Clear skies: a landscape photographer’s nightmare. Okay, maybe that’s being a bit too melodramatic. But cloudless conditions are a kind of obstacle related to light. You can find a general discussion of light, as important obstacle to overcome, in a recent post. I’ve been doing a whole series of posts on Friday Foto Talk dealing with obstacles, so check them out if you have a moment.
Although landscape photography is where we most miss clouds, nature, sports, macro and portrait shooting are all potentially more challenging under clear skies. Here are the main issues that can cause problems:
- Harsh Contrast: Bright sunshine causes big differences between areas that are brightly lit and those lying in shadows. Besides the obvious problem of finding the right exposure, these bright and shadowed areas are typically separated by sharp lines, creating a scene which lacks any softness. This tends to be unpleasing to the eye.
- Flat Light: Hazy sunshine is the worst, but light can grow flat under other weather conditions as well. You know this kind of light: despite the fact contrast is not as harsh as with perfectly clear sunshine, there is really no depth to the light. Foreground objects appear to recede into the hazy background and distant objects may not be discernible enough to add depth to your images.
- Cool Light: By cool I mean blue, even though you scientist-types will object, quite reasonably, that blue light is actually at a higher temperature than red or orange light. Bright and blue light is generally less attractive than somewhat dimmer and redder light.
- Golden Hour Blues: When skies are clear, sunrise and sunset are, like the shadows which characterize mid-day, abrupt, sharp and relatively unpleasing to the eye. Dawn can pass without much color at all. And sunset is a short, unspectacular affair, where the sun sinks to the horizon surrounded by an ocean of blue.
On my journey west, ever since crossing the Great Plains, dry and sunny conditions have prevailed. The American West is in the midst of a long-term drying trend, exacerbated by global warming. On previous trips I’ve had the luxury of being able to hang out and wait for a front (or at least a few clouds) to come along. But on this trip I’ve been forced to take what I can get, just like an average amateur photographer on vacation.
Unlike many photographers who drop into a low-grade sulk when confronted by clear blue skies, I can still enjoy this kind of weather. Also, I don’t want to be thought of as some sort of disturbed, gothic creature, unhappy unless things are dim and gloomy.
But a big part of the reason I don’t mind (so much) when clouds are a no-show is that I still enjoy capturing images at these times. True, there end up being fewer “Wow, stunning!” landscapes. But I actually like photographing within limits, trying to come up with something good when conditions are unfavorable. I think it forces creativity and makes me a better photographer in the long run. Or this is what I tell myself.
There are two main ways to mitigate the effects of clear sunny weather when you’re traveling and photographing. One is to shift focus to other subjects, and the other is to shoot in different ways. In the 2nd and final part, I’ll cover some of the ways I get good pictures when the sky is cloudless and blue. Have an awesome weekend!