Imagine this: You show up to a gorgeous waterfall – one that you’ve been to countless times in “perfect conditions” and yet you’ve never gotten an image of it that you were happy with. Imagine that it’s the middle of the day and that the whole entire amphitheater is washed in midday light, there’s harsh direct light hitting the waterfall, and that the whole downstream creek is also washed in that same “bad” light. Imagine that it’s a fairly popular waterfall and that the whole area is crawling in tourists.

Considering all of that, it’s probably a situation where you wouldn’t be likely to pull your camera out, right?

Well, what if I told you that this exact scenario happened to me and that even with all of these conditions I got the only shot of this waterfall that has made it into my portfolio – and not just a portfolio shot, but also an image that I am deeply connected to and that has meaning to me?

Landscape photography in harsh light
Soft Symphony (2018)

With nature and landscape photography, when it comes to photographing light there is often a singular goal of capturing the most epic sunrise or sunset that we’ve ever seen. The thrill of the chase and the reward when it all pays off can be invigorating. However, I’ve noticed that oftentimes the drive for that sunrise/sunset and the resulting photograph becomes the primary goal of nature photographers. I’ve been there myself and I know the disappointment felt when the sunset fizzles out and you’re left with cloudy skies, clear skies, or conditions that many might consider “lackluster”. We sometimes prioritize the photo and put the whole reason that we go to nature or take photographs of it on the back burner. The peace of mind, the primal connection to the natural world, the inspiration, or wherever it is that we seek in nature becomes diminished because we didn’t “get the shot”.

The obvious solution is to untether ourselves from the reliance on ‘good’ light. But that’s not as easy as it sounds, and in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. It takes work to grow as a photographer. That means that it takes risk, experimentation, and failure. No one likes failure, especially when it comes to our art or our time spent in nature, but it is an important part of learning. This is where a shift in focus is needed in the way that we interact with the landscape through our cameras. If we can approach the landscape in a way that isn’t based on expected results then we have the potential to be much happier and fulfilled as photographers.

The word photography translates to writing with light. Light is our medium and when we limit ourselves to one kind of light we are limiting our ability to communicate the story of our experience in nature. This can lead to feelings of stagnation, unfulfillment, and even burnout because we are focusing on the same types of scenes and not challenging our creativity. In order to become a more well-rounded photographer and artist, we must learn to think outside of our creative box. One of the ways in which we can do that is by learning how to use different kinds of light.

I’m here to make the case for photographing midday light. At first glance midday light is, well, harsh. But if we shift our approach, look closely, and think creatively there is a ton of potential for photographing during the middle of the day. In fact, I have found most of my creative realizations to happen while photographing harsh light and I have come to feel comfortable and confident in my ability to create images that I love deeply no matter the conditions or location.

Below are five tips that I have to offer after exploring midday light for the past several years:

#1 Slow down

In my opinion, slowing down and letting yourself tune into the environment is a good practice in general and depending on your photographic goals it’s an important step in responding to the moments in a scene that calls out to YOU.

Most photographers in a beautiful location are going to recognize the overall scene, and sure you can arrange the different elements in different ways. But once you’re able to look beyond that, how many photographers might be standing in the exact spot that you’re standing in and will notice the way that the sunlight is peeking and flashing through a fern or leaf? Those are personal moments that are existing for you and only once you allow yourself to slow down and let the landscape show you these moments will you see them. 

Photographing harsh light
Taller Than the Trees (2019)

#2 Shed expectations

This is common advice when it comes to breaking out of the tendency to chase popular subjects and compositions and to start creating images that are personal and meaningful to you. But it’s suggested because it’s true – when you go looking for something you’re going to find what you’re looking for because it’s easy to become hyper-focused on that specific shot that a type of subconscious tunnel vision sets in.

Allowing yourself to let go of the stress of hoping that all of the conditions line up enables you to prioritize the experience of being out in nature. Gone is the disappointment in circumstance and in its place is creative invigoration, inspiration, excitement, and attention to details that you may otherwise have not noticed.

Photographing in Harsh Light
Stained Glass (2019)

#3 Find intimate plays of light

The larger the scene, the more of a mess of contrast it can be for the eye. One of the easiest ways around this is to notice the intimate plays of light that are happening. Even the most direct of light can be attractive and make a nice photograph if you are able to find a pleasing arrangement of the subject that it’s interacting with. The brighter and more direct the light is, the more contrast the image is going to have with most of the items in shadow falling into deep and dark tones. As such you would want to make sure that the subject is visually pleasing as it is going to have the full visual weight of the photo. Using a telephoto lens helps you to isolate those moments in time so that you can interact with them in an intimate way.

Waterfall photographed in daytime
Sun Soaked (2020)

#4 Don’t be afraid of clipped shadows or highlights

We photographers put a lot of focus on retaining every single detail in the highlights and shadows of our images but the truth is that midday light is often contrasty and depending on the scene that you’re shooting it’s going to be impossible to bracket to get everything in check. I typically photograph to retain the highlights but there are some subjects, such as water, where I will let the highlights blow out a little bit so that I can get more of the shadow detail. If you’re photographing direct light on a subject, sometimes the blown highlights enable the light to be felt a little more than if you retained every single detail.

Harsh light photography
Strong late morning light illuminates the wet sand on Harris Beach in Brookings, Oregon.

#5 Experiment

No growth comes from doing the same thing over and over again. Chances are that you are photographing with a digital camera and camera memory is cheap! There is no harm in messing up a shot, and if it leads you to a new discovery about a way to use light then all the better. If you’ve worked on shedding expectations then you aren’t let down by the shots that don’t work out. On top of it, you spent some intimate time with something that called to you and the value in that is worth more than a resulting photograph.

There are many ways to experiment: multiple exposures, Intentional Camera Movement, shooting something you normally wouldn’t, and my favorite: asking “what if?”. What if I pointed my camera at the brightest light and exposed it dark enough? What if I didn’t use a polarizer? What if I used a neutral density filter on this subject receiving direct light? What if I did this? What if I did that? What if…?

Don’t fall victim to following prescribed formulas for success. Those are all just walls of a box and when you grow too big for your box, you need to get a new box.

ICM technique in golden light
Sunday Sun (2020)

Conclusion

You may have noticed that I didn’t talk about techniques in this article, and that’s intended. Photographing midday light isn’t about being told what to shoot or how to shoot it. In fact, that can apply to every aspect of photography. There are plenty of articles out there talking about technique and technical details, but I will tell you that my approach to photographing harsh light isn’t based on those kinds of things. It all starts with a desire to explore beyond what you’ve known to be possible. It takes stepping outside of your comfort zone, thinking in different ways, paying attention, and experimenting.

If you’d like to learn more about my photographic philosophy as well as read about how I approached the images in this article, consider purchasing my eBook There’s No Such Thing As Bad Light – An Exploration of Creatively Using Midday Light. It’s a 75 page eBook that reviews nine different types of light and approaches that happen during the middle of the day, demonstrated with 39 images that act as case studies and include in-field context and my processing approach. You also get a 19-page in-field workbook that you can keep on your mobile device to help you approach your photography in a more personal and meaningful way.


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