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I have been photographing local playgrounds for my local mom's group. But I've been finding I have trouble with harsh shadows when the weather is sunny. The shadows tend to come out so dark that you can't see the parts in the shade at all. And playgrounds often have lots of shade trees!

Other questions here about harsh shadows have suggested using flash-fill (or flash-fill with a diffuser or sheet) to fill in some of the shadows, but that doesn't work effectively when you're trying to photograph something big enough that you need to be 30 feet away to capture the whole play structure.

Are there camera settings I might be able to adjust to make the best of imperfect lighting with too much harsh shadows?

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What are the settings you are shooting with? and which mode are you using? And i think it would help if you also have some examples. –  Yao Bo Lu Mar 21 at 19:38

4 Answers 4

I'd start by making sure to shoot RAW to give the maximum dynamic range. If that isn't sufficient, then HDR would normally be the next option, but that won't work for an active playground with kids not holding still. A fill flash is a good option, but would require quite powerful of flashes. You could set them up off camera and remote control them, but you are then talking about several hundred to several thousand dollars worth of lights which is probably not an option (and besides, at that point you might be served better by a new camera body with wider dynamic range). Reflectors are another option, but probably won't work all that well for something as large as you are trying to shoot.

A completely not technical solution is to alter when in the day you take the photos if that is an option. Taking photos early or late in the day when the sun is low in the sky will result in better looking photos with shadows that are less harsh.

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I've had some success with HDR, but better light is infinitely preferable. –  D. Lambert Mar 21 at 19:06

Try to take pictures of the playground during different times of the day.

  • early morning between 6 - 9
  • morning 9 - 12
  • afternoon 12 - 4
  • evening 4 - 6

A photograph taken at different time intervals during the day will give you different shadow angles and different sunlight intensity.

If you can do this standing from the same location and placing the camera on tripod with the same composition, then you can later merge the images taken at different time intervals into HDR to get a final photograph with better light results.

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Best way is to shoot when there are no harsh shadows.
Second best is to provide lights to light up the areas in shadow. Either lamps or reflectors (a piece of metal foil placed such as to direct light into a shadowy area can do wonders, experiment).
Camera settings and post processing are a distant third as they tend to cause everything to wash out and/or become overexposed in order to draw out details in the shadow areas, and/or tend to cause the resulting image to look very artificial.

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I think the top two options are:

  1. Avoid taking photos when the sun is harsh; wait for a different time of day or for cloud cover.
  2. Make use of the geometry and patterns of harsh shadows for interesting composition.

Neither of those actually answer your question, though. Presumably, since this is playground photography for a moms' group, you're taking pictures of small fast-moving people, so HDR techniques where you combine multiple images are out. Failing that, taking your images in RAW will let you stretch the dynamic range in post-processing. (Use your RAW converter's tools to bring up shadows and bring down highlights.)

Also, experiment a little bit with your camera and see if you get better results with the camera's metered exposure or by exposing a little brighter and bringing it down in post-processing or by exposing darker and bringing up. The first will give better detail and less noise in the shadows, but highlights (and a possible overexposed sky) will be worse; the second will give more room in the highlights but make the shadows worse.

If you aren't shooting in RAW, your camera may have features for increasing the dynamic range in the output. First, find the contrast setting and turn it down a few notches — the scene has plenty, and this will increase the dynamic range. Second, look for features like "adaptive lighting" or "highlight control" — these will do basically the same things you might do to a RAW image, although with less control in your hands.

These things will help a little bit. But, really, I'm going to go back to the first suggestions. On bright days, stick to close-ups where you can either control the light or at least reduce what's in the frame (so you're shooting only in the shade, or, better than nothing, just a well-lit area). Get out your longer-focal-length portrait lens and get in close. Or wait for shots where the shadows are interesting themselves. Then, take the wider shots on cloudy days.

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