Dry Tortugas, Florida

Light and Colors 101

One of the most frequent questions we hear about our photographs is, “How do you manage to capture such vibrant colors?” The commonly-held belief is that the photograph must be manipulated in post-processing to get such brilliant colors. While some post-processing is necessary, the art of capturing vibrant colors typically begins in the field with an understanding of how light affects colors.

  • Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington (WA), USA
  • 120-2028_IMG

Take a look at the two photographs above. Both photographs were taken at the same location in Olympic National Park. Considering they were taken in the same location, why are the colors in the first photograph more vibrant and natural than in the second? The first photograph was taken on a spring, overcast day. The soft, scattered light helped to bring out the brilliant colors of the newly-formed leaves. The second photograph was taken during a summer afternoon in the harsh lighting conditions produced by clear, midday blue skies. The resulting photograph is dull and shows many underexposed and overexposed areas. Bright light in the background and dark shadows throw off the exposure for the entire image; the scene simply looks wrong.

Does that mean that, in order to capture brilliant colors, you must always shoot in overcast conditions? Not at all. Sometimes, the direct sun is exactly what’s needed to bring out brilliant colors. This is specially true if you are trying to photograph brilliant colors on the coast. All the image below were taken at midday under harsh sunlight.

  • Dry Tortugas, Florida

    Dry Tortugas, Florida

  • Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

    Big Island, Hawaii (HI), USA

  • Moriki Island, Fiji

    Moriki Island, Fiji

If you want to capture photos with brilliant colors, recognize that the quality, direction, and amount of light affects the colors that you can capture. Here are some tips to help you capture brilliant colors:

  • Avoid capturing photos with both harsh sunlight and deep shadows. For most situations, shooting during overcast conditions is the best way to do this.
  • Harsh sunlight is sometimes necessary to bring out the brilliant colors in your images (such as when you are trying to capture the colors of water on a tropical beach).
  • If your subject is small, you can control the light by using a diffuser and/or a reflector. Varina uses this technique to capture the mushrooms in the following image.
  • Reflected light can add colors to your images. In the photo below, I used harsh, reflected light from the canyon walls to add color to my image.
House on Fire, Utah (UT), USA

House on Fire, Utah (UT), USA

The next time you’re out in the field and want to correctly capture brilliant colors in-camera, pay attention to the light. You’ll be rewarded with some breathtaking photos.

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

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7 replies
  1. Todd Henson
    Todd Henson says:

    There’s always more to learn about light and the parts it plays in photography. I like that you have examples of shooting at different times, not just the golden hour or overcast times. Those are great times to shoot, to be sure, but anywhere there’s light there’s the potential for a photograph. I love the ongoing learning process. Thanks for your contributions.

    Reply
  2. Aniket
    Aniket says:

    Jay, seems you absolutely loathe clicking mid day. I too agree. The light and colour just before and after sunrise and sunset are best to shoot.
    Nice piece of advice and nice shot!

    Cheers

    Reply
    • Jay Patel
      Jay Patel says:

      There are things you can shoot at midday…but not the forest scene that I was trying to photograph. The trick is to determine what to shoot and what NOT to shoot at midday.

      Reply

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