Nature Photography is About Light

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Stunning nature photography is about capturing the right light at the right time. However, getting the right light in nature can be quite challenging because a nature photographer has no control over the light. While a bit of research can dramatically improve your chances, you can never know for sure what Mother Nature has in store for you.

To capture the photos that you envision, learn to recognize how light interacts with the environment and then try to wait for the right light. Here are few tips to get started…

Photographing Textures During Golden Hours

The angle and temperature of light alters the colors and textures of the photo that you are trying to capture. If your goal is to capture textures, your best chance is during the golden hours when the sun is low to the ground.

I took the first shot below (Image #1) of the hot spring in Yellowstone National Park just before the sun rose over the horizon. Without the strong directional sunlight, the foreground textures are less defined which makes the image feel flat and unappealing. In addition, because the water isn’t lit by the warm morning sunlight, it looks dull. Even the steam is bluish-grey without any texture.

  • Yellowstone National Park, WY

    Image #1: Yellowstone National Park, WY

  • Image #2: Black Sand Basin, Yellowstone National Park Wyoming (WY), USA

I took the second Yellowstone National Park shot below (Image #2) just as the sun was coming up over the horizon. The soft light is scattered in the water of the hot springs which brings out the warm colors and textures. The golden morning light infused the steam with a warm glow and the side-lighting created well-defined textures in parts of the steam.

The following images are additional examples of a similar effect from Death Valley National Park:

  • Death Valley National Park, CA

    Image #1: Before Sunrise

  • Death Valley National Park, California

    Image #2: Just After Sunrise

As you can see from the images above, you can capture warm colors and intense textures just after sunrise during the golden hours. This does not mean that you cannot capture stunning photos during midday or before sunrise but, if you want to capture texture, you’ll have more success when the sun is low in the sky.

Spot Light Effect

Spot light occurs when the sunlight streams through breaks in heavy, overcast skies such as in image #1 below. For this particular shot, I waited three and half hours for the beam of light to illuminate Yellowstone Falls. The angle of the sun back-lit the mist rising from the bottom of the falls. Because of the tonal difference created by the spot light, I had to under-expose the background to create this stunning photo.

  • Yellowstone, Wyoming

    Image #1: Spotlight on Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

  • Image #2: Soft Flat Lighthing, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Compare this with the second Yellowstone image below. In this image, there is no spot light effect and the tonal difference between the falls and the background is less dramatic. The overall image appears dull compared to the one with the spotlight effect. I used ND filters and a steady Induro carbon fiber tripod to capture these images.

Light Beams

Light beams can create some of the most spectacular photos but catching light beams requires patience, just the right conditions, and sometimes a lot of waiting.

Image #1 below shows light beams in Antelope Canyon. Due to the super-long exposure (sometime as long as 30 seconds), I used my steady Induro carbon fiber tripod. These light beams occur only during the summer months so do your research before heading down.

  • Light beams at Antelope Canyon, Arizona (AZ), USA

You can also find light beams in nature when the sunlight streaming through the mist or fog is interrupted by a solid object. In image #2 below, you can see the light beams caused when the Redwood trees interrupted the sunlight. It took multiple trips and just the right conditions to capture these intense beams.

  • Redwood Forest National Park, California (CA), USA

    Light beams in Redwood Forest National Park, California (CA), USA

Sometimes you can anticipate the changing light (such as when the sun is about to rise) or when the light beams may occur in Antelope Canyon. But the spotlight effect and the appearance of sunbeams in nature is harder to predict.

Feel free to share your own images in the comments below.

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