A Guide to Maximizing Available Light & Weather Conditions

At this juncture, I check weather forecasts less and less. Especially when you’re already on location, I use my eyeballs instead and tend to work with whatever nature has in store for the day. Unless it’s pouring rain or mid-day on a cloudless day, there’s something out there beautiful to shoot. For this article, I’m going to focus on showing you a few different shots you can take from one location under varying lighting conditions. These would generally be considered less-than-ideal shooting conditions: a cloudless sunrise, an overcast morning, and a similarly overcast afternoon. Let’s head over to the Factory Butte near Hanksville, Utah to learn more.

 
An image taken during a cloudless sunrise.

An image taken during a cloudless sunrise.

 

When you have clear skies at the horizon at this location, you can get this crazy first light hitting the butte that just might change your life. For a few moments it turns a gray landscape into a colorful concoction full of pinks, purples, and blues. If you have even a cloud or two blocking the sun, you won’t get this light. When I feel confident that this light is materializing, I’m not moving around. I’m going to pick a spot and settle in. Why? Because I don’t want to miss the best version of this light and neither should you. In the past I’ve had compositions that I’ve loved, shot, but then got antsy waiting for the light and moved around telling myself I’d come back to them. I usually do come back, but not until it’s already too late. This is what I end up with: a killer composition in less than ideal light. Other okay compositions under ideal light. Then my killer composition with better light but past the peak. When I get back home, I’m underwhelmed and kicking myself for moving around. As you get to know your locations more intimately, you’ll know when it’s time to simply wait. Fully enjoy those moments because they’re really special.

When the horizon has a few clouds where the sun is rising, but you’re faced with an otherwise cloudless morning, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a good shot. It’s just knowledge knowing that the light will either be diffused or that the best light will come a bit after sunrise and it’ll be extremely quick before everything becomes blown out. This will be another situation where choosing a composition and waiting for the light will generally be the better option than running amok.

 
Compositions abound on an overcast morning.

Compositions abound on an overcast morning.

 

Here’s an image taken on a completely overcast day during the late morning. When I woke up seeing this, I didn’t think twice about it. I was excited. Sure, sunrise was more or less a bust; however, overcast skies effectively create a “softbox in the sky”. They give you even lighting that lasts and lasts. The best light tends to occur later in the morning or earlier in the afternoon under these conditions. (Use this as a guide, not a hard and fast rule.) That also means it gives you the gift of time. You can dial in your compositions. You can take chances and try new compositions. They also double as wonderful scouting days. I’m not a huge fan of the sun beating down in me - especially in the desert - so I tend to hike longer and further on these days and find spots where I want to be in position for a future sunrise or sunset.

 
A water logged butte after a passing storm in the early afternoon.

A water logged butte after a passing storm in the early afternoon.

 

On this day, an afternoon hailstorm followed by rain had us running for cover. When the storm passed, beauty ensued. Once again, overcast conditions provided excellent lighting to capture this most unique desert scene of a butte saturated with water and the remaining hail tucked away within it’s drainage. The sunset shots that evening never did quite match the magic of this fleeting moment. So be on the lookout for transitions in light throughout the day because you never know: your most memorable images may be taken outside of peak conditions.

Tim Canfield