How to Capture Vibrant Landscape Photos in Harsh Light

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Harsh midday light is something that all landscape photographer try to avoid. We’ve even heard that the best thing to do during midday is to catch up on all the social media activities because there is nothing to shoot. Really? There’s nothing to shoot? Or is it just your lack of imagination that prevents you from capturing stunning landscape photos during harsh light?

What is wrong with harsh light?

Harsh light often creates conditions with an extreme dynamic range. So, if you use an average exposure to capture a landscape photo, the shadowed areas will be underexposed and the highlights will be overexposed. The colors in both areas will be dull and unappealing, as you can see from the image below.

Landscape Photo taken in Harsh Light

Landscape Photo taken in Harsh Light, Big Island, Hawaii

There are two ways to overcome this problem that nature photographers face:

  • Use high-speed bracketing to capture the image taken with harsh light and then blend them together in post processing.
  • Use creativity and your knowledge of how light interacts with your subject to produce landscape photos with rich vibrant colors.

Here are a few ideas where harsh light is a prerequisite to producing stunning photos.

Colors in Tropical Water

Harsh sunlight can penetrate deep into the water and help bring out the rich turquoise colors in the water. The same tropical waters when photographed at blue hour will take on completely different colors. Here are two examples from our Vibrant Color course that demonstrate the effects of harsh light on the colors in your image.

  • Example of harsh light landscape photo from Wainapanapa State Park, Maui, Hawaii (USA)

    Harsh sunlight and turquoise water at Wainapanapa State Park

  • Blue Hours at Wainapanapa State Park, Maui, Hawaii (USA)

    The Blue Hour at Wainapanapa State Park

Notice that neither image lacks colors, but the colors produced by direct sunlight has a completely different look and feel from the image produced during the blue hour.

Reflected Harsh Light

You can capture landscape photos with rich colors using the reflected harsh light on your subject.

  • Landscape photo using reflected harsh light of House on Fire in Utah

    House on Fire, Utah (UT), USA

  • Example of reflections from Vegetation lit by Harsh Light

    Reflections, Rickett’s Glenn, PA

The image above from Mule canyon was captured on a cloudless day. The harsh light reflected from the surrounding vegetation and surrounding rocks caused the canyon walls to glow with rich colors. Reflected harsh light from the green vegetation on the opposite shore was also used to bring out the colors in the flowing waters in the image above from Rickett’s Glen.

In one of the case studies of our Vibrant Color course, I used reflected harsh sunlight to bring out the rich colors in the Rainbow Eucalyptus on Maui, Hawaii.

  • Rainbow Eucalyptus along the Road to Hana

    Rainbow Eucalyptus along the Road to Hana

  • Photographing Rainbow Eucalyptus at Midday, Maui, Hawaii

    Photographing Rainbow Eucalyptus at Midday, Maui, Hawaii

Evenly-lit Scene

Harsh sunlight can produce stunning colors when the scene you are trying to photograph is evenly-lit. Here is are two examples from Iceland that show you how it is possible to produce photos with vibrant colors when your subject is lit by harsh light.

  • Skogafoss at Midday, Skogar, Iceland

    Skogafoss at Midday, Skogar, Iceland

  • Skogafoss at Midday, Skogar, Iceland

    Skogafoss at Midday, Skogar, Iceland

When we are photographing at midday, we often look for an even light scene that can benefit from the direct sunlight.

Spot Light Effect

This effect occurs when intense sun beams shoot through the opening in the sky to illuminate a small piece of landscape, as shown in the image below from Iceland.

  • Example of spotlight effect in landscape photography in Vestrahorn, Iceland

    Spotlight Effect in Vestrahorn, Iceland

  • Landscape photo with spotlight effect Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

    Spotlight Effect in Yellowstone, Wyoming

I used the same technique to capture the above photo of Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park. To capture this image, I waited until the spotlight effect illuminated the falls before taking the photo. Later, I used post-processing to bring out the details in all parts of the image. While this particular photo did not require bracketing, there are times when the spotlight effect requires bracketing to get the correct exposure.

Sun Beams

Sun beams are nothing more then scattered sunlight due to particles in the air such as sand or humidity. This effect can be found in rain forests or when a thunderstorm is breaking up.

Example of landscape photo captured in Harsh Light with sunbeams in Redwood Forest National Park

Harsh light needed for the sunbeams – Redwood Forest National Park, California (CA), USA

Because the camera is facing directly into the sun, you will almost always need to bracket your images to capture the entire dynamic range.

Capturing landscape photos with rich vibrant colors in harsh light is not only possible, but there are numerous ways you can go about doing it. Our  Vibrant Color course is focused on taking an in-depth look at colors in landscape photography. Our Vibrant Color course will teach you how to make the most of your camera settings, gear, and creative decisions to capture the rich, vibrant colors you see in nature.

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams