Don't Waste Daylight Hours When It Comes to Landscape Photography

There are various reasons why the golden hours are the best times of day to shoot. But to just dismiss regular daylight hours out of hand is just silly. Because daylight can be beautiful too.

One of the first things I learned when I started landscape photography was that midday sun was the worst time of day to shoot and that I should always aim for a golden hour. While this is true to a certain extent, I tended to forget about those hours in between. Sure, midday sun on a clear day produces the harshest of shadows, which tends to make me wince when I see photos taken during that time — especially my own — but the light during the few hours after sunrise and the few before sunset can still produce incredible images if you know what to look for and have an idea for a final image.  

Spikes and Shadows

While I would still try to avoid clear skies; when the sun is low, but not quite at golden hour, try to make the most of the dynamic range of the camera. Being able to get a sun-star without blowing out the rest of the highlights can result in striking images with the options of raising the shadows to bring out some detail or leaving the shadows dark to create some interesting silhouettes.

Framing the sun between the branches of the tree allowed me to get a clean sun-star.

Back to Basics

Aim to shoot for black and white. Because of the natural contrast provided by the harder shadows, aiming to shoot for black and white post-processing can hone the eye, rather than going out and winging it. If I know that I want my final image is going to be monochrome, I'll look for specific details like big, dramatic cumulus clouds or shafts of light that shine a spotlight on an interesting feature.

The long exposure takes the viewer's attention away from the normally textured water, helping the eye move toward the brighter area where the town is illuminated.

"The Majesty That Shuts His Burning Eye."

Cloud cover, especially on a windy day, can really help to bring some dynamism to a shot. Make use of a strong ND filter, like a 10-stop or a 15-stop, to get those creamy, stretched-out clouds. Images like these can be interesting in monochrome or color if the colors complement each other. Sometimes, if the cloud cover is really low, photos can have an ethereal feel, because it's essentially mist. This can be particularly striking during a cloud inversion around hills and mountains, as there is often very little midlevel or high-altitude cloud cover; when the light does break though that low layer, the result can be breathtaking. 

Dark, moody, and stormy clouds will add great drama to any photo, even in regular daylight hours. This effect is multiplied when the light does manage to break through. It can add superb contrast to a scene if framed correctly.

I took care in framing this so that backlight from the sun breaking through the clouds made the trees pop against the ominous clouds.

Embrace the Blur

Mist and fog will soften light like a giant, smoke-filled softbox. This can be challenging, as gear can get wet, and the contrast might be too low in some instances, but if there is a suitable subject, like a castle or a lone tree, prepare for air to clear a touch or use the low visibility as an advantage.  

As the horse stood there, staring at me, I used a long exposure to get an ethereal feel. The fog and lack of contrast enhanced the mood I was looking for.

What About You?

These are just some tips based on my own experience. Do any of our readers have any tips they'd like to share? Have you some examples of striking daytime landscape photography? Please let us know in the comments below.

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Gary Eyring's picture

In Hawaii or other ocean-centric locations, you often see the most vibrant colors in the water when the sun is high overhead.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Ka Booom! Beautiful color in the water, Gary.

Matthew Saville's picture

As a nightscape photographer, I never waste daylight hours. I get some sleep! :-P

Shawk Parson's picture

or use those hours to edit and sort out the previous night's shots ... ;-)

Kyle Medina's picture

The people who skip daylight hours are the people who haven't taught themselves to shoot in daylight. Don't know what to do with the strong contrast.

Jeff Colburn's picture

I often have to shoot in the mid-day due to the operating hours of state and national parks. They open at 8:00 and close at 5:00. So if I don't shoot during the mid-day, I lose a lot of shooting time.

I just came back from a week trip through New Mexico and Colorado where I shot five different Native American pueblos/ruins. A lot of my shots were between 10 and 2, but with some work you can get great stuff. Shoot the shadow side of the building, but include the sky or the scene through a doorway or window. Clouds are a great help with both composition and lighting too. A reflector can help to open up deep shadows too. I carry a small 5 in 1 reflector (black, gold, white, silver and translucent) that comes in handy once in a while.

Never miss a chance at creating a photograph just because of the time of day.

Have Fun,

Shawk Parson's picture

or alternatively, become a National Parks registered photographer to be allowed to photograph them any time of day, any time of year! of course that's a once in a lifetime job offered to only a handful selected few every half a century or so! ;-) and guess what: they still demand B&W images ONLY shot by large format cameras and developed / printed using the good old Zone System by maestro Ansel Adams! that's quite an expertise not everybody can afford to acquire these days ...

George Loch's picture

There is always shade and diffusion :)

Shawk Parson's picture

harsh noontime sunlight can be most annoying in mid-Summer time than any other season of the year because of Sun's 'direct angle of shine' overhead in most areas of the world ...

but from late Summer until late Spring (next year) midday sunlight can be quite good for some photography subjects just as well, especially when working under tree shadows or in building-side shades and so on ...

of course, nothing beats early morning light until around 10am and late afternoon to early evening light post 2pm, from the Golden Hours to the Magical Hours ... even inside, in studios for example, 'side light sources' illuminating a the scene and the subject at an angle usually work better than those throwing light from above and creating harsh shadows unless we're after that particular effect ... this becomes particularly true when we have only a single light source to use ...