with caballeros, vaqueros, wild west outlaws, local Indian tribes, mounted sheriff's posse from around the state, dancing horses, a group of tiny little padres, children dressed as swallows and the beautiful little dancers from Ballet Folklerico in their colorful dresses.
I like to shoot a parade from down low (very low) for two reason; it isolates the main subject against the sky instead of getting lost in the crowd and it makes my photos different from everyone else's. If you see a crazy blonde lying in the street with her camera at a parade, that's me! The route the Swallows' Day Parade runs puts the sun behind the riders and if you don't compensate for this you will be disappointed with your photos. This year we had a heavy overcast sky but right before the start of the parade the sun decided to become strong enough to make the overcast sky and clouds very bright.
There are a few easy ways to properly exposure the foreground when shooting against a bright sky:
- You can use fill flash.
- You can use spot-metering instead of evaluative and meter off your subject. This can be tough to do when shooting a fast moving subject such as birds in flight or horses galloping by.
- You can use exposure compensation, either in-camera compensation or manually. With dark subjects against a very bright sky you need to compensate about 2 full stops give or take. With digital it's usually easy enough to take a few shots and make adjustments until you get the exposure dialed in right where you want it. You can either use evaluative metering and +2 compensation in aperture-priority or shutter-priority modes depending on your subject(or programmed mode if that's where you are in your photography education...it will still give you a much better image than shooting straight program mode without any compensation), or you can set your exposure manually. Using a fairly wide aperture will help separate your subject from the background crowd.
Using this technique does mean that you may suffer some minor problems from light leak around trees, hair and other fine objects at times, but it's a fair trade-off for having a properly exposed subject.
Same as every year, when I looked behind me on Saturday I was drooling over how bright the colorful costumes were in the sun. I wonder if I can convince the parade organizers to run the route in the opposite direction for even prettier photos?
Click to see more photos from SJC Swallows' Day Parade