Being a natural light photographer in a place where the average daylight in January is four hours doesn’t always seem like a blessing.
Especially when you consider that “daylight” does not mean sunlight, or that you even see the sun at all, it mostly means dusk.
But that’s how it is in North Pole, Alaska, the place I call “Home Sweet Frozen Home.” Having moved up from the southern United States, it was quite the culture shock and shock to the body as well. But in the years I have been here I have come to fall in love with this unique place and its unique light year round.
It being light outside all day basically from May until August almost makes up for the cold, dark, bitter winter. The summers are a delight after six months of subarctic temperatures and cabin fever. And the light! The gorgeous, liquid, golden, bordering-on-tactile light that bathes us all summer is priceless.
In the winter the sun just barely peeks over the horizon, but likewise in summer, it is never truly directly overhead. This makes for the perfect, slightly diffused, almost soft light all day long. And on overcast days, the sky is a gigantic lightbox, a free gigantic lightbox. It doesn’t get any better.
Clock time means next to nothing here in the summer and that is not exclusive to children who are out of school with no external timeline to set their schedules by. We relish every summer moment, whether they are sun-filled or cloudy, rainy or brisk. We get lost playing outdoors until the mosquitoes drive us inside. We have midnight baseball games, races, and golf tournaments. We make sure our outdoor love tanks are full, storing up sun and fresh air like chipmunks storing acorns. Determined that by October we have concentrated enough to cuddle up snug with our friends and family, in our coats, blankets, houses and cars, to keep us warm until the snow melts once again.
So, with all this sun, I have a few ways I make sure I can shoot at any time of day and not have to wait for the “golden hour” since we don’t have one.
First of all, don’t be scared of the sun. Don’t stay inside because you are avoiding the dreaded “raccoon eyes” or harsh blowouts. The sun is your friend, you just have to know how to treat her. Have your subject look up toward the sun to fill in any shadows in the eye. If the sun is too harsh, consider using a scrim to filter the light and soften it.
My favorite (okay, they are all my favorite) way to shoot is with the sun behind my subject. The problem you can encounter when shooting this way is how to get enough light on your subject’s face. Bounce that light! The light is heading in your direction, so you have to look around and see what in your environment is reflecting the light.
Sidewalks and cement driveways are fabulous reflectors. Wear a white shirt! You, the side of a building, a tent, water, a dirt road, they all can be reflectors. Watch out for color casts from the reflections though — you normally want to try and find something gray, white, 0r tan; really any light neutral color will work. Place your subject with the sun behind and the “reflector” in front and slightly to the side of them and voila! Backlight and depth to your photo!
Another way to shoot in direct sunlight is to use the smallest aperture your lens will allow (often f/22), set your shutter speed accordingly, and shoot toward the sun. This way you will achieve beautiful golden starburst sun rays instead of a big white blowout in your sky.
Sunlight coming through the trees often renders a beautiful dappled light and a tree or any foliage provides a lovely backdrop. When shooting in this light you want to make sure you don’t get a distracting light pattern on your subject where you don’t want it. Have fun and experiment with this beautiful and always changing light.
On overcast days remember that there is still a light source, although hidden, and the light is coming from a direction. One thing I often do is turn in a circle with my subject to see which direction the light is most flattering. Turning 180 degrees can make all the difference in the world in creating flattering light even when you can’t see the sun.
Shooting in the midnight sun. Okay, I’ll admit that is a shooting scenario specific to my area. But so is noonday sun just above the horizon on Thanksgiving. Come up and visit, it’s awesome! I’ll share my tips with you when you do!