Most photographers know that shooting in broad daylight tends to make for unflattering photographs. The shadows are harsh, crisp, and make people squint. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to blow your highlights (aka overexpose) or underexpose.
But on the flip side of the same coin, midday light can make for interesting pictures — especially in black and white.
I am a sucker for contrasty B&W images. It’s a big part of why I love Ansel Adams’ pictures. Yes, he’s popular, due to a very savvy marketing team and a heaping spoonful of luck. But I’d like him even if he wasn’t.
The trick is to balance your exposure so that your subject isn’t lost in the black depths. Aim for just enough detail to be interesting.
Ideally you’ll also have a nice range of mid-tones — but not too much, otherwise it ends up looking flat (like the next picture where it lacks richer blacks).
When you’re working with broad daylight, it can be tough to choose the correct exposure. It’s tempting to let your camera decide for you, but they aren’t particularly smart and can’t read your mind. If you let your camera decide for you, it might choose to expose for the lighter areas of an image, ensuring the details in the blacks are obscured. Or it might expose for the shadows, and thus overexposing the lighter areas of the image.
If you want to learn more about managing your camera, your first stop should be your camera’s manual. If you’ve misplaced it, many camera manufacturers have PDF copies of the manual online. Some even have old film cameras’ manuals!
When in doubt: underexpose. Why?
It’s easier to digitally recover details in an underexposed image than an overexposed one.
The quick n’ dirty explanation for this is: when you overexpose, all the color information are lost. All the camera records is white. That’s why when you try to recover the details, it gets that funky, nauseating gray cast. The best photo editor in the world couldn’t fix it.
Many compact and digital SLRs have an option to shoot in B&W. I don’t recommend this mode because they will always process the image in the exact same way, and the results often are flat-looking and dull. The JPEG shooters will also be unable to revert it back to color, which is a major con.
However! If your camera has the option to shoot in RAW or both RAW and JPEG simultaneously and you have software capable of editing RAW, by all means, go for it. When you shoot in RAW, all the color data information is stored separately from the edited image. If you later decide you don’t like the B&W, you can easily revert it to the original color version. One of the many advantages to shooting in RAW.
Some photographers like this option because it helps them envision what their final image will look like in B&W.