Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.
In this post we’re going to discuss how light, time of day, and weather impact photography.
Light is often the single most important aspect of an image. Composition is obviously critical, but shooting that composition in the right light can make the difference between an average photo and a really good photo.
Quality of light can be difficult to define or describe. But if you look at a lot of photos you’ll notice that some have a certain something extra, and some have an interesting composition but still feel kinda meh. The right light for the subject is usually the difference.
If you’re heading out for a walk or to the park and bring your camera along for a bit of creative fun, there’s no point in getting hung up on whether the conditions are perfect for photography or not. Go, take pictures, and have fun.
You can likely find something to shoot, and possibly come away with a really nice photo or two, even in supposedly bad light conditions. I often take my park preview pics at the worst times of day in terms of light, because that’s when it happened to be convenient for me to go out. But it doesn’t stop me from also snapping a few pics that have nothing to do with the preview that are for my own creative satisfaction.
Another time you can’t worry about it too much is when you’re traveling. If you’re on a road trip and a National Monument you want to see is halfway to your destination, you can’t afford to wait around a few hours for great light or a perfect sky. The same thing goes if you’re on vacation in a city and have a packed sightseeing schedule. You will inevitably be at some locations in less than ideal conditions.
It’s when you are being more intentional about a shoot that you should factor in time of day and weather. If you’ve been wanting to photograph a particular thing or scene, then part of your plan for finally doing it needs to be picking the right time. What the right time is depends on what you plan to photograph.
If the location is one you really like and is within a reasonable distance, keep going back. Your photos can look slightly different every time you go due to variable conditions. If you’re persistent, you’ll eventually get the perfect photo you’ve been envisioning.
The purpose of this post is to describe various aspects of light and weather so you can use the information to make better plans, or to make the most of unplanned conditions, in order to get satisfying photos.
You can’t read up on photography much before running into mention of the Golden Hour. A lot of people talk like that’s the only time of day you should ever be shooting. But as already mentioned, that’s not always practical. Sometimes it’s not even the best choice. It’s a guideline, and a good one, but far from a strict rule.
The Golden Hour happens twice a day and is the period of time right after sunrise and right before sunset. The word “hour” in this case is figurative because it usually lasts less than an hour. How long the period actually lasts depends on season and latitude. Up north in winter the entire period of sunlight can be Golden Hour.
Also, as the word “golden” indicates, it involves sunlight. If the entire sky is covered in dark clouds it doesn’t matter if it’s only fifteen minutes before sunset, the light will just be dim, not golden.
During Golden Hour the quality of light is different because the sunlight travels through more atmosphere, which diffuses it and affects color wavelengths. The light is softer, has a warm golden cast, and shadows are longer and not as dark.
Golden Hour is good for most types of photography, but especially for landscapes and portraits.
To make the most of Golden Hour arrive at your location early and be ready to start shooting as soon as the light is right. The light changes quickly and it’s not a long period. A tripod isn’t necessary, but it can help a lot as the sun gets closer to the horizon and your shutter speed drops.
You may need to manually adjust your white balance. Auto WB has difficulty in a lot of situations and during Golden Hour it may try to even things out too much, which reduces the pretty colors you want. Try the cloudy preset or a warmer color temperature on the Kelvin scale.
It’s important to note that topography has a profound effect on the usefulness of Golden Hour. To make use of the light you need to be in an open location where you can either see the rising or setting sun, or obstructions are distant enough to not be casting a shadow where your subject is.
If trees, a hill, or a building prevent sunlight from penetrating your location it doesn’t matter that it’s the Golden Hour, you’ll probably be shooting in rather ugly and dim light. I’ve arrived at parks two hours before sunset only to realize that I’ve already lost the good light because of one of Seattle’s many hills.
Blue Hour is the period of twilight well before sunrise or after sunset when it’s more dark than not, but the sky is a deep blue rather than black, and there’s still some color on the horizon from the sun. (This period doesn’t last an hour either, and length also depends on season and latitude.)
Blue Hour is best suited to cityscapes and landscapes, especially if they include a lot of sky and/or bodies of water.
You must have a tripod, and should be able to use your camera in Manual Mode and manually focus.
You’ll probably need to set WB yourself also. You can try the tungsten preset (lightbulb symbol) but it sometimes makes everything an unnatural blue. Sometimes the daylight or cloudy presets work better. If you can use the Kelvin scale that’s a better choice. Experiment with slightly cool color temperatures.
An alternative is using a night Scene selection in Auto Mode. You lose control over your exposure settings, but with many cameras the twilight colors are rendered beautifully.
Like with Golden Hour, you want to be in position and all set up ahead of time because the light changes quickly and doesn’t last long.
When you’re considering doing some night photography decide if you really want full dark with a black sky or if Blue Hour actually makes a better choice. In many instances a deep blue instead of black sky gives the photo more depth and visual interest.
Once the sun is truly set (or it’s getting closer to rising), there is a short period between Golden Hour and Blue Hour that I think of as Blah Time. There’s quite a bit of light, but it’s still dim. Colors are washed out because of the lack of a direct light source, and you don’t have the lovely sky of deeper twilight.
It’s an awkward time of day for almost all types of still photography in terms of light and color. Though it can sometimes be put to good use for some types of landscapes, and if you’re shooting fiery clouds lit up by a sun that is just below the horizon nothing about that is blah.
Another exception during Blah Time for still photography is when you can capture alpenglow. Sometimes after the sun sets (or just before it rises), light reflects from particles in the air and casts a pinkish glow on mountain peaks or clouds in the direction opposite of the sun.
Interestingly enough, this blah period between Golden and Blue Hours is part of the Magic Hour in cinematography. There is still plenty of daylight in the sky, but the light is diffuse, creating a magical quality on film.
Night provides some interesting photographic opportunities, but also challenges. You must have a tripod to take full advantage.
Cities take on a whole different look at night with some things hidden by deep shadows and other areas enhanced by the color pop of lit signs. Night makes it easy to play around with long exposures because no dark filter is needed.
If you are photographing stars or the Northern Lights you need to find dark sky away from light pollution. You also need to know what the moon is doing, and plan your shoot accordingly. Light from the moon will overpower the faint light of all but the brightest stars, and wash out or eliminate the aurora.
On the other hand, you can use a full or nearly full moon to your benefit for some interesting night landscape photography. It will almost look like daylight, but with some stars in the sky.
Before you do any night photography you need to be very familiar with your camera so you can change important settings by touch. You should also know exactly where everything is stored in your camera bag so you can find things by feel.
Even if you’re not shooting during Golden Hour, you still want to shoot earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon whenever possible in order to have better light. Which you choose depends on what you will be shooting.
You usually want to be shooting in the opposite direction of the sun or at a 90 degree angle. Though shooting in the direction of the sun can provide interesting backlighting opportunities.
The middle of the day has the worst light. It’s harsh, especially in late spring through early fall. The harsh overhead light reduces contrast, which reduces details. If you want to make the most of midday light look for naturally contrasty scenes to shoot. Converting such a photo to black and white often works really well.
Using a telephoto lens can help. Rather than capturing a large scene in bad light, separate out a small piece of it that might look better than the whole. Or zoom way in on smaller subjects.
Heading into the woods instead of wide open spaces is a good idea too.
There are some locations you might only want to shoot in the middle part of the day. Things like a street scene between skyscrapers or the bottom of a narrow canyon when sunlight only reaches the ground then. Or maybe the sun only shines through an opening you want to use at a specific hour.
Whether you’re shooting at night, Golden Hour, or in broad daylight, if there is a distinct light source the direction of the light falling on your subject can have a huge impact. There are a lot of different creative choices you can make.
Experienced photographers may be able to determine the best approach with a quick glance. But beginners will get better results by experimenting and taking multiple shots.
Try shooting your subject from different positions. Each image will look slightly different due to the angle of the light. This is assuming that you can freely move around your subject. But even if you’re restricted, sometimes just leaning to the side, or going higher or lower, is enough to make a difference.
Not everyone will agree on which version is the best because looking at photos is a subjective experience. But you’re more likely to get one that pleases you personally by playing with the light.
Clouds can be your friend or your enemy, it just depends on what you plan to shoot.
In landscape photography a cloudless sky is usually boring. If you can go on a sunny day with puffy white clouds floating around you’ll get much better photos. Dramatic storm clouds are good too. Great sunset and sunrise photos need clouds that light up for vivid color. But the clouds have to be at the right altitude and in the right position to catch the sun’s rays, so it’s hit or miss.
Days that have a featureless blanket of cloud cover are terrible for many kinds of photography. The light is flat, and color and details get washed out. Since the clouds have no definition or color variation, they don’t provide any interest themselves.
Overcast days with uninteresting clouds cause problems any time the sky is part of your composition. The white glare of the clouds is easy to blow out and the brightness detracts from your subject. Try to compose your photo to avoid including the sky whenever possible.
There are exceptions even for uninteresting cloudy days though. They are good for shooting woodlands, waterfalls, autumn leaves, and flowers. With no sun breaking through you avoid high dynamic range conditions that are difficult to properly expose, and it can be easier to capture flower and leaf color without fighting the reflective effects of bright sunlight.
Hazy clouds are rarely beneficial for anything. They are terrible for landscapes, making the horizon indistinct. The sun still comes through strongly enough to create high dynamic range conditions. The light is flat, and sometimes even takes on a strange color cast.
If you’re shooting in blah light conditions due to clouds or shade it’s a good idea to concentrate on finding more intimate compositions. Look for things like interesting architectural details or a toad stool. Leave the bigger scenes for good light.
Fog is terrible for a lot of things. You can’t see far, it’s difficult to get your exposure right, and the light is very flat.
But there are some locations and subjects that benefit greatly from the ethereal quality that fog provides. Popular subjects are trees and structures such as bridges. One bonus to shooting in fog is that it can obscure objects in the backgrounnd that would otherwise ruin a photo such as electric wires or ugly buildings.
A tip I picked up from Tony Northrup on YouTube is to have a fog plan. As you explore your area make note of locations where fog would add something to a photo, especially if it’s a spot that doesn’t look good without fog. Then the next time a foggy day arrives you know exactly where to go to take full advantage.
Morning fog can sometimes burn off quickly once the sun gets a bit higher in the sky, so timing is everything. The earlier you can get out on a foggy morning the better.
Any time you shoot in fog pay close attention to exposure. Because of all the light reflecting off of the water droplets in the air the camera’s meter gets tricked into thinking the scene is brighter than it really is, so you almost always need to use some exposure compensation to lighten your image.
Rain is unpleasant to shoot in and makes for dreary photos in most situations. But like everything else there are exceptions.
On days with interesting cloud formations and scattered rain showers moving through you can get neat photos showing cloud bursts in the distance. If there are sun breaks between the clouds you have a chance of capturing a rainbow on such a day.
On rainy days that are just plain rainy, taking closeups of rain drops on plants or objects can make for beautiful images. You can creatively use reflections in puddles. At night colored lights reflected on wet pavement look great, and often make for better photos than on a dry night.
Rainy days are also great for invoking a mood in photos, especially if you use the relative emptyness of a well known location that is usually bustling with people.
On rainy days reflections off water and cloud glare can trick your camera’s exposure meter. You’ll often need to use some exposure compensation to avoid underexposed photos.
If you’re shooting in the rain protect your camera. If it isn’t weather sealed use a rain sleeve. Even if it is sealed don’t leave your camera exposed longer than necessary. Carry it in a rain proof bag and only take it out when needed. Have a dry cloth handy so you can wipe down the camera as soon as you are in a dry place.
Time of Day, Weather, and Season
These three things have more impacts on photography than just the quality of light.
Birds and other wildlife are most active in the early morning and evening. They are also more active on cool cloudy days than hot sunny days. Some birds are local year-round, but some only pass through briefly during migration in the spring and fall. Winter in Western Washington is the time to go out shooting the snow geese and bald eagles where they gather in the Skagit Valley.
If interesting weather is your thing you need to research when to take trips to distant locations, and you need to pay attention to your local weather patterns.
Here we get our craziest weather in spring. There are days you can’t predict what will happen in the next ten minutes. It can quickly change from bright sunshine to a downpour to wind to hail. It can be great fun to head out with a camera on days like that, so it pays to know when to expect that kind of weather.
Time of day can greatly affect when you choose to shoot a specific location. Do you want an empty beach or a tourist spot free of people? Better get there really early. Do you want lots of people on a city street? Shoot on a weekday at lunchtime or near five pm.
Lots of parks, city squares, neighborhoods, and towns host annual events or festivals. If you want to be in the mix and shoot the people and activities, put the date on your calendar and make your transportation plan. If you don’t want an unwelcome surprise check online info before you go to make sure nothing is scheduled for that location.
Some locations are great for shooting year-round. But some have a clear best season. Think about what you will be shooting and what you expect to see there, and plan accordingly. If you’re going someplace like a state park, make sure it’s open on the date you plan to go. Also check for any seasonal or conditional road closures due to flooding, snow, or mud slides.
It goes without saying that snow is wonderful for photography. Just remember that the bright white of the snow confuses your camera’s exposure meter, so you usually need to add at least one stop of compensation. It’s best to go out as early as possible after a fresh snow so you can get images before people have trampled all through it.
Photography is a lot about timing. Being in the right place at the right time. Some of that timing is serendipitous: catching an osprey at the moment it snags a fish or shooting on the street just as a vintage car drives by.
But even in the serendipitous moments planning has a role. Making sure that you are positioned so your subject catches the light just right makes the difference between an image that gets a “wow, what lucky timing” response and a “wow, that’s a fantastic photo” response.