Digital SLR photography — Why do your photos end up looking washed out and grey?
We’ve all experienced it: taken photos in beautiful surroundings on a delightful sunny day, only to be disappointed when the pictures end up with all the colour leeched out of them. What’s going wrong, and what can you do about it?
The white plumage of this Cattle Egret is stained bright orange by the light of a setting sun.
Time of the day
Sunlight has a harsh, desaturated look about it in the middle of the day, and it only gets worse when it’s overcast. Light like that will result in washed-out photos like the shot of the Willie Wagtail shown below-right.
You might be thinking I’m exaggerating. I mean, things might have looked great to your eyes when you took a photo in the middle of the day. But to understand what’s going on you have to pause for a moment to think about how your eyes (and brain) work.
Yuck! The harsh desaturated midday light washed most of the colour out of this photo of a Willie Wagtail.
If you stand in a room lit only by an incandescent bulb your eyes quickly become adjusted to the yellowish lighting, to the point where you don’t even notice the yellow tone in everything. Your camera will notice though, and faithfully record everything with a yellow tinge (unless the correct white-balance settings were used). This same tendency for the eyes/brain to ‘adjust’ means we often don’t notice just how desaturated and bad the colours can be in the middle of a bright, sunny day. But your camera will record things exactly as they are.
So the first thing you want to keep in mind is the time of day you take your shots.
Why is the middle of the day so bad?
In the hours near midday, the sun is high in the sky and therefore its light travels through less atmosphere to reach you than if it was low above the horizon. The diagram above shows what I’m talking about. Yes, yes, I know — I haven’t drawn it to scale.
Now compare that with the first hour of sunlight in the morning or the last in the evening, which I’ve drawn in the next picture, below. You’ll see that, at those times the light has to travel through a lot more atmosphere before it gets to you. That atmosphere has lots of tiny particles in it, and they infuse the light with the kind of warm, golden tones missing from your midday shots.
The Golden Hour
Photographers sometimes refer to the last hour of sunlight in the evening, or the first hour of sunlight in the morning, as the Golden Hour. The word ‘hour’ in Golden Hour shouldn’t be taken too literally though because sometimes the really good light only lasts for a few special minutes.
Taken in the middle of the day, this photo came out so desaturated it could almost pass for a black and white shot
This Darter was photographed in exactly the same place as the seagull shot above. The only difference? It was taken during the hour before sunset. No sneaky software image manipulation was needed to get these strong colours — this is how the picture looked straight out of the camera.
Standing outside when the light’s at its most saturated in colour, the most wonderful thing happens. Colours start reaching beautiful levels of intensity, with reds and yellows appearing to glow from within, and the camera obediently captures all of it.
Suddenly you’re recording the kinds of colours the professionals get in their postcard shots. To make things even better, the sunlight will be hitting your subject front-on or from the side, instead of from above. Harsh shadows are filled in with rich colours.
To take advantage of this kind of light you ideally need to be in position, all set up and ready for your shots before the light reaches its peak. Professional photographers often get up really early in the morning when it’s still dark, so they can be ready outdoors in their pre-arranged spot as the sun rises. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. Cloud cover or haze can ruin everything, but then sometimes you really do get lucky.
If you must work in the brightest hours of the day, you’ll be grateful for a trick that cuts back on the glare and restores some welcome colour to the skies: using a polarising filter.
Midday lighting sucked the warm tones out of this building but at least my polarising filter put some good colour into the sky. Like the other examples on this page, this image did not require any digital manipulation to achieve that colour
Polarising filters don’t cost nearly as much as a lens, but they can help your middle-of-the-day shots a whole lot.
For a polarising filter to get the deep blue appearance in the sky, you should point the camera in a direction that’s 90 degrees from the sun.
They enhance the ability to see into water (by cutting down the glare on the water surface), darken skies (while keeping the clouds white) and reduce the amount of reflected glare bouncing off surfaces like foliage. The result of all that is more colour in your photos.
When you’re using a polarising there are a few things you need to know:
- With autofocus digital SLRs the type of polarising filter you’ll need is a Circular Polarising filter.
- You need to rotate the filter on your lens to find the most effective angle. So for example, if the end of your lens rotates as you zoom then you’ll need to keep adjusting your polariser filter a lot more
- If you want to darken the sky, the polarising filter is most effective when you are facing in a direction that’s 90 degrees from the sun. So if you’re facing the sun, or have the sun directly behind you, the effect won’t be noticeable.
Too many clouds
A few small clouds in the sky can help a shot by scattering light into the shadows, preventing them from being too dark. But too many clouds can cause your shots to lose colour.
I won’t go into the science, but let’s just say that if the sky is full of clouds then a lot of the rich colours will disappear from your shots. That’s not always a bad thing though, because clouds can add drama to a picture, and sunlight peeking through a gap in the clouds after rain can sometimes produce amazing lighting.
Is midday photography a lost cause?
No! There are plenty of great shots possible at all hours of the day (and night). It’s just that you have to be a bit resourceful around the middle of day if you want to get good colour into your shots. One trick used by the pros, for example, is to get an assistant to hold a great big reflective sheet of gold-coloured metallic foil to bounce golden light into a scene. Or you can stand next to warm-coloured walls. And of course there are always polarising filters (mentioned above) to cut back on glare and get some nice blue into the skies.
A nearby bushfire caused the sunlight to take on a rich, orange colour, which allowed me to get good colour into this picture of a Crimson Rosella
And sometimes you just get lucky. When I saw the Crimson Rosella in the photo at right there was a hazard-reduction bush fire burning in the bush a few kilometers away. The sky was full of smoke, which softened the light and gave it a rich, yellow-orange tone similar to the Golden Hour. All I had to do was wait for the bird to jump out of the shadows and into a spot illuminated by that light. Once again, I’ve done no image-editing trickery to change the colours in this photo because I want you to see the difference good light can make.
Taken in the middle of the day, this macro photo received all the saturated light it needed from the flash
And then there’s macro photography, where it’s likely your flash will overwhelm the surrounding light anyway. The photo of the bee shown at right was taken only a few minutes before the Willie Wagtail shot at the top of this page, yet it doesn’t lack the warm tones.
As for photography other than macro, professional photographers use all sorts of tricks to restore the warm tones in the middle of the day. For example they might use large sheets of shiny gold foil to reflect warm light onto their subjects. Or they will put yellow gels over their flash for the same reason. A yellow wall or rock face can also cast warming tones onto a subject. If you look around and be a bit resourceful there is nothing stopping you from getting better colour into your shots in most situations.
In the middle of a bright, cloudless day, shadows can be extremely harsh. The way to fix that problem is to use some flash to throw some light into the dark bits, but when I’m working with cute baby birds with potentially sensitive eyes I really don’t like using flash. And besides, this example better illustrates the problems your camera faces in the brightest times of the day. By the way, apart from washed-out colours, the problem I’m talking about here is to do with there being too much of a difference between the lightest and darkest parts of this scene, or to use the proper term, dynamic range. The bird is a Black Swan cygnet.
Even the clouds which were a problem before, because they filled the scene with scattered, desaturated light, can become extremely useful to the professionals by faithfully filling shadow areas with ambient light. You see, the trick with photography is to work with light and the pros understand this really well.
How I work if the light is really harsh
We can’t always pick the times or places we work, so if you’re out working in the middle of the day, then you might want to know my technique for working in harsh light.
Another potential trap with midday photography: exposure settings going wrong
Hey, I could fill a whole page about just this subject. So I did.