Dramatic sunbeams occur only under certain conditions. They appear when sunlight passes through – and is scattered by – particles in the air. Water vapor does a great job of scattering light, so humid weather can be a perfect catalyst, especially when the sun is low on the horizon. To capture the photo above, I set up my tripod overlooking Ouzoud Falls, and waited for the sun to creep over the horizon. The falls produced a fine, vaporous spray that scattered the morning sunlight, and the shadowed walls of the canyon provided a subtle backdrop. I used a narrow aperture (f/22) to produce a sun star for a little extra drama. Keep an eye out for bright beams that stand out against a darker background. Dark rocks, storm clouds, or mountains make perfect backdrops for these beautiful rays of sunlight.
In this shot from Glacier National Park, the sunlight scattered as it passed through humidity that had settled in the valley. Heavy, humid air is a perfect medium for sunbeams – and because it was late in the day, the light took on a golden tone. I used a wide-angle lens to capture the entire scene. In order to capture the broad range of light in the scene, I also needed to bracket. I used a tripod to keep my camera in place between exposures, and a remote release to avoid shifting my camera or introducing any camera shake.
Upper Antelope Canyon is famous for its spectacular sunbeams, but keep in mind that they only show up when conditions are just right. The sun must be high in the sky, so it can stream down through the overhanging canyon walls. That happens only during summer, and only in the middle of the day… so don’t go during the “golden hours” if you want to capture these beams. The air is very dry in the desert, so it’s unlikely that you’ll get any water vapor to work with. However, the floor of the canyon is covered with fine sand. We tossed handfuls of the sand into the air, and photographed the resulting sunbeams against the brilliant orange walls of the slot canyon. I angled my camera upward for an abstract composition. This is a great place to play with abstracts!
When we’re out shooting, we try to remain fully aware of our surroundings all the time. We’re paying attention to the angle of the sun, the humidity in the air, and storm clouds that might produce interesting skies. Keep in mind that rainbows sometimes appear in conditions that also produce sunbeams – so if you see a rainbow, make sure you turn around and look for sunbeams, too!
On a trip to Yellowstone several years ago, we were treated to some perfect conditions. Throughout the day, storm clouds rolled through, and rainbows dropped from the sky at regular intervals.We thought we might get some vibrant sunbeams at sunset because of the humidity, the heavy storm clouds, and the scattered clouds on the horizon that would allow the sun to peek through just before it set. We set up our tripods low to the ground at the edge of a little pond, and waited. Sure enough, we got the sunbeams we were hoping for – and some pretty reflections, too!
You know that photography is all about the light… and the light is constantly changing. That’s what makes landscape photography so compelling – and so challenging! A little awareness of what’s happening with the weather can help you put yourself in the right place at the right time, so you can capture some of the best light of your life.