Photographically Idealized Sunlight

Just a quick post on a topic near and dear to my heart. Sunlight under certain conditions. I love this kind of thing so much that I did the Lighting Field Guide on it a while back. Every time I see this kind of light I have to snap a StupidCrap™ image of it. On a good day I may actually have a subject I can chuck into the scene. Today it's just stuff on my deck.

What's so great about this light? Well would it surprise you to know that I just set my camera to daylight WB and shot it. No messing around with recovering highlights or pushing up shadows or any special techno non-sense. It's just the plain old sun but you may notice that it's not your average sunlit scene - far from it. If you try this all willy nilly you will get blown highlights (especially with things that are white) and black shadows (typically even things that are white but definitely things that are mid-tone or darker).

How is this possible? Well it's perfect circumstances. The sun is at a low angle, the skylight in relation to the actual brightness of the sun is about as low a ratio as you are going to see and that sun is bouncing off a very nearby white surface that's out of frame. You can tell based on the back of the white chair - that should be shade but it's all lit up at the same color temperature as the direct sun coming from the opposite direction. This is my idealized sunlit conditions. If using the real sun all you have to do is look around to find white stuff in a location where you can actually shoot something attractive and that's practical to use. Or you can manufacture it on demand with a single hard light source you bring to the scene.

In the Simulating Sunlight field guide I used this exact same proportion in about two shots. To tell the truth I would say that if actually making real photographs that are not for the purposes of illustration in how-to mode I will go to this 80% of the time. It looks great and looks like the mind's eye of sunlit conditions. If I were shooting something that I wanted to feel "sunny" and it was dark or not sunny or the sun was at high noon this is the very first thing I would go to.

I make pictures of StupidCrap™ like this to serve as prototypes for conditions I want to simulate. I have a huge collection of them. They all have similarities but they also all have nuances that are worth examining and figuring out what attracted me to a particular scene in terms of the light. It's those nuances that are the key in making things look fantastic when using naturally occurring conditions or trying to reproduce them.

The Simulating Sunlight field guid is just a part one. The very very not-nuanced basics of things you may want to mess with. No nuance. At some point there will be a part II that deals with the nuances and nothing else. Let's run through a couple of things going on here that I talk about in the eBook as well as a few I specifically mention but do not use or go into detail on what to do about "fixing" what I consider issues with using a single speedlight to make this sort of thing happen no matter where and when you shoot.

That "idealized" ratio is the big thing - I do cover that. I'll save you the trouble of figuring it out yourself from the above image. The whites in the shadows are almost exactly mid-tone or a bit above - say at 50-60% of the tonal scale. the average whites in highlight are somewhere in the 80% range. The brightest whites are somewhere in the 90% range. That's ideal assuming you have whites in the frame. In the eBook I actually used a white wall as a reference along with a histogram to explain what that ration should look like in evaluating the ambient mix.

Now take a look at the color relationships. The shadows are a bit cooler than the highlights in general or in some cases where that bounce back of the sun is providing the majority of the fill it's the same color as the light itself (this is not an issue no matter what light you use to simulate these conditions) The giant issue that was actually hard for me to live with when doing the part I did mention - speedlights are crazy cold compared to the real sun. They are also all over the map depending on output level. To fix this you need gels - usually not just one strength. To get the color you see here assuming a daylight WB I typically go with some density of CTS instead of a CTO. Just my preference. It's not just about overall WB or color temp it's about the relationship of highlight and shadow color. Actually it's probably a bigger deal in the lower to upper mid-tone color relationships. I will venture to say that this will never look natural if you don't gel your speedlights and are using a mix of ambient as fill.

Human vision is remarkably perceptive - not on absolute measurement but on things like relationship of color. You can get the absolute overall color "wrong" but if this relationship is backwards (usually the case if using a bare speedlight and ambient fill at high levels) it will just look off even if you have no idea why that is. Even non-photographers can see that it looks "wrong". The horrible thing is that there is no quick fix in post and in this idealized kind of situation where the ambient will supply the fill vs the speedlight there may not be any crazy hard to do fix either because both are pushing pieces of the scene into the mids - there's no clear tonal separation from each other.

Just a tidbit that crossed my mind. Also note the fall-off (or lack thereof), the blasting through other stuff, etc. I do explain a lot of that in gory detail along with strategies to manipulate those things.


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