Dispelling the Myth of Good Light and Bad Light

Dispelling the Myth of Good Light and Bad Light

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There is no such thing as bad light, there is just light. Take advantage of every situation.

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Photography is all about the light. In fact, if there is no light hitting the sensor, there is no photo. Different times of the day, or weather conditions, can create different moods and situations. As you probably know, you can achieve amazing and compelling results by shooting in the early morning, or from late afternoon well into twilight. This is known as the golden hour and the blue hour, respectively.

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However, there is no such thing as good light or bad light, there is just light. It is not always possible to shoot under ideal conditions, especially when traveling. Yes, you can wake up early; yes, you can skip dinner or eat it later. But what are you going to do the rest of the day or if there is bad weather? If anything, when you are on tour, chances are you’ll be wandering around at midday, in overcast conditions or even in the rain. Here are some tips and examples you can follow to make the most of the situation under any kind of weather or light conditions.

Tips for using any kind of light to make great photos

High sun, midday light

In most cases you’ll be out exploring places during the daytime under midday light. This is not an ideal situation. Direct, harsh sunlight creates hard shadows that are not very flattering. Taking portraits of locals is one of the best ways to capture the essence of places; if you’re going after this, you can try to move your subject into the shade. If they are wearing a hat, you can also position them in a way where their face is under the brim. The key for this is to come close enough to the person and compose your shot right into them. Alternatively, use an off-camera flash to fill the shadows and compensate for the brightness in your background.

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If you are looking for street scenes or iconic locations, you can always use the hard shadows created by the direct sunlight to your benefit and arrange the image in a way that helps to create a compelling composition. You may have to wait for the right moment, waiting for someone to walk into your scene or simply using the shadow element intentionally as part of your photograph.

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Clouds in the sky, overcast light

Granted, this is not an ideal situation either; however, there is much you can do. In this case, contrary to the high sun, you have a very soft light. This is great for shooting portraits. The light will be even and very soft; throw in some stormy clouds and the effect could be very dramatic. Again, get close to your subject.

Another technique is to avoid the sky. Look for locations and activities for which the sky is not an important element and simply avoid shooting it. A good example for this is local markets or similar indoor activities. By the way, local markets are fun to shoot, and moreover, they’re an excellent way to connect to and experience local culture.

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Nevertheless, you can also work with landscape and exterior photos during these conditions. In fact, there are some places where it’s almost impossible to avoid. Due to local weather characteristics you may find that during certain seasonal periods you’ll encounter misty mornings, stormy afternoons, and so on. Go ahead and shoot it. What better way to capture a region the way you see it, the way you feel it?

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Rainy days

This is the time when most photographers stay inside, but I’d strongly suggest you get out there. It can seem a little bit scary, we tend to overprotect our gear, but with some preparation there is nothing to fear and you’ll get fantastic results. When it starts to rain, good photographers head outside. Downpours bring life, a different look; in certain cases, some areas are just magical in the rain. Think about shooting reflections, ponds, and playing with water drops. The possibilities are endless and you’ll definitely love it.

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As you can see, good light, bad light, is just a myth. There are certainly ideal situations where you can achieve exceptional photos, but it is not always possible to be out during perfect circumstances. So go ahead and take advantage of every condition, try to think how you can leverage and play it to your convenience. In the end, photography is fun, and great images can be obtained under almost any condition.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Daniel Korzeniewski is a Miami-based, travel photographer. His work has appeared in several publications and he contributes to various stock photography outlets. You can find out more about his work, travel adventures, or join him on one of his upcoming photography tours (to Morocco, India, or Myanmar). You can also follow him on Instagram.

  • Gordon James

    How refreshing, Daniel! I have reached the point when I move on as soon as an author starts on about ‘needing’ to shoot in the golden hours, for all the reasons you suggest above. There are many iconic shots from around the Mediterranean which would not work without the pitiless blue sky and hard shadows, which you have to learn to control in your images. That’s not to say early and late shooting isn’t good, it’s just not ‘essential’!

  • i do prefer an overcast day to shoot.. nature made me a softbox.. 🙂

  • Dnguyen

    If there wasn’t good or bad light, then you won’t need to take “advantage” of situations. You won’t need to shoot a certain way, you wouldn’t need tips. We wouldn’t have this article telling us what to avoid, and about ideal situations.

  • carloswertheman

    A Costa Verde and Lima Center Pic?? Lima is like living under a stofen

  • drdroad

    Baloney! If this article proves anything, its that there definitely is good and bad light. Good tips for handling the ‘different’ light, but harsh midday light is definitely BAD light. No one says you have to be in either the golden or blue hours to shoot, but note both of the photos shot in full sunlight and with shadows have LONG shadows, definitely not midday.

  • OldFilmGuy

    Yikes! You opened a can of worms on this one eh?

  • If a photo presents itself, go to work. That’s all.

  • Sometimes you do not have the luxury of choosing when to shoot. You are ON, and you have to shoot well. I frequently have midday gigs, scheduled by a third party, and as often as I can, I look for the shade for my subjects. Sometimes you have to do the best you can with what you have. I like this article because it suggests ways to shoot in all kinds of light and in the not so wonderful harsh middle of day hours.

  • Lorraine

    Thanks for the article. I so often don’t take a photo because I think the light is wrong and I cannot handle it. I like the idea of the light or condition is part of the place where you are.

  • Thanks Lorraine, that’s the way I see it, we don’t always have the opportunity to plan or come back to specific locations and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t document it.

  • Thank you for the comments.

  • Charlene

    I have to agree with those who thank you for the refreshing article! I love to take a daily nature walk with my camera…sometimes I am able to go at the so-called golden hours and sometimes not. The light conditions for photographing the wildlife I find are not always “golden”, and unlike a landscape, I can’t just go back when the light is optimum to get the “perfect” shot. You have given your readers good reasons to get out there and shoot instead of a lot of excuses not to!

  • Thanks for the comments, I appreciate them. The point I was trying to make is that regardless of the situation there is always a way to make your photograph.

    If you look at the article carefully you’ll see that in the case of the shadows I am mentioning “hard shadows created by direct sunlight” and what I suggest, is to use it as part of your photo or composition.

    Now, if you look at the portraits, the first one, the Burmese woman in Inle Lake was taken at 11:31 AM, and the Peruvian man was made at 11:04 AM. In both cases I’ve positioned the subjects in a way that there is shadow being casted by their hats. The background is overexposed but I am shooting close enough to make that not an essential part of the photo.

    In my opinion there is a general misconception that we shouldn’t be making photos at certain times or situations, of course I prefer the golden hours, but if I am traveling that’s not always possible. I am pretty sure that the old Peruvian man with whom I enjoyed a wonderful conversation was not going to be there at dusk waiting for me. In those situation I’ll make the photo no matter what, the best I can.

  • Thanks Charlene!!! That’s exactly the way I see it.

  • You are most welcome, Daniel. I learned from your article. Thanks!

  • You’re right Mars, an overcast day is great for portraits. The only consideration I have or things I try to look is whereas the sky is interesting or not. If you look at the photo of the famers, I’ve decided to include part of the sky because I believe the clouds are helping me and are part of the story I want to tell. Sometimes if the sky is just overcast flat, I try not to include it.

  • Thanks Gordon!!! I really appreciate your comment.

  • haha, that’s not the intention!!! Thanks.

  • Migz

    So true that we can’t always pick the lighting conditions specially when one travels and doesn’t have much choice to capture the moment. Thank you Daniel for this good article.

  • Adrian

    Useful article

  • zimtracy

    Hi, Thank you for this. I am a wedding photographer working in Zimbabwe. Last year we had a wonderful rainy (good for our water table) but it meant that almost every wedding I shot it rained. There was nothing I could do about, one cannot change the weather after all, I just had to work around it or be creative. It was someone’s wedding, so it could not be reshot. Here are some images I captured a one particular wedding. In one instance I hurried the couple outdoors so that I could capture the dark clouds.

  • Dr. Nicolas Rao

    Excellent article… I live in the hot tropical climate of South India and if waiting for the good light was my priority then all those beautiful shots taken during the day would be lost… I also like shooting nature and in mid-sea the light can be very harsh.. great in the early hours and evenings..but birds heads hardly throw a big enough shadow and after travelling for hours from 4AM and seeing birds on my return trip which is bound to be midday…is not going to stop me from shooting..no, not only are low ISO’s available..but great shooting speeds as well…and my city is very dusty.. shots shot immediately after or during a shower are the cleanest and look most fresh…I love it when it rains.

  • Thanks for sharing your photos!!!

  • drdroad

    Daniel (good name), I completely understand what you were trying to do, and got good ideas from the article. I guess its the attempted supposition that there is no BAD light that just kinda got me. I understood the use of the hats and all that. Personally, after several decades of photography, I now find myself going out early and then doing all my ‘work’ (emails, processing) in the middle of the day, rather than dealing with it! Except when on assignment, I have a lot of freedom in my travels, so I don’t have to get everything done in a day or two. Thanks, Dave Daniel

  • Here is a photo from a destination wedding that I shot totally outdoors in the rain in New Orleans.

  • Tom Potter

    Thank you for an EXCELLENT article! One thing I have never been quite able to wrap my head around: Please forgive me if my questions seems rather naive. If bright afternoon days are part of nature, and simply how that type of light happens to be, how is it that that sort of lighting is not also considered ideal? It IS as “natural” as any other type of outdoor lighting. Am I correct in my assumption that what it simply comes down to is that that sort of bright lighting does not have the “warm”, character-filler qualities of the Golden / Blue lighting? – That is is simply a matter of it being more appealing to the human eye? – I understand if that is the answer. However, I ask, because I just want to make sure I fully understand the reasoning behind it, without my own assumptions coloring the facts….Thank you very much p Tom

  • Looks like we got rained out at the same location!!! 🙂 Thanks for sharing…

  • Well, I am smiling about this. I live in New Orleans, and many a wedding a la destination has been shot under overhangs as long as the bride and minister are for it. Actually, I rather liked the pics, and so did they. I like your photo, too. It is rare to see “nobody” in Jackson Square like this. Here is another that I loved. Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire pic. 🙂

  • Tom. there is no short answer to your question, but generally speaking, the results of shooting mid-day are not pleasing. The excessive contrast, produce flat images, with blown highlights and hard shadows.

  • hahaha, that’s fun…. I am from Miami and visited New Orleans for the first time for Mardi Gras this year. I am not particularly proud of the image I share, but it was funny to see yours from the same location. I’d love to go back and spend a few more days, i was there just for a weekend.. here is the link to photos of NOLA…. http://danielkorzeniewskiphoto.com/photos-of-new-orleans-travel/

  • Love your night shots of NOLA. I am just learning how to do that. Here is one I took across the river at Algiers Point where the ferry goes when it leaves the Canal Street dock.
    I will send you a link to you from your site
    of a pic I shot from there.

  • Hi Tom, to your question I’d say that the reason is the same as lighting for anything. When the light hits the subject at a direct angle (straight on) and not from the side or a more obtuse angle – you will always get flat lighting, and a one dimensional looking subject.

    Lighting at a more extreme angle gives dimension, adds texture and creates depth in your image.

    Does that help?

  • Dilkaran Singh Dhillon

    Most of the people here are saying the noon time light is harsh and not good for photography..it maybe sometimes but we can create a good image.using direct overhead light..this image below. Was clicked by me at 12:58pm and I think is. A good or ok photograph…and many thanks to you Daniel for your tips and inspiration to rise above excuses and photograph out of comfort zone..

  • Khushnaz

    These are beautiful pics, especially the last one 🙂 thanks for sharing them.

  • John Christopher Yapchapco

    i tried your tips and it worked great. thank you so much for all the tips and tricks. 🙂

  • Hi John, I am glad it worked for you.

  • Thank you for these great tips. I try to get out and shoot whenever I can and almost always never have the opportunity to catch the Golden/Blue hours. A certain genere may require particular mood and lighting for maximum creative effect. There may be a time that people have to brave the element and go out and shoot or missing the opportunity all together. Thanks again for this article.

  • JR

    “harsh” shadows have given me some of my favorite B&W shots. Gotta learn to make lemonade is what I get from your article and I fully agree.

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