Tips for Photographing in Harsh Light

Most photographers, myself included, will extol the virtues of photographing early and late in the day, when the light is soft and warm and beautiful. And most photographers, myself included, will wrinkle their noses and look with disdain at those who dare break this rule.

But as with everything else in life, there are exceptions, and those who photograph midday, when the light is harsh and unflattering, might be on to something. The fact is, there is no such a thing as “bad” light. Just like even a broken clock is right twice a day, bright light works well with certain subjects.

So yes, you have permission to once in a while sleep in and miss the early light.

Here are three situations when photographing in bright light will yield beautiful results.

  1. Fall colors. Red, yellow and orange leaves look fantastic when directly sunlit (they look great when backlit too). They almost seem to glow. And they look especially good when combined with the bright blue skies typical of fall weather.
  2. The ocean sea. As much as I like photographing near the ocean at sunrise or sunset, the water during these times looks gun metal gray (unless colorful clouds are being reflected on the water). If you want to capture the saturated blues and emerald greens of the ocean, photograph it around noon, when the sun brings out those colors.
  3. Patterns. Whether architectural or natural, patterns that are high in relief (as opposed to patterns that are on a single plane like a rug) will photograph well in harsh light, since the contrast (difference between light and dark) will make them stand out.
 Aspen trees in Fall colors, Aspen Vista Trail, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

One more thing: Sometimes you will want to photograph a subject that, for whatever reason, cannot be photographed under ideal light. Either it is an event that takes place at noon, for example, or midday is the only chance you will have to visit a particular location. In those cases I suggest you shoot anyway. Much of travel photography involves doing the best you can under less-than-ideal conditions, and perfect conditions do not miraculously materialize just because you are on a trip. The one thing you can control is your attitude, so whatever the situation is, enjoy your photography.

Now get out and shoot something