Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to turn the harsh, direct light and deep shadows of high noon to your advantage in the fourth article of his fifteen-part series on landscape photography.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
Direct sunlight in the middle of the day is usually detrimental to landscape photography. The light is harsh and contrast is very high. This means that shadows get very dark, even black, and highlights can sometimes wash out. The lighting on the land looks very flat and it is terribly unattractive. Figure 4.1 offers an example of this. The composition is good, and the Swiss landscape is classically beautiful, but the lighting is uninspiring. Notice how dark the shadows look, with little detail in them. This is typical of mid-day shooting, especially if the sun is slightly behind the subject.
I've discussed the beauty of sunrise and sunset lighting in another article, but the question at hand is: Are there landscape photography situations in which mid-day sunlight works? The answer is: Yes, there are. You have to look for them, but they do exist.
Let me show you some scenarios in which I photographed during the middle of the day with direct sunlight, and I feel the pictures are successful. The first image that comes to mind is a picture of tropical water, figure 4.2. In order to show the intense aquamarine color, you have to have a high, overhead sun. I took this picture in the Dominican Republic, and when the sun was close to the horizon, the dazzling intensity of the color disappeared. Further north, in Glacier Bay near Juneau, Alaska, the Mendenhall Glacier (figure 4.3) was front-lit from an overhead sun.
In figures 4.4 and 4.5, shadows from a mid-day sun played a role in the graphic design of the compositions. The autumn foliage I captured in Zion National Park frames the shadow on the cliff, and the long shadows of the unique formations in Cappadocia, Turkey are prominent graphic elements. I would have preferred to shoot this at sunrise or sunset, but it's still a decent shot. The clouds help a lot.
Sometimes a canyon needs sunlight to glow with brilliant color, but due to the existing landforms, low-angled light never penetrates into the depths of the formation. The famous wave formation in southern Utah provides an example (figure 4.6). I was lucky to be there one day after a rainstorm to capture the reflective pool of water amidst the sandstone cliffs, but it was the high sun that made the brilliant orange color come to life. On the other hand, portions of a nearby canyon, Peekaboo Gulch (figure 4.7), never get direct sunlight. It was therefore easy to shoot there. During any part of the day I could shoot in the narrow canyon without worrying about contrast or harsh light.
If you are forced to shoot during mid-day, the sun should be at your back when you are photographing opaque subjects. Otherwise, the shadows will be too black, as in figure 4.1. The field of European poppies I found in Turkey (figure 4.8) offers a good example of how color can still come out well and contrast can be held to a reasonable minimum with this kind of light.
Photographing wildlife is usually best at sunrise, at sunset, or when the sky is overcast, but sometimes you can use an overhead sun for dramatic backlighting if you are shooting up toward the sky. That’s what I did in figure 4.9 when an egret crossed the sun as I was following it with a long lens. The glow of the wings makes the picture work so well.
Read the full series:
- Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset
- Dominant Foregrounds
- Mid-Day Lighting
- Shooting into the Sun
- Black and White
- Aerial Perspectives
- The Human Element
- Overcast Weather
- White Balance
- Depth of Field
- Shooting Snow