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How to Photograph When the Light Sucks

February 22, 2013 Nature 5 Comments

Written by: Charlie Borland

Can the light really suck? Is there such a thing as bad light? What makes light suck: midday sun or dark overcast skies?

It was said by someone that ‘there is no such thing as bad light, only light used improperly’.

For outdoor photographers, light is often not what we want in the moment. It can be over cast when we want sun or a cloudless sky when we want softer light.

There is no perfect light that works for every situation and for every subject, but no matter the light conditions, none of this light should be considered bad.  Instead, poor light should be looked at as an opportunity to find subjects that work in the light of the moment.

A hike out to photograph the sand dunes in Death Valley with the setting sun illuminating the ripples and textures of the dunes might not be as dramatic with cloudy conditions and thus, less desirable. Do you pack up and head home in those cases? No! Instead you point the camera in another direction where the light is more suitable for other subjects.

Soft flat lighting from overcast conditions can result in quieter photographs that might convey a feeling or subtle mood. Since the sunlight was not there for the sand dunes as in the previous example, heading elsewhere might provide opportunities for details, shapes, and patterns that do better in low contrast light.

This Death Valley image shows multicolored hills that work perfectly in overcast conditions and it’s due to the many colors of the subject itself providing color contrast instead of lighting contrast.

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Death Valley

Equally as bad if you want to call it that, is harsh light high in contrast and coming from the wrong angle. The only reason this light sucks is because it is not the best light for what you are photographing at that moment. The challenge is the same however: find subjects that will work in this light because it will be perfect light for some subject.

This image in Badlands, South Dakota, is shot midday and the light is barely okay, but the image lacks luster.

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Badlands, SD

Captured soon thereafter, this image shows the results of taking the time to find the light that works. By moving position and zooming in, the sun light now plays a small part o the overall lighting by creating accents that define the edges of the formations for a much more pleasing light.

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Badlands, South Dakota

Harsh light or midday light, the disdain or many photographers, can provide the perfect light for many subjects. These subjects might be broader scenes of larger areas where there is a mix of dark shadows and highlights emphasizing the texture of the scene.

When light is just not what you were hoping for don’t overlook the idea of post processing to add the drama you feel is missing. In the film days the right lighting was necessary to add the necassary amount of contrast to make our images have just the right amount of pop making them more appealing. A scene captured in flat shadow less light can benefit from a boost in post processing.  The image below shows this desert scene as a RAW file, flat in contrast and lacking luster.

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RAW Capture in flat light

But with some snap added, an image captured in light that sucks can benefit from post processing bringing back that snap. The image below was processed as a single image non-grungy HDR using Photomatix and even though the light is flat and shadow less, there is a lot of pop to the image from adding contrast and color saturation only in an amount that makes the image believable.

az kofa natl wildlf refuge MG 7905 tonemapped2 How to Photograph When the Light Sucks

Processed to add contrast, saturation, and drama

In some situations and no matter the light, the color you hope for just is not there, so consider converting to black and white. In a few cases, the light that would not work for a specific subject in color might look great when the image is converted to grey tones.

The image below was taken in the Central Oregon mountains on an overcast morning and YES, the light sucks. But all is not lost…..

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Central Oregon RAW capture


A series of bracketed exposures was combined in Photomatix to create an non-grungy HDR composite and then processed using Topaz B&W Effects providing scene contrast and drama.

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Central Oregon

The crucial point to remember is that there is no such thing as bad light! All light is good light! It’s how you as the photographer choose to portray your subject that requires effort. While mother nature might provide you with the perfect light for your subject, when it does not you still have plenty of options.

There is a fabulous subject waiting to be captured in less than perfect lighting conditions and with all the tools available to digital photographers, sometimes the magic happens on the computer instead of in the field.

If you have thoughts please leave a comment.

Related Posts: Learning How to See The LightHow to Know if You Have Found Your Photographic Vision


plant visual flow How to Photograph When the Light Sucks

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Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. Hadn’t heard that version of the “bad light” quote but I’ve been telling my students at Brooks a variation for the last few decades; “there’s no such thing as bad light, either there’s light or no light”.

    Light’s always a good topic, and some nice post work Charlie.


  2. admin says:

    Hey thanks for jumping in Ralph. That quote I used was said by Andreas Feininger in his book on Lighting. I have it somewhere stored and have used that quote forever, but decided I wanted to verify it and an internet search turned up nothing, so I decided to make it anonymous so I would not get called out. LOL Charlie

  3. Brenda Tharp says:

    Good topic, Charlie. I think it might have even been said by someone before Andreas Feininger, who knows! I heard a similar comment by William Albert Allard in 1989, while at a Nat Geo workshop. He was my advisor and I learned a great deal from him and that comment made me start looking at light differently. It was then that I threw away the note on the Kodak film box that said the best time to shoot was early morning or late afternoon!! ha ha. But seriously, it made me realize I just had to look for things that work in the lightI had and that opened up the possibilities for me. As a nature and travel photographer, I find that some of the ‘bad’ light’ is light of midday or overcast is used for details, and portraits. Recently while in Cuba, I had a lot of ‘midday’ light to contend with. What to do? Head indoors and use window light, or use the bounce light from the light-colored dirt streets. It was wonderful fill light that made portraits and even architectural details a wonderful possibility.

  4. mike pickard says:

    good one Charlie…the reality is that we are not always bathed in the ‘ Golden Hour ‘ and must take what we get . I simply want to make pictures and if I wait for the perfect lighting situation then I miss so many other opportunities . I also read a quote from W . Eugene Smith and his version was ” the best light for photography is available light ” , a worthy statement indeed .

  5. Eric Bowles says:

    Nice article, Charlie – and great tips.

    One tip to add to the list is IR photography. IR seems to work very well for that harsh, middle of the day light. With the relatively low cost of converting an older camera to IR, it’s a great way to extend the day or deal with “bad light”.

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