A Guide to Lighting and Weather Conditions in Photography
When is the best time of the day to take photographs outdoors? What are the ideal weather conditions for outdoor photography? Should I take photos during golden hour and blue hour? What can I photograph on a dull cloudy day for example? What can I photograph when it’s raining? How does the guy who drives the snowplow get to work in the morning? This tutorial aims to answer most of these questions and more.
This is not the case for us outdoor and landscape photographers. We regularly find ourselves at the mercy of the weather conditions on any given day. Coming from Ireland, where the weather can change by the minute, I understand this challenge only too well. I once came home from a 30-minute shoot both soaking wet and sun-burnt!
When the light and conditions co-operate, however, the results can be spectacular. It is the quality of light that can turn a photograph from ‘decent’ to ‘special’. Luck often plays a role in this of course. That said, doing some research in advance and making the effort to be in a location at the right time will dramatically increase your chances of capturing something a bit more special.
In this tutorial, I’m going to go through the different times of the day and explain what type of light we might typically expect at that time and what kind of photography produces attractive results at these times. I’ll also take a look at the types of photos that work best in various weather conditions.
Table of Contents
1. Taking Photographs During Morning Blue Hour
Most of my Dublin nighttime photos were actually taken in the morning! We most often associate blue hour with the evening but we often forget that there is a morning blue hour too!
Depending on the season, the morning blue hour can be anything from about half an hour to several hours before sunrise. At this time the sky is no longer the pure black of nighttime but an attractive deep shade of blue.
Blue hour is by far the best time to capture night photos, especially in cities. There is just enough ambient light to balance the light of the city with the darkness of the sky.
When the sky is black, there is often too much contrast between the black of the sky leading to exposure issues. The deep navy tones of the blue hour sky also tend to provide a more attractive background to the foreground scene.
Take a look at some photographs taken during the morning blue hour.
The Ha’penny Bridge is one of the most recognizable landmarks in my home city of Dublin. I love photographing the city during the morning blue hour. Often, it feels like I have the whole place to myself at this time. In these photos, the deep shade of blue in the sky is very apparent. See how more attractive this is than a pure black sky.
The Customs House is another well-known building in Dublin. Many people are surprised when I tell them this photo was actually taken in the morning! You can see the sky beginning to brighten in the right of the frame as the sun (although still below the horizon) begins to light the sky.
St Mark’s Square is usually packed with tourists and trinket sellers all day long. At 6 am, however, during the morning blue hour, I had the place to myself. The almost eerie emptiness allowed me to capture something a little different. The only other people on the piazza were another photographer and a man gently sweeping the ground with an old-fashioned broom.
As my wife can confirm, I am not a morning person but it really is worth the effort to drag oneself from the coziness of a warm bed to visit a famous location before the crowds arrive.
I tried to visit the basilica later in the day with my wife and 1-year-old son later on that day. It turns out toddlers don’t really like dark medieval churches all that much. He didn’t really appreciate the Byzantine art and Venetian architecture as much as I’d hoped. I don’t think such screams had been heard in Venice since Napoleon attacked the area over 200 years ago. He much preferred chasing pigeons on St. Mark’s Square (my son, not Napoleon).
2. Taking Photographs at Dawn
Dawn is a great time for nature landscapes. The period just before sunrise is one of my favorite times to take photos. Often at this time, the light has a slightly more subtle almost pastel feel than the time after sunset for example. As the day gradually moves from blue hour to dawn, the lighting conditions begin to change dramatically.
This photo was taken near my university town of Maynooth in County Kildare. As the sunrise approaches, the sky often contains some really beautiful colors. Above, you can see the orange glow of the soon to rise sun merge with the soft pink tones of the dawn sky. The ever brightening sky also allowed me to capture a silhouette of the tree on the river bank.
This photo of the Ha’penny Bridge was taken about 20 minutes later than the previous blue hour example. It was taken from the opposite side of the bridge this time. Although the sun is still just below the horizon in this shot, its light has illuminated the clouds above in an attractive pink hue. What a difference 20 minutes makes!
This scene will look completely different later with the harsher light of the midday sun….. or under heavy rain as it’s Ireland! It really is worth it to get up early to capture a scene in such interesting and attractive light.
Normally the area I took this photo from is crowded with hoards of tourists. At 6 am, however, I had the place to myself with the exception of a very drunk Parisian who would randomly wander into the frame every so often.
I love photographing cities early in the morning before the place comes to life. It’s very peaceful and you can capture a very different atmosphere and mood at this time.
As I was leaving, my drunk friend was chatting up one of the golden statues. I hope he was successful.
3. Taking Photographs During Morning Golden Hour
Most novice photographers know about the virtues of shooting at golden hour and with good reason too. The light at this time can help produce stunning results. The golden hour refers to the period just after the sun rises or just before it sets.
I’m sure you’ve noticed how the light of the early morning sunrise and its evening sunset counterpart often bathe buildings or nature in a beautiful golden glow.
This golden warm tone is due to the fact that the sun is lower in the sky in the morning and evening. This means the light passes through more atmosphere which scatters the bluer cooler light in the spectrum. This leaves us with the warmer red, orange, and yellow tones.
I took this photo from behind Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris just after sunrise. Notice how the early morning sun bathes the whole scene in a wonderful golden light. As the day goes on and the sun climbs higher, the light loses this warm soft quality and becomes harsher and cooler.
Autumn/Fall is a particularly good time for golden hour landscape photography. The golden light really makes the warm colors of the leaves glow. This is a very pretty boathouse on the Rye Water in Maynooth, County Kildare.
This photo was taken in the same location as the last one. The warm early morning light is really evident on the bridge. I was very lucky that morning as one of the local swans would obligingly drift into frame now and then. I named him Henry. He was very tasty.
4. Taking Photographs on Misty Mornings
There is nothing more atmospheric than a misty morning. Having the opportunity to photograph a scene bathed in mist can often be a simple matter of luck. Keeping a close eye on the weather forecast can increase your chances though.
Morning and evenings tend to be the best times for mist particularly in areas of grassland. On this particular morning, I was lucky to find my shooting location covered in a low-lying mist over the frosty grass. I sometimes refer to dawn as ‘pink hour’ for obvious reasons.
Misty conditions tend to make elements in the scene that are closer to the camera more ‘punchy’ and defined against the more ‘faded’ background. This layering of stronger tones over faded tones can help create a sense of depth in the scene.
In this photo taken along the Groenerei Canal in Bruges, the stone bridge in the foreground is well defined with plenty of contrast whereas the buildings in the background seem faded by the mist in the air.
Depending on where you live, misty conditions like this don’t come along all that often so it’s always exciting when it happens. It gives you the chance to photograph a location in a unique way. Make sure to keep a close eye on the weather forecast to increase your chances of capturing a location in misty conditions.
5. Taking Photographs on Sunny Days
I take the vast majority of my photographs in the morning and evening when the light is at its most interesting. The midday light from the high sun tends to be harsher and cooler than the softer side lighting of the morning and evening. Generally speaking, it tends not to be the best time for outdoor photography.
This is not to say that there are no opportunities to take excellent photographs during the day.
Sunny days with scattered clouds and strong light are great for creating high contrast black and white images. The photo above was taken in Paris on one such day. The white clouds really stand out against the sky and help create a sense of drama. I like to really darken what was the blue of the sky in post-production to create a really ‘contrasty’ image. Using an infrared filter can really enhance this high contrast feel.
Wintertime can be a fantastic time of year to shoot interesting photos during the daytime. In the wintertime, the sun stays low in the sky all day long. This means it casts long shadows and creates interesting side lighting and backlighting.
The photo above was taken late on a winter morning well after the golden hour. Normally, the best light is long gone by then. As it was winter, however, the sun was still very low in the sky and caused the trees to cast long shadows across the scene.
Daytime in winter can be an excellent time for photographing cities too. The sun is low in the sky all day creating some interesting side lighting. Also, the trees are often bare meaning there is little blocking your view of the buildings.
Sunny days with some clouds are great for long-exposure photography. The photo above was taken using a 10 stop ND filter. This allowed me to set a very long shutter speed of 24 seconds. During the exposure, the clouds moved across the sky creating the motion blur effect in the above photo.
I find that wooded areas make excellent subjects on a sunny day. In the above photo, the high sun streams its light through the trees of the forest making for an attractive photo.
Sunny days with a clear blue sky are rarely conducive to capturing the more artistic style photos. The light is harsh and the cloudless sky can seem uninteresting and devoid of drama. Such days, however, can be very suitable for architecture photography.
In this case, the form, shapes, angles, and colors are the most important elements of the shot. A clear blue sky does not distract from the main subject of the photo. The strong daytime light accentuates sharp detail, colors, and textures in the architecture being photographed.
6. Taking Photographs on Overcast Days
Outdoor photographers often write off cloudy overcast days. This is understandable in many ways. On a cloudy day, the light tends to be very flat and not particularly interesting or dramatic. There are however certain types of photography that are well suited to overcast conditions.
Overcast days are perfect for portrait photography. My talented sister, Janet Meehan is the portrait expert in our family and this is one of her photos above from a wedding she shot. An overcast sky is like a giant studio light-box and guarantees even light on the subjects. This is always more flattering than strong sunlight which casts shadows across the face and amplifies every wrinkle and blemish.
It’s true that overcast skies are not particularly interesting. You can use these days to focus on details rather than vast sweeping landscapes. Once again, the even lighting is an advantage. This very simple shot of some water droplets on a leaf was taken in a friend’s garden in France on a cloudy day.
Black and white photography is another great option for overcast days. The even light makes setting the exposure very easy. I tend to not include much sky on these days as the flat white sky without much detail doesn’t add much interest to the scene. I waited about 45 minutes to capture this shot of a cyclist crossing a bridge in Bruges on a misty morning. Sometimes you have to be patient to get the shot you want!
Capturing detail at street level is another great option on a cloudy day. As in the photo from Bruges before this one, the even light makes setting the exposure easy. You set it once and you don’t really have to worry about it again unless the light changes dramatically. This leaves you free to concentrate on finding interesting street scenes to capture.
I spotted these two local ladies sitting by a bridge in Venice and thought they’d make a good subject for some street-level photography.
The flat light of a cloudy day is ideal for wildlife photography. Once again, the light on such days lights the scene very evenly, making it possible to capture plenty of detail. As with street photography, you can concentrate your efforts on your subject matter rather than fiddling with exposure settings.
I rarely photograph wildlife but I was lucky to be there when this herd of deer crossed the Phoenix Park in Dublin. One deer suddenly stopped and looked back, possibly remembering he’d forgotten to turn off the immersion that morning.
The featureless overcast sky is perfect for photographers who prefer a more minimalist feel to their images. The lack of detail in the sky above focuses the viewer on the street lamp and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and its church in the distance.
I’ve become increasingly interested in this more minimalist style of photography recently. Most of my photos feature plenty of detail and bold colors. It’s nice to try something different every so often and move out of your ‘comfort zone’.
7. Taking Photographs During Evening Golden Hour
Just like the period just after sunrise, the time just before sunset is an excellent time for outdoor photography. As is the case during the morning golden hour, the sunlight has a warm, golden quality during its evening counterpart.
Notre Dame Cathedral seems to glow during the evening golden hour in this photo. The term ‘golden hour’ is a bit misleading. The evening I took this photo, the golden hour light only lasted about 30 minutes.
The long days of mid-summer provide the longest golden ‘hours’ whereas, in the depths of winter, the golden hour light may only last a few minutes. My own frequently cloudy country of Ireland often gets no golden hour at all! It’s useful to keep a close eye on weather reports to increase your chances of being in a location when the light is likely to enhance your photos.
The photo above is a prime example of being in the right place at the right time. I was having a drink at the café at the top of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris when I noticed a beautiful golden hour sunburst over the city outside.
I knew this light wouldn’t last long so I had to run up two flights of stairs with tripod legs flailing in all directions, throwing several small children out of my way as I did so. Thankfully, I just about made it in time to capture the last of the sunburst as it bathed the city below in its golden light.
The few minutes just before the sun disappears below the horizon is a fantastic time to capture something special. Often, there will be a sunburst on the horizon at this time. It usually only lasts a few seconds though so it’s important to have your shot set up in advance and be ready to go at the ‘decisive moment’.
The photo above was taken among the fishing boats by the Kasbah in Hammamet, Tunisia. Sunny Tunisia has some wonderful golden hour light almost every single day.
This photo is a long exposure using a 10 stop ND filter. This allowed me to set a very long shutter speed of 160 seconds which created the motion blur effect of the clouds as they moved across the sky.
A little cloud is always welcome during golden hour as the low sun illuminates the undersides of the clouds in a variety of warm tones.
8. Taking Photographs at Dusk
Dusk is the period just after the sun has set but there is still some color left in the sky especially on the horizon where the sun has just set. Often, we get an attractive orange afterglow and some stunning colors in the clouds at this time. The tones tend to be a little more vivid at dusk than at dawn for example.
I took this photo of the Dublin Docklands just after the sun had set. The sun, though below the horizon by now had painted the clouds above in a series of dramatic orange tones. They almost seem to be on fire! The Samuel Beckett Bridge is designed to look like a harp on its side.
Like at dawn, dusk is the perfect time to capture silhouettes. This photo of one of the fountains on Place de la Concorde was taken against the coral tones of the post-sunset sky.
The silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the distance seems closer than in reality. This is due to the effect of zooming into the scene which tends to compress the perspective making distant subjects seem closer to the foreground than in reality.
We stay in Paris for the next example. The afterglow of the setting sun is clear in the above photo. The sun had just set behind the famous glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum creating a pleasing silhouette. By now, the city lights were beginning to switch on and dusk was beginning to slowly transform into blue hour.
9.Taking Photographs During Evening Blue Hour
The evening blue hour is, without a doubt, the best time for capturing cityscapes. Although the morning blue hour is also a fantastic time for urban photography. Often the lights that illuminate the city’s landmarks have been switched off by then.
As with the morning blue hour, there is still enough ambient light to create a nice balance between the sky above and the buildings below. As mentioned earlier, the deep blue sky at this time is arguably more attractive than the pure black sky of later in the night.
This shot was taken around Christmas time in Dublin. What I like about it is the pleasing contrast between the red lights on the building and the deep blue tones of the sky above.
This well-captured location in Venice is often photographed in the morning with the sun rising in the background with beautiful results. My trip here in the morning time didn’t really work out due to a cloudy sky so I returned to try something different at blue hour.
The low light of blue hours allows for longer shutter speeds. I used this to my advantage in the above photo to capture the motion blur of the gondolas as they bobbed up and down in the water.
This photo was taken on the Ponte Romana in Tavira, Portugal on a chilly January evening. I had to work quickly though as the winter blue hour only lasted about 10 minutes on this occasion. At this time of year, the sun sets early and quickly.
Take a look at these two photos below. They were both taken from roughly the same location in Burg Square in Bruges. The first one was taken late at night when the sky was black. The second was taken earlier in the evening during blue hour.
Notice the relative lack of detail in the buildings in the first photo compared to the second one. There are a lot of overexposed areas too, especially in the bright windows. This is due to the high contrast between the dark sky and brightly illuminated buildings. The camera can struggle to capture the full range of tones in this case.
There is more ambient light left over in the sky in the second shot making the scene easier to expose for and allowing me to capture more detail in the buildings. In the second image, we can clearly see the variety of textures and colors in the building. In the late-night image, the building appears a uniform shade of yellow from the artificial light illuminating the facade.
I also think that the deep blue sky of blue hour makes for a far more attractive backdrop than the solid black sky of late night.
10. Taking Photos at Night
I’ve been saying how the black night sky is not particularly attractive for capturing urban landscapes. This does not mean you should put your camera away as the night gets darker. There are still plenty of photo opportunities at this time.
The black sky of the night tends to be less of an issue when working in black and white. The first photo above was taken on a narrow street in Prague looking toward the tower of the town hall. Here, the contrast of the illuminated buildings contrasts well with the dark night sky. Exposure can still be tricky at this time. I took 3 bracketed exposures to make this photo.
The second photo was taken on a narrow street in Tavira, Portugal looking towards the Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo. It was taken in January when the night falls quickly.
Focusing on street level rather than grand landscapes means that the sky is less dominant in the scene too. This photo of Grafton Street in Dublin at Christmas time is a good example of this. Not including much sky avoids the issue of exposure difficulties caused by too much contrast between the sky and the scene below.
Cutting out the sky altogether is also an option at night. Capturing scenes at street level such as this orchestra outside Ristorante Quadri on St Marks Square in Venice can work well at this time of night.
Two coffees at this restaurant will set you back about €30. I dread to think what a roast swan would cost.
11. Taking Photographs in the Rain
As a Dubliner, I’m well used to rain. We often have a tendency to put the camera away when it rains. Rain, however, can present some great opportunities for interesting photographs. My sister Janet, is particularly adept at capturing cities in the rain. Take a look at the next two photos taken by her below.
This sepia photo from Arnhem in the Netherlands is full of atmosphere. I love the woman walking the dog in the foreground. The slow shutter speed causing motion blur creates a pleasing sense of movement.
Rainy evenings are great for capturing the reflections of the city lights in the wet streets too. Janet is always telling me to get out with my camera when it rains in the evening. I can see why.
Blue hour and rain go particularly well together when it comes to city photography. This photo Janet took in London is a great example of this. To me, it really captures the essence of London, a city famous for its rain. The bright red of the iconic London bus contrasting with the darker tones of the street at night really make the shot in my opinion.
As already mentioned, rainy evenings are great for capturing reflections. On my first evening in Venice, St Mark’s Square was still covered in large puddles from the previous day’s rain and Aqua Alto (the frequent floods in Venice).
In this shot, I was able to capture the reflection of the exquisite facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in one of the huge puddles that covered the piazza at blue hour. I did ruin my shoes though.
12. Case Study: Bruges
Let’s finish by taking a look at a selection of photos taken at the same location at different times of the day. This will allow us to see how different light and conditions can affect the look and feel of the final photograph.
The photos below were all taken at Rozenhoedkaai in Bruges. This is one of the best-known views of this gorgeous medieval city which is crisscrossed by a series of canals lined by pretty Flemish buildings.
Version 1: Daytime
This was taken pretty much in the middle of the day. It’s a decent enough shot but the daytime light is quite harsh and not particularly interesting. It could work in a brochure maybe but I’m not sure I’d hang it on the wall.
Version 2: Daytime (Black and White)
The black and white version of the same photo is a little more interesting I think. The deeply contrasting tones created by the harsh daytime sunlight create some drama, especially in the sky. As mentioned earlier, sunny days with scattered clouds can be the perfect opportunity for black and white photography.
Version 3: Daytime (Long Exposure)
Long exposures can work well on days with some scattered clouds. In this shot, I used a 10 stop ND filter to achieve a long shutter speed of 35 seconds. This allowed me to capture some motion blur in the clouds. The water looks hazy and calm due to the long exposure time.
Long exposures are a good option for creative shots during the daytime. They work particularly well in black and white too.
Version 4: Early Dusk
Although I captured some reasonably decent shots during the daytime, it’s in the evening time that things really start to get interesting. This is when the most interesting light and tones begin to appear in the scene.
Unfortunately, the sky was cloudy during the evening golden hour so I headed to a nearby bar and hoped that the clouds would clear in time for dusk and blue hour. As luck would have it, they did. Luck often plays a major role in capturing that special shot.
After a few glasses of a local beer/rocket fuel called Kwak, I stumbled out of the bar into a totally transformed scene. My sense of balance had been totally transformed too. Thank goodness for tripods.
By now the remaining clouds were painted in a pink/orange tone by the recently set sun. As you can see, this made for a more attractive and interesting photo than the daytime version. This light only lasted a few minutes so it’s important to be patient and ready to shoot when the conditions are right. Being sober helps too.
Version 5: Late Dusk
Only a few minutes later the scene has changed dramatically. The light has dipped and the sky had turned a beautiful shade of purple. By now the lights illuminating the buildings have come on.
Version 6: Blue Hour
About 15 minutes later, blue hour has descended on the city of Bruges. There is still a purple afterglow from the sunset but most of the sky has turned a deep shade of blue.
This is by far my favorite time for urban landscapes. Blue hour often only lasts a few minutes so as I said earlier, it’s vital to be set up and ready to shoot in advance. Make sure to check the sunset times for your location in advance
Version 7: A Misty Morning
The following morning I woke up to a city shrouded in a dense mist (and a banging headache). This meant no morning golden hour light but the misty conditions presented an opportunity for some more moody style minimalist photographs. In the photo above, the mist was so thick that the famous belfry in the center of the frame is barely visible.
I find that black and white works well on misty days. The mist creates a totally different feel and atmosphere from the previous shots. In the shot above I’ve added a slight sepia tone to warm the shot up and give a slight vintage feel to the final photograph.
Well done if you’ve made it this far! I hope you found this tutorial useful and that it has helped give you some ideas for what to shoot at various times and in various conditions. Next time you’re looking at a gallery of photos, try to guess at what period of the day they were taken.
About the author: Barry O Carroll is a Dublin, Ireland-based photographer specializing in landscape photography with a particular emphasis on urban landscapes, street scenes and architecture photography. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Facebook and Twitter.