Lately I’ve been working on a project which includes capturing ‘post card’ type images in and around San Francisco. A huge challenge with this project is that I’m doing on my own time, which ain’t much, and it means that I can’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?’  And I decided to share some ideas which have come from this experience.

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

This is what the location looks like in a 360º view:

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In that 360 above, the sun looks low in the sky but it’s a bit misleading since the road is right next to a hill.  It was actually around 10am 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 it’s brilliant morning red (‘International Orange’ for you trivia buffs), and the sky was rather bright.  in addition some foreground elements were in shadow.

Here are a few things I did to solve this problem and get something that I might use in my project.  I’ve turned them into my 5 recommendations when faced with ‘blah’ lighting but a great location:

1. 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 and also some dark foreground elements.  During my short time at this location, parts of the foreground were in shadow of the hillside while the sky was too bright to still preserve much blue.  But 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.  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.  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 Processing our little 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, and we can spend a lifetime always learning. For these images I used a combination of my post-processing skills and I also used Perfectly Clear really helped bring out that little bit of punch!

5. Try a different or unusual crop.  The popularity of a square crop is really helpful to save a mediocre images, and I don’t mind admitting it!  A little ‘cromposition’ 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.


By the way, we talked about this same shoot and more on the Problem Solving Podcast.  You can get Scott Bourne’s take on this and more here:

Problem Solving | Photofocus Podcast |June 11th, 2016