Are You Ever Disappointed With Your Photos? Here's Why It's Probably the Light

Are You Ever Disappointed With Your Photos? Here's Why It's Probably the Light

Knowing what photos work best and worst in different lighting conditions can help us create the best possible photos. Here's how to do it.

Creating a photograph can be a long process with numerous steps along the way. However, there is one part of the workflow that seems to be more enjoyable and important to the photographers than any other. Thinking about it, it’s the same for me and I suspect it is for most others as well.

At first, we plan. Then we compose and take the shot. Next comes the development and editing of the image, and finally the printing or publishing. It’s that second step, the one where we hold the camera to the eye and press the shutter release button that most people seem to love the best.

It’s that love of taking photos that encourages people to take their cameras with them wherever they go. Where I live, in a beautiful area of coastline, there are always people walking around with their cameras trying to capture it. Being so familiar with the environment, I can see without looking through their viewfinders that some of the photos being shot won’t be that great. That’s usually because they are trying to capture the scene with the wrong light. But it really doesn’t matter because they are enjoying creating the image.

However, with a little forethought and consideration for the available light, those photographers could walk away with far better photos.

The quality of the photo has much to do with the season, the time of the day, and the weather. The reason is, those factors affect the light’s qualities and quantity.

Shooting Photos Before Dawn

Before the sun rises, it isn’t just the level of the light that is different, it is blue in color too. You might not notice this shift in the light because your brain automatically compensates for it, as should your camera’s Auto White Balance (AWB). This time is known as the “blue hour” for that reason.

Have you not noticed it? If you turn on your warm indoor lights and look at a gap between your curtains or blinds at this time of the day, the outside will appear blue. If you step outside, your eyes will quickly adjust so you don’t notice that blueness. However, look back at your house and the light shining through that gap will appear far more yellow than it did when you were inside.

Besides being blue, the light at this time of the day is very even. Depending upon meteorological conditions, the air is often clear too as the overnight moisture has absorbed the airborne dust and precipitated it in the dew. That is, of course, a generalization and where you live may be entirely different.

Photos shot in the blue hour have a unique feel to them.  Relatively few people photograph at this time of the day. For me, it is a time for capturing long-exposure, minimalist seascapes. Also, life is starting to stir in the town as people start to go about their early morning routines. Consequently, with the high ISO capabilities of modern cameras, especially with the fabulous AI-driven noise reduction software that has appeared over the last handful of years, this time of day is great for unique street photography. It gives superb opportunities for showing a world that most people miss.

Sometimes, combining and balancing that low, blue ambient light with a fill-in flash can produce some amazing portraits.

As sunrise approaches, the dawn chorus starts, and it is a fabulous moment to capture images of birds in full voice or see geese taking to the wing as they leave their night-time roost.

The Beauty of Dawn Photography

About a third of all the 80,000 photographs in my catalog were shot at either side of sunrise. I think Sunrise is a magic time of the day. There is something magnificent about seeing the sun rise above the horizon. The low-angled, golden light that creates long shadows looks amazing.

If you are by the sea on the East Coast, and if the atmospheric conditions are right, look out for the momentary green flash caused when the sun breaks the horizon. The filtering effect of the atmosphere changes the color of the sunlight, but it lasts, at most, only two seconds. I have yet to capture it on camera.

The countryside comes to life at daybreak. Where I live, all the gulls take to the wing at dawn, flying inland from their roost on the island, and adding an extra dimension to my seascapes. In towns, beams of light are cast between buildings. For macro photographers, insects have not yet had the opportunity to warm up and come to life; their sparking dew-dappled bodies in the early sunlight make fabulous subjects.

Wildlife photography photos are often most compelling if taken at sunrise when the nocturnal and crepuscular animals are still active. Furthermore, a rising mist or water vapor from a creature’s breath can transform mundane animal portraits into something more enchanting.

What to Shoot in Daytime Sunlight

Daytime is considered problematic for photographers. The light can often be harsh, casting strong shadows. Bright, sunny days can be especially challenging for wedding photographers if balancing the exposure between a white bridal gown with the groom’s dark suit. Also, the sunlight can cast harsh shadows on faces, blow out highlights, and make people squint.

Although sunny days and blue skies are what holiday brochures show, landscapes appear flat and uninteresting in bright daylight, and equally if it’s overcast.

However, walk into a forest and you’ll see shafts of light filtering through the trees and falling onto an individual flower, leaf, or fungus. That effect can make compelling images when the exposure is reduced to isolate the subject. But shoot quickly because the world keeps turning and that beam of light will soon move on.

Over-exposing works too, isolating a dark subject on a bright landscape such as a beach.

Using a polarising filter to darken the sky and then picking out brightly lit features to form abstract shots can work equally as well in broad daylight.

Rain, Rain, Go Away? It’s Not Always Sunny

We don’t often think of rain as great conditions for photography. However, towering thunderheads can add a fabulous mood to your photo. Likewise, capturing lightning can make an image exciting. It’s not advisable if your camera is not weather sealed though, and there is personal risk involved when photographing a thunderstorm.

Strong wind gusts can result in interesting photos as well. Half-second exposures of trees blowing in the wind can make a fabulous backdrop to stationary subjects. However, make sure your tripod is stable by extending its legs outwards or weighing it down. If those trees are moving, your tripod and camera will too.

Snow changes the way the world looks and can make photos of the mundane more fascinating. It’s worth remembering that the whiteness of the scene will cause your camera’s metering to reduce the exposure as it expects the world to be mid-gray and not white. A stop or so of positive exposure compensation will fix that. Although our eyes don’t see it that way because of our brains’ AWB, snow is usually blue because it is reflecting the sky. You may need to adjust the white balance manually if your camera cannot cope with it. You can do this in-camera, or afterwards in your raw development or editing software.

Fog can create fabulous moody feelings, but again, it can cause your metering to suggest under-exposure. Learning how to use your histogram can really help to get the exposure correct when you take the shot.

Taking Sunset Photos is Not the Same as Shooting at Sunrise

Although the light is golden at the end of the day and in some ways like that at sunrise, there’s a significant difference: the amount of dust in the air. Moreover, the land may well have warmed up and created haze.

Unlike dawn, those insects don’t have dew droplets on them, and many birds are settling down for the night. Also, let’s face it, sunset photos are ten a penny. A Google search brings up 1.9 billion sunset photos, nearly double that of sunrise pictures.

That doesn’t mean that you should avoid sunset. The colors can be amazing facing toward the sun. (As with sunrise, don’t look directly at the sun and certainly not through the viewfinder of a DSLR, use Live View to protect your eyes.) But remember to look behind you to the East. Like with sunrise, there can be great colors in the opposite direction to the sun. Look too for those long shadows.

Warm evening colors and the hazy atmosphere can be great for romantic photos. Using a fill-in flash can help bring out the details of a portrait and maintain the colors of a sunset in the background. Smokey city streets and evening mist can also enhance the moody feeling of a sunset photo.

Capturing the Moon Light

The full moon rises at about the time the sun sets. Like with sunrise and sunset, you can use Apps like Photo Pills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris to work out the best place and time to stand to get the moon in transit with specific landmarks as it lifts above the horizon. A telephoto lens will make the sun or moon look bigger in relation to the landmark.

You may need to balance the exposure for capturing both the details on the moon and features in the landscape. Bracketing the shot and combining them in editing or using the high dynamic range setting in your camera can be a way around this.

Shooting in the Evening Blue Hour and at Night

After the sun goes down, it’s the blue hour again. Like the golden hour, it can last anything from a few minutes to several hours depending on where you live and the time of year. The air may still be filled with dust from the day, so photos won’t be as clear as the dawn equivalent.

This is a great opportunity to try light painting and light trails. Also, as stars appear, you can point your camera towards the North or South Pole, depending upon your location, and capture long exposure star trails making huge circles in the sky.

On the darkest of nights, very long exposures are possible too, creating surreal effects.

What Time of Day Do You Usually Shoot?

Clearly, I cannot cover every change of light and weather conditions in an article like this. Are there certain weather conditions that attract you? Do you have a particular time of day when you like to be out with your camera? Please share that in the comments. For me, it is dawn. If only weddings happened around sunrise on misty mornings, I would be happy.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

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Dawn is the most beautiful time for me, not only the light but also the experience of seeing and hearing the world come to life, it’s absolutely therapeutic. One thing that always amazes me, no matter how many time I witnessed it , is the speed at which the sun rises (and sets) over the horizon. When you add fog to a sunrise or sunset it gets even more magical.
This time of year , it is sometimes difficult to get out of bed so early, but autumn is near, my favourite time of year , morning fog and blue hour at around 7 am. Your description of blue hour and sunrise does help to get out and shoot early even at this time of year.

Thank you, Ruud. Yes, I absolutely love that time of day. It's magical.

Ivor asked:

"Are there certain weather conditions that attract you?"

I especially like snow, fog, mist, and frost. With snow, I like it when there is snow not only on the ground, but when the snow is also sticking to every branch, twig, blade of grass, leaf, etc. A true winter wonderland is what I'm after ... snow is sometimes disappointing when it is on the ground, but has melted off of the vegetation. Snow in the air, falling, and also on the ground and vegetation ..... well that's about as good as it gets!

I also like a "bright overcast" ... this is when the sky is completely covered with clouds, but the cloud canopy is fairly light, so that there is still a good deal of light for easy exposures with low ISO and plenty of shutter speed and whatever aperture I want. It is as if the earth is a giant softbox!

Basically I want it to be clear from sunrise to two hours after sunrise, then a bright overcast until an hour and a half before sunset, then clear again until sunset. So I'm not too picky. Hahahaha!

"Do you have a particular time of day when you like to be out with your camera? For me, it is dawn."

For me it is dawn, as well. It just feels great to be out then, and the diurnal animals and birds seem to be excited about the promise of a new day ahead of them, which makes them more photogenic. After a couple hours they often tire out and go to napping. And of course the light is always going to be soft for at least the first hour of daylight.

But I must add that if you specifically target the courtship / breeding season for a particular species, the photogenic activity is going to continue throughout the entire day and you can get dynamic behavior at any hour. The breeding season for most mammals and birds is from 3 to 5 weeks long, and a wildlife photographer should be basing his annual travel schedule around those times if he wants to consistently have excellent opportunities in front of him.

Thank you for sharing that, Tom. That's a really informative comment and that image is fabulous.