Light on location isn’t in our control, and can make or break our images.

I was working on a project which included capturing postcard-type images in and around San Francisco. A huge challenge with this project was that I was doing it on my own time, which wasn’t much. That meant that I couldn’t often visit the best locations at the most ideal times.

This presents a problem to solve which is, how can I get at least a good (doesn’t have to be great) photo when the light isn’t very good?

On one particular occasion, I took time to shoot after getting everyone to school in the morning. That meat that the best light was already gone but, still, I wanted to see what I could get in about an hour. I visited Fort Point in San Francisco which is a very good vantage point for Golden Gate Bridge photos.

It was around 10 a.m. by the time I even got started and the light got worse from there. By this time, the light didn’t show the bridge in its brilliant morning red (“International Orange” for you trivia buffs), and the sky was rather bright. In addition, some foreground elements were in the shadows.

Here are a few things I did to solve this problem and get something that I might use in my project.

5 recommendations when faced with ‘blah’ lighting

1. Bracket your exposures

Light Golden Gate Bridge

My first thought to combat mediocre to bad light is always to bracket my exposures. My brain is wired this way I guess, and I’ve been enamored with the technique since the HDR stone age of 2004. But, it’s a great way to be able to expose for a bright sky and also some dark foreground elements.

During my short time at this location, parts of the foreground were in the shadow of the hillside while the sky was too bright to still preserve much blue. By bracketing my exposure and Tone Mapping, I was able to get a pleasant image. For advice about how to shoot bracketed images, please see my article here.

2. Change the main subject

Light Golden Gate Surfer

I used this in varying degrees in the included images. For instance, I noticed a surfer walking to his launch site, perhaps having second thoughts? In others I included the rusty chain fence in more and less detail.

3. Make the poor light work in your favor

Fort Point

Make the poor light work in your favor. Even though the bridge is the star of the show, it’s good to turn around and find images that don’t include it. In the black and white image, I felt that the stark light made a good retro style image.

4. Post-process your heart out!

While I very much appreciate getting shots right in-camera, I also recognize the need to perform some inspired post-processing. Post-processing is such a deep subject, we can spend a lifetime always learning.

For these images I used a combination of my post-processing skills and Perfectly Clear which really helped bring out that little bit of punch!

5. Try a different or unusual crop

Light Golden Gate Square

The popularity of a square crop is really helpful to save a mediocre images, and I don’t mind admitting it! A little ‘composition’ of any shape can allow us to compose the image later on.

Whatever the reason you find yourself with a photo-opportunity, and disappointing light, it’s important to be flexible about the image you expected to get vs. the image you can get. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to try something new and maybe try something outside of your normal comfort zone.