The thing about shooting landscape photography is that we all want to capture the beauty of the landscape and its allure in that magical moment. This is what makes the image so special and memorable to us. Regardless of exploring the urban cityscape or travelling to the countryside wilderness, the ideal time of shoot for most photographers is without a doubt during the golden hour or blue hour of the day. However, there are also many other different light conditions throughout the day which you may consider shooting in. The start and end point of a day may vary, depending on factors such as the season, latitude, longitude and time zone. The weather also plays a part in shaping the light conditions onto the landscape as different light conditions exude different moods of the environment.
As a seasoned landscape photographer, I often find myself at the mercy of the constantly changing weather conditions. Sometimes it’s just not feasible to produce images with the exact ideal conditions since one could only spend a limited amount of time on one location at a time. Yet sometimes when the morning light doesn’t work out for me, I’ll have to could come back and try again during the evening light. Hence, I have learnt to accept these changing elements. I believe that with ample research and preparation beforehand could increase the success rate of achieving a memorable image of the location.
In this article, I attempt to explain the various types of light conditions as one may expect through different times of the day, as well as some tips in shooting various landscapes from my own experience. Before I began, here are some terms I have used which you should get familiar with:
a. Golden Hour
The golden hour happens twice a day where the sun is positioned near the horizon, radiating its brilliant golden tone of light. Of course, when this occurs will depend on one’s location and will vary with the seasons. For example, these locations near the equator tend to have shorter golden hour whereas locations further from the equator may experience longer golden hours during certain seasons.
b. Twilight / Blue Hour
The twilight or blue hour refers to the period of time before sunrise or after sunset where the sun is below the visible horizon. The atmosphere is illuminated neither completely lit nor completely dark. Depending on the position of the geometric angle of the sun relative to the horizon, the twilight time can be further divided into civil twilight, nautical twilight and astronomical twilight. Another special situation is that temporal twilight may also happen during a celestial event such as a total solar eclipse. But for the sake of this article, all these shall be condensed as one category.
c. Night time
Night time or complete darkness, as the opposite of day, is the period of time between sunset and sunrise where the sun is significantly below the horizon. During the night time, you will be able to find two kinds of ambient lighting in any environment: Artificial lighting from man-made structures and natural illumination which can be provided by a combination of moonlight, stars, celestial phenomenon, as well as weather conditions such as aurorae, lightning storms, etc. Learn recognise these elements and you would be able to include them when shooting landscapes at night.
1. The Morning Twilight
During this time of the day, there are just enough ambient lights balanced with the darkness of the sky and this is the only time where we can maximise the colours of the scene to the fullest in the image. When you’re out early in the dark shooting the neighbourhood or the wilderness, it is still necessary to take some safety precautions.
This image was shot during the cold, wee hours of the morning, so technically it’s still at night time. However, what makes this image special was that a celestial phenomenon of the Super Blood Moon was happening. In this case, the moon had appeared much brighter than usual before its transition into a total lunar eclipse, rendering the dark black sky into a temporal twilight.
2. At Dawn
Dawn is the period just before sunrise and it has a slightly cooler and subtler, almost pastel feel compared to other times of the day as people would have just woken up and are preparing for work. This is a good time to start your walkabout as the atmosphere and mood at this time are usually very peaceful and quiet. However, the lighting conditions at this time can change dramatically as the day transits from the morning twilight into the golden hour.
For this image of the Seljalandsfoss in Iceland early in the morning, I had stayed overnight in my vehicle. It’s not the best experience considering it was still winter time but I would have the waterfall to myself on the next morning before more visitors arrive. As the sunrise approaches, you can see the orange glow of the soon to rise sun blending with the soft pink tones of the dawn sky.
3. The Morning Golden Hour
Many photographers would agree that the golden hour is the best time to shoot landscape and they can’t be wrong. During this time, light from the morning sunrise and the evening sunset often bathe buildings and landscapes with its brilliant golden glow.
I took this photo of the private estates from outside the Keppel Bay area in Singapore. The atmosphere was still quiet as the sun had just entered the morning golden hour period. The quality of light has a lighter, cooler yellow tone. If you have experienced both morning and evening golden hours, you would have noticed that the quality of light during the morning always has a slightly cooler colour temperature than the evening.
This photo was taken on a hill near the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. I came here to catch the Perseids meteor shower one night and later I got curious at how the scene would look like in the morning. So, I decided to stay up through the night until dawn. As the sun rose above the horizon, I thought the strong backlight from the sun would create interesting silhouettes on these wild flowering plants, thereby emphasizing on the rich quality of the golden sunlight.
4. Misty Morning
The misty weather can be a fantastic opportunity to capture landscapes in an otherworldly, ethereal feel. As mists usually occur near the shores, it can last for a couple of hours in the morning, or half a day or even the entire night. However, misty weather doesn’t happen every day. If you live in an area where mists can develop, do keep a close eye on the weather forecast to increase your chances of shooting. It is always a good idea to explore in pairs or small groups. Sometimes mists can develop into cold, thick fog and that may significantly reduce our visibility. Be extremely careful especially if you have to drive to your location. From my experience, I don’t recommend driving in the fog.
This image is special to me because it was the first time I have captured a misty landscape. My friend and I had planned a visit to the Mousehold Heath in Norwich, the UK as the mist had been in the weather forecast. Driving through the early morning mist proved to be quite challenging for me due to the poor visibility on the road. When we reached there, each of us started to wander around the area in close proximity to find our own ideal composition. The foggy atmosphere here had reminded me of the scenes from the horror film, Silent Hill.
I later picked another spot of the heath as the sun finally came out at dawn with the faded background obscured by the mist. The mists have separated the foreground and background elements, creating an ethereal scene with a soothing blend of warm and cool colours, almost pastel-like.
For this image, I have captured the morning dews on the dried plant as my subject focus. The dried plant seemed to be a lot more focused because of the mist that rendered the background much softer than the lens would normally obscure.
Another important point to take note is that mists and haze are two very different atmospheric phenomena. While the mist is caused by small droplets of water suspended in air, however, haze is caused by dust, smoke and other dry particulates that obscure the clarity of the sky. These harmful particles can cause severe breathing problems to our respiratory system and are usually caused by farming, exhaust fumes from heavy traffic, industrial pollution, volcanic eruptions, and even wildfires!
5. Sunny Days
Many photographers tend to avoid shooting landscapes during the midday as light from the high sun are usually much harsher than the light at dawn or dusk. However, strong light on bright sunny days can be great for capturing vibrant colours and contrasting visual elements of the landscape. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be during the summer as there is plenty of sunshine in places around the tropical region, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc.
Sunny days with strong light are great for creating high contrast images, particularly when there are scattered clouds. This photo was taken in Central Tampines, Singapore on one sunny day. These bright white clouds stand out against the blue sky and help to build a sense of drama in the image. I often use a Gradient Neutral Density filter for a sunny day shoot like this. It helps to reduce the intensity of the sunlight and makes the exposure more balanced. With a stronger ND filter, it is possible to achieve a slower shutter speed on a bright day, thereby creating a motion blur effect on any movement in the image.
Sunny days with clear blue skies could also be a suitable time for architecture photography because the form, shapes, angles and colours of a building are the most important visual elements in architecture photography. A clear blue sky does not distract from the main subject of the photo. On the contrary, blue skies act as a counter-balance to these heavy visual elements. Sometimes you could even capture striking visuals of buildings through window reflections! I captured the iconic St Paul’s Cathedral in London from a nearby shopping mall on one sunny summer afternoon. I loved how the strong light reflected off these glass windows have produced illusions of the cathedral and these strong visual lines lead back to the dome structure. The blue sky has certainly added some punch to the image, though I wished it could have been a clearer, deeper blue. However, it’s not every day to have such ideal conditions in London.
This was taken in Sligachan in the Isle of Skye, Scotland. The sunny afternoon had presented the highland landscape with an insanely deep blue sky, rendering the image in an almost painterly feel. I took a short hike to the river and set up my camera at a relatively low angle so I would be able to capture the contrast of the rocky riverbed against these mountains. When you’re out shooting in rugged terrains like this on a sunny day, remember to stay sufficiently hydrated and have plenty of sun protection!
6. Overcast Days
When it comes to clouds there could be either sunny cloudy or dull overcast weather. For some people, cloudy overcast days isn’t a great time for landscape photography because the sky tends to be very flat and white and not particularly interesting. Sometimes it can be a hassle to bring our gears out when the weather doesn’t know it wants to rain or shine. However, overcast skies produce soft diffused lighting which is perfect for capturing moody atmospheric scenes and portraitures. You could use this even lighting to your advantage by focusing on your subject rather than vast sweeping landscapes. Street photography, black and white and minimalistic styles are some approaches to photographing overcast days.
This is an image of the Sheringham coastal town in the UK. A friend had brought me here for a project work one autumn morning. I remembered it was a windy, overcast day with intermittent rain, typical of British weather. At that point, there were not many people out on the promenade and all we could hear were the crashing of waves on the shore. Perhaps this gave me an impression that a flat, almost washed-out feel would be able to reflect the mood of the quiet, coastal town.
However, that is not to say that overcast days would always certainly result in moody atmospheric feel. Dull overcast skies can also offer contrast for colour visual elements, such as the image above. I took this one early morning on the platform of Hoxton station, a district in East London. Overcast skies can also provide useful visual counter-balance for a minimalistic feel to your images.
Sometimes overcast days can produce the most dramatic scene out of the landscape, for example, just before the start of a heavy rain or during a monsoon season. This image was captured in the Scottish Highlands as the intense cloud formation looms over the mountain terrain. I thought this might have been even more dramatic if there were sun rays piercing through the cloud break.
7. In the Rain
Shooting in the rain is always a hassle. We are so used to our own comfort zones that we tend to put our cameras away when the wet weather comes. We tend to get worried that the rain would damage our camera gears even though they are pretty much weatherproof these days. However, with sufficient preparation, rain can present great opportunities for interesting cityscape photographs we might otherwise miss.
This is the Singapore’s Keppel harbour on a rainy day, captured from a sheltered vantage point. The heavy rain has rendered a dull, washed out effect of the harbour. Certain times of the year the region here goes into the monsoon season with long periods of torrential rain. As such, you may want to consider getting a waterproof pouch for your camera or perhaps shoot from inside your vehicle if there is no shelter. I used to cut a hole in a plastic bag and wrap it around my camera with some rubber bands. Sometimes I would use my raincoat to put it on my camera and tripod setup if I am shooting in a light drizzle. It is always a good habit to clean your gears after a day’s shoot in the rain.
On the other hand, the evening blue hour and rain go particularly well together. This is an image of Singapore’s Downtown district taken from an accessible high vantage point on a rainy day. It looks pretty amazing when these city lights pop out during the evening blue hour but if you look more closely, you could actually see car light trails reflected off the wet streets! That’s something you won’t get on a dry evening.
The thunderstorm is also a great opportunity to capture lightning at night. Finding a good vantage point can be challenging at first because the storm is constantly moving and it is difficult to predict where the lightning will strike. The image above was shot on top of a residential building in West Tampines, Singapore. I took a series of long exposures with a wide-angle lens, hoping that the lightning would appear during the period of capture. With a bit of luck, I managed to capture some lightning strikes.
Lightning is an obvious threat to your safety and it is an activity that can be dangerous if sensible safety considerations are not taken. When considering a setup location for chasing lightning storms, choose safe locations where raindrop would not reflect/refract light and thus potentially ruin a good photo. Parking garages, highway underpasses, and large buildings can keep you and your camera safe from both.
Twice I have visited the Old Man of Storr at the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and twice the bad weather had discouraged me from surpassing this spot successfully. When it rains, it’s better to wear a raincoat as umbrellas are the least useful in those kinds of terrain. The above image I have captured may look like just another day with an overcast sky, but in fact, it had been raining intermittently with high winds! It pays to be extremely cautious when shooting in mountainous or coastal regions with heavy downpour or high winds. It can be extremely dangerous if you are not too familiar with these terrains especially when the weather conditions turn really bad. I wouldn’t want to risk getting blown out of balance by the strong winds and fall over the steep and rocky terrain in the rain.
Sometimes the day turns bright and sunny after a heavy rain. If you look down on the streets, you may see puddles of the rainwater and you may capture some reflections of the landscape from a low angle. And if you look up, you might catch a glimpse of the beautiful rainbow in the sky. You have to be quick though because rainbows don’t last long. For the above image, I manage to capture the rainbow from the top of a carpark in West Tampines, Singapore. I was fortunate that the rainbow had lasted for about half an hour which gave me ample time to look for the best vantage point in the neighbourhood.
8. Winter Snow
Seeing actual snowfall in person is an exhilarating experience. I remember when it finally snowed in Norwich and everyone in the city went crazy about it. The beauty of it is that snow and frost can transform the landscape into an otherworldly winter wonderland. However, winter is not an easy time to photograph. For a person growing up in a tropical region, shooting snowy regions are arguably one of the most challenging conditions and I have not shot extensively in such conditions. Frigid temperatures often lead to discomfort for photographers and short battery life. In extreme cases, a snow blizzard or even whiteout may occur. With thorough preparation and protection, shooting winter landscapes could be a rewarding experience.
I shot this image of a playground in a park in Berlin one winter morning. It was my first time exploring a snowy cityscape and I was extremely excited about it, but at the same time, l realised I had not sufficiently prepared enough warm clothing for the weather. I did not expect the temperature would be much colder than the UK at the time. Thankfully there were shops nearby which allow me to keep myself warm once in a while. When transitioning from cold places to a warm place, do be careful of the dramatic change of temperature or humidity which may result in condensation building up in your camera lenses. Constant cycles of condensation produce moisture which can lead to mould growth and damage your lenses in the long run.
This image captured in Iceland shows just how much snowfall there was. Normally we would expect snow to appear white on our camera regardless of lighting conditions. However, snow can trick our camera meter and it can appear dull or grey on the image. Hence to get the correct exposure, you may sometimes need to overexpose a little to compensate.
The winter weather in Iceland can be quite harsh. Always, always, check the weather forecast before heading out and pay attention not only to the localised weather and temperature but also read the road conditions. Joining a tour group would a good choice if you have no experience driving in winter. Otherwise, you may have to do extensive research on driving in Iceland because driving through a snow blizzard at night is indeed a frightening experience. The image above shows how sublime the snow blizzard can get. Driving alone on the dark, icy road became so stressful for me, I had to wait for hours at a closed petrol station for the blizzard to pass before I could continue my journey.
Colours and contrast work well even in snowy cityscapes at night. If you are out about in the city, capturing urban cityscapes in snowy winter night could be an interesting experience. Unlike Iceland, it’s much easier to take the public transport to get around locations, except, you do have to look out for the last train or bus! Above is an image of the Berlin Cathedral at night. I had used my cable release to capture the long exposure. In the foreground is a frozen fountain and adjacent to the cathedral were bright lights illuminating from a large LED screen. I ended staying up for a couple of hours longer at the location because my hands had been trembling from the cold temperature so much that it kept causing camera shakes during the long exposure. Moral of the story: make sure to dress appropriately for the cold and account for the fact that it will be a lot colder once the sun goes down!
9. The Evening Golden Hour
The evening golden hour is usually a more popular time to shoot cityscapes, as people are knocking off from their work and there are more human activities going on during that transition. The colour temperature during the evening golden hour is always warmer than in the morning.
The long days of the midsummer provide the longest golden hours whereas these lights may last only a couple of minutes during winter. The image above was taken on a moving boat near the Oslo harbour during the evening golden hour one summer. Notice how the sunlight bathes these building structures with its golden lights, creating a bit of visual contrast with shadows where the light did not reach.
This photo was taken in Copenhagen. I was on my way back to my hotel after a whole day of touring the city when I noticed a beautiful sunburst over the river along the south harbour, particularly on the golden lights reflected over the river. Had I set up my camera slightly later, the sunlight would have dipped below these buildings, casting deep shadows onto the scene instead.
10. At Dusk
Dusk is the period just after the sunset, often with brilliant reddish-purplish colours in the clouds and a dramatic orange afterglow from the sunset. The colours at this time tend to be more vivid than at other times of the day.
Thi image was captured from my hotel room when I was in Copenhagen city. I was lucky that my hotel windows were facing the west and I was able to witness a brilliant evening sunset right before the sun dipped below the horizon. However, I wished I had taken a time-lapse sequence of these intense colours as the dusk transitioned into the night.
Above is an image of Edinburgh city captured from a vantage point. You can see clearly the afterglow of the setting sun, creating a beautiful blend of various pastel-like colour tones over the sky. I loved that the city lights had lit up, invoking a mystical feel of the city. Without these lights, I thought the scene would have been a less impactful visual, a mere silhouette of the sunset. I took this image during the summer time and it was sometime around 11pm.
11. The Evening Twilight
When the city lights come on at dusk, you can see colours of the cityscape start to pop out. The evening twilight is my favourite time to capture cityscapes as I find the deep blue sky to be a lot more interesting than the black night sky later and there are a lot more human activities to look out for in the urban cityscape, especially during festive seasons. Often the lights that illuminate the city’s landmarks happens only after sunset and not in the morning. As the evening gets darker, there won’t be a lot of ambient light left, so it’s a good time to seek artificial lights or the moonlight if available.
This is an image of the Stockholm City Hall building behind the Vesabron bridge. I happened to pass by this area during the evening twilight and saw an unusually large crescent moon fading into the horizon. Interestingly, at the time of capture, the moon rises in the daytime and sets in the evening. This can happen only during the new moon phase during the summer where the sunrise and moonrise happens together as with sunset and moonset.
I took this image at the small quiet Portree town in Isle of Skye, Scotland. I was wandering around the harbour area one cloudy evening and it was getting dark. I noticed how these boats had reflected the orange street lights and immediately wanted to capture that unique contrast of colours. I thought the scene would have lost that special moment if it were taken later at night.
This was taken one evening during the Lunar New year season in Chinatown, Singapore. These beautiful lantern lights illuminating the street worked really work during the blue hour. I wanted to capture that festive mood as more people have knocked off from their work and were coming out to explore these market streets.
12. Into the Night
Last but not least, shooting landscapes at night can be a challenging experience as one might think that there isn’t anything interesting to shoot. However, compared to the daytime, night photography does open up a lot of creative opportunities such as slow exposure, bokeh effects, light and reflections, etc. It would be extremely useful to invest on a sturdy tripod and a cable release to keep your camera steady for the slow exposure.
Christmas season is one of the best times for night photography. Colourful lights, lively crowd at these market stalls and even ice skating activities look so magical at night. I captured this image at the Christmas night market in Nottingham where the explosion of colours comes alive by nightfall and almost every angle is an interesting sight. In this case, the night sky wasn’t too dominant in the frame as I had focused on activities at the street level. I had used slow shutter speed to create a sense of flow in the movement of the crowd.
This image was captured on a cliff of a park called Parc de la Creueta del Coll in Barcelona. My original plan was to capture the magnificent view of the entire city at twilight but I stayed on the cliff longer than I had intended. I wasn’t too disappointed. This scene here offered a unique view of the Barcelona city residing on a mountainside and these street lights had looked like the artery of the city. However, getting down from the cliff became somewhat of a challenge as it was quite hard to navigate at night. Thankfully it was a full moon on that night.
The only time you can capture stars is of course, during the night time. Some of the ideal locations to capture astrophotography could be in national parks, forests, mountain tops and even lakes or coastal areas, away from city areas with light pollution. When the atmospheric conditions are good, you could capture celestial phenomena such as meteor showers, the milky way, aurorae or even the Supermoon!
Wherever you are out in the city or in the wilderness, your safety is extremely important especially at places where it could be very dark or dangerous. Always do your research and risk assessment beforehand. Take a friend with you or at least be accountable to someone before you head out. Consider bringing along some camping equipment if you’re intending to stay outdoors outside the city throughout the night. You may also need a flashlight or a map to navigate around because the last thing you ever want is to get stranded in the night.
Well, there you have it! With my shooting experience spanning across nine different cities, hopefully, this article will inspire everyone to appreciate capture any landscapes under different lighting conditions. Regardless of where we travel, what level of photography we are at or whatever camera technology we have at hand, only when we learn to recognise how light and weather conditions can work together, any time of the day can be a good time to photograph landscapes. With a bit of sensibility and some creativity, the results can be really spectacular!