Great Scenic Areas · Landscape Photo Technique

It takes great light to make great pictures

Shooting in good light is perhaps the most important part of good landscape photography

One of the most basic principles of photography is shooting in good light.  Everyone knows, even non-photographers, that you should take photographs early in the morning or late in the evening.  We all know this truism, but it is amazing how easy it is to forget it, since we have all taken lots of pretty good, mediocre but still pretty good, photos in all kinds of light.

The Green River in Desolation Canyon in Utah.  This picture was shot in the soft light of early evening.

But the right light it is still extremely important.  If at all possible a photographer really should get up well before dawn and be in position before the sun rises.  The pictures shot before dawn in the quiet predawn light are often very soft and beautiful.  When the sun rises, if you are lucky, you will get all the gorgeous reds and oranges and yellows and pinks and purples of a perfect sunrise.  It if happens, great, shoot as much of it as you can while it lasts.  If it doesn’t happen, the light is usually still good for quite awhile, until 9:00 or 10:00.  This is a very productive time when it is possible to capture some really great pictures.

The same thing happens in reverse at sunset.  I am usually out a couple of hours before the sun is scheduled to go down.  A lot of good stuff can happen before the reds and golds of a spectacular sunset and you should be there to capture it; often the soft, low sunlight an hour before sunset is better than the actual grand finale.

And then there is the actual sunset itself; a time when the most magical things can and often do happen regularly.  After the brilliant colors of the sunset fade, it is again a time of soft, low beautiful light that can create unforgettable pictures.

Sunset with dead tree. Placitas, New Mexico

There is a second reason not to leave directly after the sun goes below the horizon.  There is a very good chance that the best of the glorious sunset colors won’t happen until even 20 or 30 minutes after sundown. I can’t tell you how many times I have given up only to look in the rear view mirror when I am ten miles away from my perfect sunset location only to see the sky filled with tremendous color that it is now far too late to capture.

Mostly I don’t shoot at all between 10 am and 4 pm, the time of the worst light.  However, there are times when you have to shoot right now or never, bad light or not.  This happens all the time.  For example you are on a long hike to a great location.  When the sun rises you have barely left and are miles away from the great location. Then when you get to the wonderful spot it is 1 PM and the light is bad.  But you have to leave shortly, before the light gets good, since you want to be back at your car by dark or at least before midnight.  The great spot has to be shot in bad light or not at all.

Soft dawn light in Glacier National Park

And then there is the problem of getting up early for dawn and staying up late for sunset, day after day,  on a long trip like mine this summer.  In the summer when the days are long and the nights are short this means getting up at 4 am to get to the perfect spot before dawn.  And then since the summer sun often doesn’t set until 9:30, you can be up until midnight before the final afterglow is gone and you have finally gotten home, had dinner, and gone to bed.  As you can imagine, this just doesn’t work for long, and soon some daytime shooting in less than perfect light is on the agenda.

And then there is the simple but real problem of getting up every morning at 4:00 am when it is black and cold and maybe rainy outside and you could be staying in your nice, warm, cosy, comfortable bed.   I hate to admit it, but this is definitely a real problem for me.  At the other end of the day, it isn’t always easy to traipse off at 7:00 pm when your family or girlfriend wants to go out to dinner and a movie or the kids are demanding play time.

Hanging Gardens in Glacier National Park.  Soft early evening light .  Soft light with no harsh highlights of deep black shadows is almost always great light.

So, much as you would like to, there are times when you are going to have to shoot in plain old icky mid-day light.

One of the best things you can do when you have to shoot in bad light is use a polarizer.  This won’t make awful light into great light, but it will sometimes make mediocre light into OK light.  I used this trick a lot on my recent summer trip.  When I began the trip, I decided, “Oh what the heck, I don’t need polarizers, they are too much trouble.  I don’t need polarizers with a digital camera anyway.”

When I downloaded the first day’s worth of shooting I was disgusted at how bad it was.  “What in the world am I doing wrong,” I wondered.  After a bit of thought, I realized that I was shooting in bad light and I wasn’t regularly using a polarizer as I usually did and that this might be part of the problem.  So I started putting a polarizer on and I was amazed at how much better the pictures were.

Sandhill Cranes in Bosque del Apache in New Mexico

Don’t forget your polarizer if it is on your camera all day.  You need to remember to set it before every shot as different kinds of polarization are necessary for different light.  And sometimes it doesn’t help at all and you should take it off.

I almost always take the polarizer off when I am shooting sunset and dawn.  It is usually too  dark at these times to use one and besides it is rarely needed.

And then there is the problem that polarizers need an extra two stops of light that can often make hand-holding a camera impossible.  Don’t forget this and end up with pictures that were shot at a slow shutter speed that often results in blurred pictures.

Bosque del Apache, Evening Twilight


Dead Horse Point morning light.  Canyonlands National Park in the background.

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