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.
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.
PLEASE READ THIS!
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.
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.
G’day Matt, After reading all these comments about LIGHT, has anybody considered, without LIGHT, everything on earth, dies.
I agree with all you say, etc.
Quick suggestion: When shooting people at mid-day, strap on the strobe. It clears out shadows on people’s faces and helps separate people from the background. Just make sure to expose for ambient light, knock strobe power down a stop or so, and use Rear Curtain Synch.
Another one: Try and not burn out the highlights then in post-processing, expand the shadow areas (in View NX2 it’s called Shadow Protection).
Matt, the sunrise and sunset hours are the greatest times to shoot. I people cant shoot during that time and love photography they will find something else to shoot. Someone asking you to basically alter the way you teach is ludicrous. If they dont like it maybe they should be the teacher or find someone that will teach how they want. I work from 7am-5pm Monday through Friday and do pull some Saturday hours. I know of several great places that allows me to pull over the side of the road and take some sunrise pictures. No two sunrises are alike. The light is what it is. As an avid hobbyist of photography I have never put my eye up to the back of the camera when the light is harshest, snapped the shutter, and hope I can recover some kind of detail during post processing. I for one love your teaching and love discovering new ways to ENHANCE my work. Keep it up.
There is no question morning or late afternoon tend to make for prettier photos. A problem arises if you are trying to convey something essential about a place that is only experienced mid-day.
One example is the a Sonoran desert summer day. Take stroll out into that desert at 2-3pm in Jully far enough to loose sight of your car, the road or any other signs of man. This IS the essence of the place. Leathal, brutal unforgiving but magnificent. Now how does one express that in a photo?
I’m glad to see that you will not change your way of teaching and also you did reply to that question nicely.
I’m going to travel on vacations soon and hope I get not only some nice vacation pictures but also some nice photos on the golden hours.
Hey Matt! You’re too awesome. Let me speak for myself and piggy back off of your “skin in the game” comment. I may be crazy but I make a point to get up and go out and shoot at all times of day, I have a now 17 month old boy and if he’s up and depending on his energy level he comes too! (unless its in the evening) from golden hours to blue hours and high noon I must challenge myself otherwise like an athlete who doesn’t train what good is he? (my opinion) Ive been photographing for about a decade and very seriously this past year and yes I’ve seen the difference when I switched to pro equipment, but most of my “real world” training came from listening to the critiques you have given me and my peers. I take those seriously and more importantly than learning the rights and wrongs is the application to my work. I was/still am completely thrilled after reading this article as always keep up the amazing work.
Good comments Matt, I totally agree. I like the tourist vs photographer mode comment, I take that same attitude. Can’t get the light, record the event. One thing I’d offer though, sometimes you’re there as a photographer, you know you aren’t coming back and being a tourist just isn’t a choice.
I spent 10 days in Iceland a couple of years ago, I had one sunny day, the rest was fog, clouds, and rain…and rain. I could have just been bummed out and laid around the hotels, but I worked at it and came back with a portfolio of great images. Aside from learning just how wet a Nikon D810 can get and still work, I learned there is good light in any condition, I just had to work harder to find it. I composed to exclude the sky in many cases, in others used fog as a backdrop cloth to frame a subject, went close for an abstract, or in some cases just had a bust. No doubt many of the waterfall shots may have been better with a nice sunset, that just wasn’t in the cards on this trip (except one perfect night at Jokulsarlon). There was good light on those gray rainy days, but even in those circumstances I found light to be better at the beginning and end of the day for reasons only a scientist could explain. There’s no getting around it, the blue and golden hour are the times to take the best nature shots even on days where there is no blue or gold to be found.
Bottom line, as nature photographers we often find ourselves with less than optimal light, but unlike your friend at the beach we may not have the option of coming back the next day. So in my case I learned to compose differently, find creative ways to use the light I had, and come home with images I’m happy with. There are no filters and tricks involved to fix bad photos in harsh light, just enough love of photography to find a way.
I’m in complete agreement that it’s all about the light. However, in real life many of us have a day to spend in Paris or you fill in the blanks, and the sweet light is a small part of the time we are there. So I find that mid day many subjects would merely be documenatary but not really good pictures (like the broad seascapes, landscapes etc. I might take a few. But there are other subjects, especially smaller scale subjects, and details, and street life that work fine in mid day. There are also some subject that take on a very different character in harsh light and make for a different kind of picture. In fact I find it fulfilling to look for those subjects I might ignore in the sweet light, but that have a lot of promise when you concentrate on them. So for me there is never a bad time of day to take pictures, you just need to match what you can do to the light that is available, and vary your subjects by what is available. I think that also causes you to grow as a photographer. Everyone is taking the sunsets and sunrise photos, those are the obvious ones, but can you capture emotion, or details or perspective etc. that everyone else is missing
Good article Matt,
I agree with the points you made. I think that light is very very important. Heck, just about anything looks better in certain kinds of light 🙂 but I’m not a fanatic about it. I realize that life comes first (for me not being a pro) and photography second.
I shoot for fun; to document my life and so while I do love shooting in interesting light, I’m definitely not above just taking a snap for the shoebox full of pictures either. Many a Saturday evening we’d gather at the kitchen table and bring out the ol’ box-o-photos and stare in wonder at relatives that we didn’t know, or some that we did 🙂 Remembering past fun times through those boxes. I’m fine with that “bad light at noon in front of the Washington Monument” photo if that’s all I get.
Anyway, thanks for some good reading and food for thought.
Matt you’re quite right, light does matter, because without light the photographer has nothing.
Using photo-editing software along with the plug-ins is all well and good, however doing so sometimes – albeit not always – indicates the photographer doesn’t fully understand how to use the light and how to use his or her camera, whether it’s digital, film, electronically automatic or completely mechanical such as my trusty old Pentax K1000. That’s not to say one shouldn’t use photo-editing software, just understand it’s a tool and should be used as such to compliment the work done in-camera.
First of all, I would like to say that it was a privilege last week to attend your presentations on post processing at the Can Am Photo Expo in Amherst, NY.
I started taking photography seriously as a retirement hobby 6 years ago and I bought my first DSLR (Canon 60D) 5 years ago. My second DSLR (Canon 7D mark II) is just over a week old.
I have not been going out early or late often for the past year plus – my wife was having reactions to medications with increasing frequency and I chose to be at home with her. She encouraged my photography but I limited my time away for a few hours at a time for errands during afternoons and sometimes evenings for camera club meetings. I didn’t want to disturb her by early rising on a regular basis.
She passed away suddenly (and mercifully quickly)on January 31. I am now readjusting my sleep cycle so I can again include the golden hours in my photography schedule.
If my primary objective is a sunrise/sunset and the weather doesn’t cooperate, I will likely find something else to photograph.
Wow John – that second to last sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. I can’t imagine the pain that causes, and I’m so sorry to hear about your wife. Thanks for sharing your story and thanks so much for coming out last week to the Expo. That was such a great crowd, and I instantly told Doug to sign me up for next year. Good luck in the sunrise/sunset endeavors, and most importantly, have fun shooting.
Over the years I’ve learned a great deal from you and I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to write back to me. I think you’re doing a wonderful job upping everyone’s game.
Some of this discussion falls into two camps. The serious photographers that will do whatever it takes to make amazing images and as you said, will go back again and again, if necessary, to get that perfect image.
There are others who are serious amateurs (like me) who travel to places and am inspired to take photos as best we can. These images can be inspiring and amazing as I’ve seen on 500px (even some of mine) and taken during the day. I agree that high noon isn’t a great time but that doesn’t mean you cant be creative and find a compelling image. We’ve all done it.
Where I somewhat respectfully disagree with you is your comment that in reviewing an image you would say, “this would’ve been better at dawn/dusk”. That’s not helpful really. Address the image as it is not what it might have been under other circumstances. Would, this image would’ve been better if you caught it during a thunderstorm? Of course not.
Is the image well composed? Is the technically accurate (exposure, focus etc)? Was the adjustments made in post beneficial to the image or was it overdone?
Those are the sort of comments I would hope to receive because maybe I can go back to that image and make the adjustments you suggested and make the image better or even one suitable to win a prize.
The one contest I won years ago was an image I took of three boys trying to push an unwilling pack mule across a stream in New Mexico. It was shot during the afternoon, was well composed and caught the tensions perfectly. Had I shot that image today with a digital camera and had the post processing tools you and others have taught me how to use, I know the image would have been even more compelling.
Keep up the good work Matt.
Hey Allen – thanks for the reply. I’m not sure if you’ve participated in any of the critique that we do over at ON1 Plus, but that’s exactly what I do. We review the image. The composition, the subject, the post processing, technical, etc… But we also review the light since light is such an important part of photography (some would argue the most important). So while you may have read that I would simply just tell a person “Nice photo but you should have taken it at sunrise”, that’s actually not the case at all. In fact, it’s the very last thing I point out. After reviewing everything about the photo, I simply say something along the lines of “this image is 90% there for me, that last 10% that’s holding me back is ??”.
I have no interest in shooting birds or flowers, zero. I am also a seascape, sky/wave girl. Like most landscape photographers I’ve called the sunset wrong sometimes and it turned out to be a bust. You can pack in early, which I often do and feel fine about (landscape photography is fishing, after all. If there’s no fish in the pond tonight no one feels guilty about packing it in and going out another night), but I did want to talk about a few times I did something else. I worked on compositions. If the sunset is going to be a bust you can still work on different and interesting compositions. Trying to place a rock here or there, camera low or high, and on. There is no pressure to get all set up with your composition quickly lest you miss the light. Even if you’re not coming back to that place again it’s a fun exercise IF you feel like it then and don’t want to feel like you wasted the trip out there. I trash all the photos at the end of it, but composition is a huge area I want to improve and it can still be worked on without interesting light.
I totally agree Rebecca – I’m actually not usually the person that packs up if sunrise/sunset is a bust. In fact, I’m usually the first and last person shooting. I’ve been on the Oregon coast a dozen times where it was a bust. But I still photographed. Those photos even get shared sometimes because I think the scenery is really beautiful – even in yucky weather. When I was in Iceland we had a blah sunset for a waterfall shoot. Everyone was packed up and in the car for 30 minutes before I returned (I’m not so sure they were happy with me) 🙂
I doubt they remember it, Matt. They were probably more upset with the gorgeous shot of rocks on a black sand beach that you took while they were trying to make ho hum photos of waves.
Have to bring it back to the original request – start showing .. how to use filters and plug-ins to fix photos that were shot in not-so-great light
Not other photos to take in not-so-good light – rather how to FIX photos that were shot in not-so-great light so they look better (and maybe a little on how to take them so they can be fixed)
If you could do that, we’d be eternally grateful
It’s the old saw Matty……. You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.
I’m late to the conversation because I missed your original question post. After reading through both posts and skimming the comments, I generally agree with where you landed. I do have a training suggestion that may or may not work for you. I know you’re not really a black & white guy in your own work, but some of the same things that make shooting in crummy light (harsh shadows, uneven exposure, high contrast, etc) are the things that can really make a B&W image pop. Maybe there’s a set of subjects you could focus on that could be transformed by converting them to B&W? I know I’ve used that to come up with at least half-way decent images from some mid-day tourist-style snapshots I’ve done. Hope that helps. — Bill
Hey Bill – you’re not the first to point out that you can convert to B&W when the light is bad. But, for me at least, I kinda feel like that does B&W a disservice. And I think those that are really in to crafting a B&W photo would disagree that B&W is what you do when the light isn’t good. To me, photos that should be converted to B&W are photos where the light is the star of the photo. Because B&W forces you to show nothing but the light and dark tones, so whatever is bright is going to make a statement. For me, color is what stands out to me, and it’s what I look for when I select my favorite photos from places. I’ve had people tell me they think another photo is better, but it may be more monotone in nature. To me, color is what inspires me. So that’s what I show off.
I guess it’s different for every person. And again, you’re not the first person to say convert the harsh daylight photos to B&W. But (again for me personally) I save the B&W conversions for photos that I think it matters for. Those photos tend to have light that tells more of the story of the photo, and I want to remove the color to let that all show through with the light.
After 50+ years of taking pictures, I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as ‘bad’ light…there is only light and better light. Sure the light in the morning and at sunset is better but it also has to do with the atmospheric conditions at those times as well. Remember that your ‘mistakes’ are the way you learn and don’t sweat it …it’s not like the old days when it cost you film.
Matt’s opinion is just that …an opinion…and IMHO a good one at that.
Keep up the good work Matt. if you say something that I disagree with…expect me to comment.
You put a lot of thought into this in a very respectful way. What stood out to me the most was your words “honest opinion”! I am one that can not get out at those times very often due to health issues. So I had a camera converted to IR which gives me more options during the day.
Thank you for your teaching. And a huge thank you for your “honest opinions”