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How to Lighten Up Your Photos

Most of us are on the trail at times other than the "golden hours" around dusk and dawn, which represent the photographic ideal for lighting. But you can still get great photos if you know how to work the light you have.

by Doug Diekema

Most of us are on the trail at times other than the "golden hours" around dusk and dawn, which represent the photographic ideal for lighting. But you can still get great photos if you know how to work the light you have.



Intense overhead light at this time of day results in high contrast photos with blown-out brights, dark shadows, obscured details and textures, and washed-out colors. Landscapes look flat, rather than three-dimensional. While it’s difficult to get an ideal photo under these conditions, you’ll get better results by shooting earlier and later in the day or in the fall and spring, when the Northwest sun is closer to the horizon. If there are clouds in the sky, try waiting until a cloud covers the sun. Finally, use a polarizing filter to cut down on bright reflections, intensify colors and boost contrast.


Overcast or Shade

An overcast sky creates soft, cool light. Shadows are subtle or absent. Skies are often boring. This is a great time to look for shots that highlight the details and textures of the landscape. Focus on foreground elements and minimize or eliminate the sky from the composition. Overcast conditions are ideal for photographing waterfalls, foliage and fall colors. Landscape images taken in overcast conditions may benefit from some increased warming, contrast and saturation either in-camera or post-processing. Shade offers great light for photographing people in the middle of a sunny day.

This photo of Gnome Tarn in the Enchantments took advantage of side lighting later in the afternoon, which caused the yellow Larch to glow. The clouds created shadows on the landscape, and I took advantage of one such moment when the shadow fell on Prussik Peak, making it appear almost black. Photo by Doug Diekema.


Golden Hour

The soft, warm light that’s present when the sun is low on the horizon offers ideal photographic conditions. Shadows are prominent but less harsh, often adding interest to a composition. Colors are warm and saturated, and photos have a level of detail, texture and depth that you simply can’t get with overhead illumination. Early morning and late afternoon light also changes quickly, giving the landscape a different look every few minutes. Getting this light may mean hiking in the dark, but that’s what a good headlamp is for!


Stormy Conditions

We usually don’t think of rainy or stormy days as offering much photographic potential, but if you’ve got the fortitude to put up with the weather, you may get lucky and come back with some unique and dramatic photos. Mist and fog create diff used light that gives trees and lakes an ethereal appearance. Dramatic cloud formations can add interest to a photo, and occasionally those clouds will part, allowing the sun to shine through and illuminating parts of the landscape in front of you with dramatic light.

Light Direction

Where your light is coming from dramatically impacts a photograph.

  • Top (e.g., midday sun): This is not ideal for photography since it dulls colors, creates harsh shadows and obscures texture, form and shape. The one exception: overhead light brings out the beautiful aquamarine color of lakes better than less direct lighting.
  • Front: When the light source comes from directly behind the photographer, it acts much like top lighting, creating the same challenges. In addition, it can be diffi  cult to keep your shadow out of the scene.
  • Back: Shooting with light behind the subject, while challenging, can provide wonderful creative opportunities. Backlighting often puts the subject (like an animal,  person or tree) in shade but surrounded by a rim of light. Translucent objects appear to glow, and their colors intensify. Backlighting is also great for creating silhouettes.
  • Side: Light coming from the left or right of the subject usually results in the best photos, revealing texture, form and shape, and casting pleasant shadows that give the scene a three-dimensional feel.