The other week I posted and asked for your help. It started with an email I received where the person basically said to stop telling them to shoot at sunrise or sunset. That anyone could make a good photo at those times of day. And that I should start showing them how to use filters and plug-ins to fix photos that were shot in not-so-great light, and how to make them look good. I mentioned that this was a feeling I’d actually seen more of lately, and I didn’t know how to handle it. So I asked for your help. I realize that sometimes people can’t (yes, I know sometimes people also don’t want to) get out there during the edges of the day to shoot. Especially while traveling with family and on vacation and tour buses, or at places where it’s just not possible to get there. Anyway, you guys totally came through with some great thoughts that’ll help me frame my teaching in the future.

As I said in the original post, I’ve heard this enough about this topic, that I realized there’s something to this. Yeah, I know… some people don’t have enough skin in the game and don’t want to do what it takes to get there at sunrise or sunset. But this article isn’t for them. I don’t think most of the people reading my blog are lazy. I think you’re invested in photography and you want great photos. This is for those that can’t get there at a better time of day, or maybe they’re not yet convinced that the golden hours really do produce better landscape/nature photos (generally!). I can’t ignore it. It happens to all of us. So I started thinking about ways to help bridge this gap and help people. For starters, I wanted to make sure I was right, and that most landscape photographers preferred photos shot at sunrise or sunset.

An Experiment

I run a very personalized community over at ON1 called ON1 Plus, so I turned to them to post a link to a photo they found online (not theirs, but in their chosen genre, so it was personal to them) that they wished they had taken. I wanted to see what inspired people. Here’s what I found:

The majority of comments shared outdoor/landscape/nature photos. Not all of them, but most. Out of those, the majority of them were photos taken near the edges of the day at sunrise or sunset, with gorgeous colors and clouds in the sky. Awesome! Now we’re on to something.

So… here’s my thought to anyone that may not want to put in the work to get there at sunrise or sunset… if what inspires you are photos taken at the golden hours of the day, then how long do you think you’ll continue to be inspired in photography if you keep taking photos outside of those times? You know the magic formula to instantly making a landscape/nature photo look better right? Take that photo at a better time of day. Seriously, it makes it instantly better! But if you don’t make an effort to do it, then you’re not going to get the types of photos that inspire you. And at the end of the day, all I want to do is help you be happy with your photography. And I think that involves taking better photos and helping show you the techniques to post-process those photos to make them even better.

Okay… enough convincing that the golden hours are important for most landscape photos. I think, for the most part, we all get that.

All Light Can Be Good Light

So what about those times when we’re someplace really great, but we can’t be there at sunrise/sunset? Well, Photography is about light right? I guess what I’ve learned through this process is that there is no good and bad light. All light can be good, if you choose the right subject to shoot it in. Chris Flemming, here on the blog comments, said this in a great way:

“Good light will be the light that shows a particular subject in a compelling way.”

Well, if you’re someplace beautiful and can’t photograph it at sunrise or sunset, I’m going to suggest you still do things as normal. Make as great a photo as you can. I know I do. I very rarely just pack up and leave (though I have friends that do). I’m not saying don’t shoot.

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If I leave you with anything here it’s this concept and it ties back to the first email I got that started this…

Light does matter. But, regardless of the light, your photography (assuming you’re not a pro that is) should be about capturing your life and the lives of the ones you love. Do not let light, or quality of light, or location, or gear or sharpness, or noise get in the way. Capture the photos that you want to capture to remember, appreciate and document your life, the places you go, and the people you go with. But… if at all possible, when you’re at these places, please realize the quality of light relating to the subject, IS important and to TRY your best to incorporate it in your photos if possible.

If you’re taking a portrait of your wife while on vacation, sunset light in her face may be too bright, and leave her face too contrasty, and squinty. But at noon, you could position her under a tree (if you did it at sunset it would probably be too dark), with great scenery behind her, and make a great photo. Likewise, if you’re in Italy on the Amalfi Coast, and you have a choice of taking the 12 noon tour bus, or the 6pm tour bus, (and your travel mates leave it up to you), take the 6pm tour bus and get there closer to sunset. The photos of the coast, will most likely please your “serious photography” love more than those photos at noon. But that doesn’t mean, if you’re there at noon, don’t take photos. Remember, all I said above was to TRY.

Going Forward

So, here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m not going to change the way I teach. In my critiques and photo reviews I believe I’ve always been very respectful when I talk about shooting in better light. First, I always talk about the subject, composition, angle, post-processing, and the technicals of the photo. But you can’t ignore light. I’m sorry, but it’s true – photography is in large part about light. So at the end of my critiques, I usually say something like this: “I understand that it may not have been possible to be here at sunrise/sunset, but if I’m being honest that is the one thing that would improve this photo and take it to the next level”. Some one reviewing your photos shouldn’t know the story of the photo. They shouldn’t know where you could or couldn’t be at what time of day or what kind of post processing filter you added to it, or even where you could or couldn’t stand to make the shot. You want an honest opinion on how the photo resonates with some one (both the photo and the post processing), which is why I don’t read the comments that go with a photo, and try not to even look at the name of the photo. So I’m going to continue to do things the same way. If I feel sunrise or sunset light would have improved the photo, I’m going to say it (after I’ve reviewed the photo for everything else though).

However, it does have me thinking about doing some training on what types of subjects can look good in harsher mid-day light, or even cloudy blah days. I understand everyone is different. Some people like the challenge of “finding the shot”, more than necessarily knowing what they’re going to shoot ahead of time. And it is indeed a challenge – you get to a location and you have to figure out what you’re going to shoot based on the light.

BREAKING NEWS! My Wife to the Rescue!

As I’m writing this, my wife is in Washington DC with her friends for a girls weekend away. Let’s not even get in to the fact that, as much as I love DC, me and the guys aren’t going there for a “guys weekend”. I’ve already told her to expect my guys weekend to be Vegas or someplace like that 😉 (DC fans, please don’t hate me – I love your city, I’m just not going there for a guys getaway) 🙂

Anyway… she just sent me a photo (I swear, like in the last 5 minutes) of the cherry blossoms because April is the key time for them. I love it! She’s really got a great eye. And as we’re getting older and the kids are closer to heading off to college, I think she’s really developing a like (notice I didn’t say love) for photographer. Which is fun for me 🙂


And you know what? This photo couldn’t have been made at sunrise or sunset. To me, what makes this photo look cool is the fact that they’re glowing on the edges. That wouldn’t happen if the light were any more subdued than it is now. So 11am was the right light for this photo. Rather than just walk around and not take photos, she found one that looked really nice.

Now, keep in mind, this won’t work for everyone. Take my friend Adam for example. We had a discussion while shooting sunset at a beach one day. The sun had fizzled and the sunset looked like a bust. We were just packing up to go grab a drink and I said, “Man, I feel bad, we came all the way out here and we should probably stay to find something to shoot”. He replied with, “I don’t feel bad at all. I like beach and water photos. That’s what inspires me. I’ve been to this location before, and if I’m not going to make a photo that inspires me, then I’d rather just head in early and enjoy a few drinks with my buddies”.

So it got me thinking about comments I saw that requested I teach people what to shoot when you go somewhere and the light is bad. In fact, there was a specific example about arriving at a beach when the weather wasn’t cooperating. Some one pointed out that there are flowers and trees and wildlife that could be photographed. That’s great! IF that’s what inspires you. But in Adam’s case (and I actually tend to agree with him personally), what inspired him was a beautiful sunset, over the water, at the beach. Me showing him a nice flower around the corner, or a bird that he can shoot to help salvage the trip, doesn’t help. That doesn’t inspire him. To him, the challenge in photography is making a great composition of a subject he loves – not the challenge of finding something or anything to shoot, regardless of the light he’s presented with. Everyone is different right?

That said, I do think there’s value in helping you find some different ideas of photos to shoot in various lighting conditions. I really do like the idea that no light is bad light. It’s more about finding the right subject to shoot in that light. (But hopefully most of you will at least concede that sometimes it may not be possible). However, if you’re the type of photographer that wants to shoot anything outdoors, at any time of the day, then I’d like to help you. I know I’ve “found” shots when the light had gotten harsh, that I’m really happy with. Just keep in mind, helping you find things to shoot in harsher light, doesn’t mean that if you roll up to the Amalfi Coast of Italy at noon, I’m going to show you how to take a photo of a bird on a tree nearby. Instead, I’m going to suggest you take that photo of the beautiful Amalfi Coast, and then think of the ideas you’re about to read in the next section 🙂

A Few Thoughts As We Wrap Up

Here’s a few thoughts to wrap this up. And I have to thank all of you because reading your comments from the first blog post is really what helped me formulate this. I know I could count on you guys 😉

1) Work on what you can control. Time of day is something you can control many times. Whether you want to believe it or not, and whether you’re able to shoot at a better time of day or not, the light we have at the edges of the day are really an instant “make your photo look better” formula for most outdoor shots. It’s simple… get there at a better time of day… if you can (which leads to point #2).

2) Sometimes, when traveling with your family or friends, you simply can’t control the time of day you get there. Maybe the location you want isn’t even open at those times or just not safe to get to. At that point, understand what’s “beyond your control” and cope with it. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s about control – sometimes you have it. Sometimes you don’t. And when you don’t, think of point #3.

3) There comes a point where you may need to decide if you’re going to be a tourist or a photographer. And it’s tough to be both at the same time without aggravating your travel-mates or yourself. Again, I think most of you reading this aren’t full-time professional photographers, where you can make your own schedule, and go back to places and shoot and re-shoot, etc… So it means you’re on a schedule. If you’re traveling, recognize that you may need to go in to tourist mode. In tourist mode, you’re there to document your trip.

Example: If you happen to get to the Grand Canyon at noon with your wife and 3 kids, get your camera out, go in to tourist mode, and make the best photos you can in the time you have. But understand the deck is stacked against you if you’re trying to be a photographer that day. First, you’ll probably annoy your family if you venture off for 2 hours to take photos and leave them alone. Also, by getting there at noon, on a bright sunny day, you just eliminated one of the most important factors in making a compelling photo of the Grand Canyon – great light. And it means your photo will never show up in some one’s search when they’re asked “Find a photo that inspires you”. But that’s fine right? Because you’re in tourist mode and you know it. You know you’re not missing any secrets to making the great photo that day, and you come to grips with it. You want to make a family album, not a photo that’s going to win an award at your camera club or show up in a gallery somewhere.

And me telling you to go shoot a cactus bush, or a rare bird, that may be 100 yards behind you probably isn’ the right answer. Your family is going to look at you like you have 3 heads and your kids will say “Ummm, Dad… the canyon is that way – please take some photos of it so we have something to remember our family trip with”.

Whew! I’m glad you hung in there. I know that was a lot to read and digest, but this is a topic that won’t die here and I think it’s worth talking about. Thanks for stopping by. Have a good one!

PS: I’m including this as a PS because I don’t even think warrants much of a section in the blog post, but I had to cover it. I know that some one will comment (I’ve seen this in the past), that they’re tired of saturated colorful sunset/sunrise photos. They’re becoming old because everyone is doing it. Sorry, but I call bullshit. Nature can be beautiful and when you’re presented with a beautiful sunrise/sunset, it’s a great thing to capture. And I hope that if you’re an outdoor photography lover, you don’t ever think it gets old. You can’t disregard a gorgeous photo, just because you’ve spent too much time on 500px and seen a bunch of them, and then just decide you’re going to go shoot everything at noon just so you can be different. Appreciate the work, the luck, and the beauty that went in to making that photo. If it’s not your cup of tea, well then it’s not. But saying you’re “tired” of it, or that it’s “old” is just plain silly.


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