The sun is the problem...
The sun allows us to exist, providing nutrients for plants, which in turn feed us and the animals we eat. It gives us heat. And light. Even though the sun does all these great thing it's still causes the biggest problems for photographers.
Why is the Sun a Problem?
The problem with the sun isn't really the problem with the sun, but actually a problem with the difference between the sun and the shadows.
You see, when you take a photograph the camera is recording the scene based on the amount of light. If you have too much light the photograph is too bright, and if you do not have enough light the photograph is too dark.
But you don't really have to worry about that do you?
Any camera you can buy knows all about light and dark. This is for your benefit. The camera knows to darken the scene that is too bright and lighten the scene that is too dark. Problem solved right?
No, not so much. Because the one thing our super smart cameras cannot handle is when there is part of the scene that is too dark AND parts of the same scene that are too light.
What is the camera supposed to do?
It guesses and goes for the middle. In most cases, this is the worst possible thing it can do. Going for the middle means that the darks are too dark and the lights are too light. This results in a ruined image.
So, what's wrong with your camera?
Actually nothing. The real problem is the "latitude principle" and how much light the camera can see.
Latitude principle, so what's that?
The Latitude principle is what happens when the camera cannot see capture the entire "latitude of light from light to dark. The camera struggles and sputters, with no way to do the job. It's like using a 12 inch ruler to measure an 18 inch item. There's nothing wrong with the ruler, but it is trying to measure something outside its abilities.
Has it always been this way?
Yes, but no.
Yes, the camera has always had limitations when capturing bright highlights and dark shadows in the same image. But this problem has been made worse with digital cameras. Film cameras have always had a higher latitude than modern digital cameras. Modern digital cameras can only capture a fraction of what our eyes can visibly see, and a little over half of what film cameras are able to capture.
Well, can't I buy a better camera?
Buying a better camera will help with some problems, but the latitude principle is the same regardless of the cost of the camera.
So, what can be done?
In the future I am confident that cameras makers will solve this problem with technology. Unfortunately, most people don't want to wait until that time to take photographs.
The best way to cut the problem is to avoid it. When you are faced with a scene that has bright sun mixed with dark shadows you'll just need to find another scene. Look around for some shade. The shade will often allow for a nice even tone that is perfect for a photograph.
Just like measuring 18 inches with a 12 inch ruler, the latitude principle will keep you from creating great photographs. Light is good, but not when combined with dark shadows. Look around for a nice shady place for your next photograph.
The sun is the problem...