“In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.” – Aaron Rose
Where there is good light, there are good pictures. But that doesn’t mean you’re always going to find the best light to help create your images. In fact, if you limited yourself to only those times when both the weather and the light were just right, your pictures would lack variety, and there wouldn’t be nearly as many of them.
No matter what the conditions are, you can use the light—and varied weather—to make your photography the best it can be. Here’s a guide to shooting in different kinds of light and weather.
Golden hour is that time shortly after sunrise and before sunset where the daylight features more reds, oranges, and yellows. The sun sits softly in the sky because it has to travel through more of the earth’s atmosphere. The blue wavelengths are scattered, so this soft light looks more red and yellow, and it bathes everything it touches in a warm glow. Plus, with the light so low in the sky, it creates long shadows. It’s truly the best time of day for photography.
At this point, you should’ve already done some scouting so you know where the sun is going to rise and set. Whether you’re shooting a landscape or cityscape scene, you should have a pretty good idea what to expect with the location of the sun. You can’t control the weather and the clouds on any given day, but you can control where you position yourself so you can capture a great sunrise/sunset—and the brief time that follows.
Naturally, look to the weather forecast and/or consult a sunrise/sunset app to see what’s predicted for the day. This will give you a good idea whether you want to attempt a golden hour photo or not.
Cloud cover makes or breaks a magical golden hour moment. If you have a cloudless sky, you could get some beautiful color, but you’re going to need the streaks and lines of soft clouds to really give your image some character and depth.
Obviously, if the sky is covered in clouds, you’ll miss the sunrise/sunset altogether because you can’t see it. It’s not a deal breaker, though. You can still take some great pictures.
Golden hour isn’t just for landscapes and cityscapes, however. It’s also a great time to shoot portraits—for all the aforementioned reasons. You’ll flatter your subject with the light of day that makes them look their best.
In fact, you can shoot using front lighting (the most popular) because the softness will keep them from squinting. Don’t position yourself so your subject has to look directly at the sun, though. Just use the soft, directional rays to your advantage.
If you’d like more of a warm glow, use backlighting and expose the image for their skin tone. Don’t block the sun with your subject, however, or you’ll create a silhouetted image. That’s OK in certain situations, but if you want to celebrate the true benefits of the golden hour, let the light into the picture from the back and sides.
Experiment with a friend in advance to see what you like and what works best for you.
Most people associate the blue hour as the grand finale of the setting sun, but those times when the dark of night turns into the first signs of daylight can produce spectacular changes.
The daily blue hours are completely different experiences from their neighboring golden hours. And while they may lack the colorful reds, yellows, and oranges of the rising and setting suns, they do offer a certain moody allure all their own.
If you enjoy cityscape photography at night, get familiar with the blue hour and make it your go-to time to shoot. That’s because there’s just enough ambient light in the sky to offset the city lights with the darkness in the sky. It’s pure magic.
When it’s truly nighttime and the sky is black, there’s typically a very stark contrast between the black sky and the city lights. This tends to create exposure issues unless you’ve got a lot of light from the buildings to work with. When you combine the the deep blue (almost navy) tones of the blue-hour sky, you have a nice balance.
Once the sun rises and the color has pretty much disappeared, you can still salvage a beautiful image by blocking the sun and creating a silhouette. If you’re shooting a distant cityscape, find something you can use to shield the sun, whether it be an object in the foreground or one of the buildings. This will create a silhouetted skyline. The results can be spectacular, and you will have captured every bit of the early morning hours as possible.
“In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” – Sir Francis Bacon
Night photography is a passionate pursuit for those nocturnal photographers, and it typically comes in two forms: landscape and cityscape. One puts you in nature where it’s dark. Very dark. The other puts you amidst the bright lights of the big city.
They both require you to get friendly with the manual mode on your camera.
The first thing to consider with night photography is your exposure settings.
Go as low as you can with your aperture, depending on the lens you have. Some lenses go lower than others, naturally—down to f/5.6, f/3.5, or f/2.8, for example.
Put your camera on a tripod so there’s no movement whatsoever, and set your shutter speed to 10 seconds, to start with.
You’ll need to use ISO settings of 800 or higher in order get good results—maybe 1600 or higher. You can play with these numbers, of course. If the photo is too dark, increase your shutter speed. If it’s still too dark, bump up that ISO. On the other hand, if the photo is too light, drop the ISO a bit.
With a high ISO, the camera is more sensitive to light, so you’re allowing more noise in the image, plus potentially distorted colors. (That can be remedied by using a high-quality, full-frame camera or some magic work with Photoshop afterward.)
Some particularly helpful equipment for night photography includes the aforementioned tripod, a remote shutter, and a flashlight.
A tripod is necessary because you’re dealing with a wide range of shutter speeds. It’s next to impossible to hold your camera perfectly still while the shutter is open and recording the scene.
The remote shutter works hand in hand with the tripod. This allows you to capture those amazing long-exposure shots of headlights on city streets or slow-moving clouds illuminated by city lights. As always, experiment with how long your long-exposure shots are. When your shutter speed is longer than 30 seconds, you’re in bulb mode.
Finally, a flashlight helps you get around without tripping over things in the dark. Plus, it serves to light up an area if need be.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the early morning and late-day hours are the only times you can get good pictures. While those are the preferred times of day for most photographers to shoot, you can capture some amazing pictures during the middle of the day too.
Sure, the sun is high in the sky and generally speaking, it’s harsh. But as you learn to work with it, you will be happy with your results.
The first thing to think about is contrast. Scenes with drastic differences in contrast will create some dramatic images. If you’ve ever taken pictures amidst a sea of skyscrapers, you know there are drastic differences where the sun is blocked from the tall buildings. And where the sun is peeking through, there are opportunities for wonderful pictures, especially black and white images.
Try to capture people walking through this scene for a particularly interesting shot.
On a partly cloudy day, consider long exposure to capture the movement of the clouds with a slight motion blur, depending upon how long you set your shutter speed.
Seasonally speaking, winter is an outstanding opportunity for daytime photography. The sun is rather low in the sky most of the day which makes for long shadows and interesting back and side lighting. Also, look for bare trees as the sun hits the empty branches from relatively low angles.
Cloudy days aren’t a turn on for most photographers, but if you want to create a somber mood with your photography, there’s no better time than when the sky is filled with colorless clouds.
In photography circles, cloudy days have been called “nature’s softbox.” The bright light source of the daytime hours is diffused, so there isn't any direct light falling on anything in the scene, no matter the subject. Make no mistake, this is a great time to take pictures.
One of the best options to consider on an overcast day is portrait photography. You’re almost always guaranteed to have soft, even lighting on your subject, which is more flattering than strong sunlight. You can place your subject almost anywhere. If you feel as though the light is too flat, however, consider using a reflector to bounce some of that soft light up at your subject’s face.
Thick cloud cover is also a great time for landscape photography—for many of the same reasons as portrait photography. The light is diffused and shining softly. This keeps the contrast down so you don’t have dark shadows with no detail. Plus the highlights don’t look overexposed.
If you see some gray texture in the clouds—maybe in streaks, layers, or any number of other designs—by all means, include them as an accent to a moody landscape or cityscape shot. Clouds add drama and make your entire scene more interesting.
One downside to cloudy landscape photography is the sky. Oftentimes, it’s lighter than the landscape itself—maybe even white or light gray. It doesn’t provide much appeal.
In some cases, this works well, though. Fans of minimalist photography love overcast days as they tend to help simplify the scene. A plain, overcast sky can be the perfect backdrop to a singular subject like a leafless tree.
Just because it’s raining outside, it doesn’t mean you have to keep your camera covered up inside, hiding out until the cloud cover clears. Rather, take the initiative to explore some uncharted waters, so to speak. If you haven’t taken pictures in wet weather before, get ready for an exciting new adventure.
A lot of photographers are hesitant to explore their craft when it’s raining because they don’t want to get their equipment wet. So let’s start there.
Some cameras are more prone to problems from the rain than others. If you like to shoot outside a lot, consider a camera that’s weather sealed. Weather sealing varies by manufacturer, but in general, it means the joints and button areas on the camera body are covered and sealed with rubber to reduce exposure to moisture and dust. This makes the camera resistant to the elements, but not waterproof. There are a wide range of weather-sealed mirrorless and DSLR cameras to pick from, so look for this feature when you’re shopping around.
Another option is to buy a rainsleeve (or just use an umbrella) if you’re shooting with a tripod. You can even use the umbrella to help frame your image if you’d like. You can also find shelter under awnings or shoot from inside a vehicle with the window rolled down.
As far as taking pictures, let’s focus on reflections because you can get some incredible images with puddles and raindrops. Let’s face it, unless you’re in a downpour, it’s pretty hard to see the rain in your pictures. So look for ways to turn ordinary scenes into extraordinary images.
Reflections, whether they be abstract (aided by a light breeze and/or raindrops) or crystal clear (the calm after the storm, perhaps), can be visually breathtaking.
Puddles both big and small also serve as wonderful reflectors or accents to an image. Also, look for raindrops hanging from tree branches, fences, balconies, and the like. If you have a macro lens, take a look inside those raindrops for a refracted version of your subject.
Of course, you can also capture the rain in an image. The best way to highlight it is to use backlighting, so find a light source and shoot toward it. For instance, a street light on a rainy night will illuminate the shower activity. You’ll need to find just the right angle, however, so you don’t overexpose your shot.
Of course, including people brings life to any image, so look for the varied emotions that rain brings with it: like a hunched, almost silhouetted man trudging through a downpour in a poncho, or a child with a hooded raincoat and boots jumping gleefully into a puddle.
Get out and explore this oft-avoided weather pattern. You’ll likely love the results.
Generally speaking, fog equates to clouds on the ground. It forms when cool air passes over a warm body of water or moist land—or possibly anywhere where there is a temperature difference between the ground and the air.
Think of the times you’ve seen the fog in images or movies. Maybe it’s a thick white layer surrounding a cityscape or a distant wall of white in the woods, with a foreground trail or road leading into the seemingly unknown. It can be dreary and dark. Mysterious and murky. One thing’s for sure, though. It immediately sets a certain mood.
Fog photography (or “fogtography”) is sometimes an accidental find. A happy addition that comes in the pursuit of a great sunrise or sunset. Oftentimes, though, it’s the weather of interest—something you pursue when the conditions are just right. You’re more likely to see it in the early morning or evening hours, but it’s still not easily predicted.
Another thing you’ll need with fog is patience. Conditions can change in an instant, revealing parts of buildings or bridges that could prove to create an incredible image.
Depending upon where you live, foggy or misty conditions don’t come along every day, so it’s exciting to see it. It gives you a chance to photograph a location in a very unique way.
Shooting during the winter can be bleak, but it can also provide a certain “colorless” quality that will inspire you to create some wonderful photos.
As you’re shooting, think in terms of contrast—that difference between the white, snow-covered ground and the dark tones in your photos. Look for shadows, patterns, textures, and lines because they will help you compose interesting winter images.
Winter is a great time for black and white photography. After all, on an overcast day, you probably feel like you’re living in a black and white world. If you want to give your black and white photography game a boost, it helps to train your eyes to see in black and white. And that’s a lot easier when you’re actually seeing things that way naturally—or close to it.
Winter is also full of reflections, so look for puddles on a city street or a country road. When it’s really cold, a frozen pond or lake might be etched with natural crinkles and cracks. Windows and icicles make for great reflectors. Really look into those reflections and find a variety of different angles, both near and far, to best capture what you see.
If it’s snowing, play with your shutter speed to create some interesting effects. With a fast shutter speed, you can make the falling snowflakes freeze in mid air. With a slow shutter speed, you can turn those falling flakes into long white streaks.
As is the case with a rainy day, you’ll need to think about protecting your gear from the elements. A rainsleeve or waterproof bag should do the trick.
Your best photography doesn’t have to depend on those days with the best lighting. Yes, the golden hour will always be the most popular for photographers in search of fantastic light, but there are a variety of options in every season and every weather condition. Try them all to see how far you can stretch your creativity. You might even discover a new favorite time to shoot.