In Praise of Shade

Red-legged Cormorant (Phalacrocorax gaimardi) Nesting Pair,  Puerto Deseado, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
Red-legged Cormorant (Phalacrocorax gaimardi) Nesting Pair, Puerto Deseado, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina

People often say clear skies and sunny days offer the best light for photography. Don't believe them! Except for narrow windows at dawn and dusk, photography on sunny days is largely a waste of time. In fact, during the long, sunny days of summer, I often find myself killing endless hours, waiting for the "magic hour." (A good time, I have learned, to take in a matinee) This notion baffles non-photographers, like the Argentinian boat driver that tried to keep me from getting this picture.

It was a sunny day, roughly mid-afternoon, and predictably, the light was harsh and contrasty. We are moving along underneath a vertical cliff, covered with nesting birds. We stopped briefly to watch this pair, but almost as soon as I raised my camera he started the motor again. "You'll want them in the sun!", he said, helpfully. "No, don't go," I shouted, "THIS is what I want." He looked at me like I was crazy, and parked the boat in front of a similar nest, but one in full, coarse, unusable sunlight. The shadows were harsh, the color bleached out, and the white, guano-covered rocks created picture-killing visual distractions. Instead I begged him to move back into the shade where the first birds were. He clearly thought I was nuts…
The truth is, bright shade is often the best light for capturing color in pictures of both wildlife and people. When I shoot daytime family portraits, I immediately look for the shade. Today's digital cameras make this possible in a way that film (and filters) never could. So embrace the shade - it really is your friend.

And the shots I took out in the sun? Every one of them got thrown away.


    Thanks Paul – glad it was useful. The great advantage of digital over film, of course, is being able to adjust the color balance (e.g. white balance) in the camera rather than with filters etc. With film, deep shade would produce hopelessly blue images. Nowadays we can simply adjust the White Balance (WB) to the shade setting and get a very good image.

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