Landscape Photography Misconceptions II: Only Shoot Sunset and Sunrise

Continuing the series of blogs about common misconceptions in Landscape Photography with a classic misunderstanding, that Landscape Photography is best at sunrise and sunset. This approach to shooting landscapes is fairly common among photographers, but perhaps a closer look at the reasons for doing so will illuminate a different approach and thought process. Let’s dive in and see if shooting at sunset and sunrise, or morning and evening, are in fact the secret recipe for landscape images.

Understanding Light

The first point to consider when breaking down this misconception is understanding light. Morning and evening are times when the angle of the sun is low, which creates more shadows throughout the landscape. We rely on shadows to create the illusion of depth in images and to convey space in a 2D representation of a 3D landscape. Without shadow, it’s generally challenging to create depth in a photograph. It’s not impossible but those methods are beyond the scope of this topic. The low sun angle of morning and evening isn’t the only benefit of that time of day, with the other being the luminous intensity or simply the strength of the light. Morning and evening bring a less intense light on the landscape and sky, so the contrast between landscape and sky is less. In general, less contrast in a scene is easier for a camera to record than a scene with extreme contrast.

The Benefit of Morning and Evening

With this understanding of shadow, depth, luminous intensity and contrast, we’re now able to see the benefit and reason many people choose to shoot in morning or evening. But let me ask a question: If we’re seeking depth and balanced contrast in an image, is morning or evening the only time to find this? Can the landscape have these qualities at other times or are there locations where these conditions occur outside of morning and evening? The short answer is yes.

Snow and fog on Angels landing in Zion National Park.  Zion Photography locations and Zion photo tours.
12:22 PM in Zion National Park

Shot at Noon

I think my questions above are best illustrated at this point with an image example. The scene above was captured at 12:22 PM yet displays both depth and balanced contrast (tone & color). In this case weather conditions created the necessary elements to allow for this scene in the middle of the day. To be fair, this scene would likely be balanced in the morning too, but only on more clear days. This scene and image were a result of exploring and observing in Zion, instead of going to a predetermined location at a predetermined time.

The Secret Recipe

The next component to look at in this “secret recipe” in landscape photography, is the use of color. Morning and evening, sunrise and sunset are often great for shadows, depth and balanced contrast but just as with everything else in photography, there’s a tradeoff. This compromise and element to consider is COLOR. Sunrise/sunset bring wild colors to the sky from orange to blue to purple to red. These colors can be beautiful to see in person but in a landscape image the colors can be strange when seen with the landscape colors. The wildest skies may not always enhance or offer any relationship with the given landscape and thus, may actually be a distraction. It’s worth considering if color in the sky will compliment the landscape composition or distract attention when shooting and selecting images at home.

Images for Print

Taking the use of colorful skies one step further is discussing the image as a print for a wall. This is another time I’d urge caution when dealing with wild sky colors. Intensely colored skies are exciting colors and may create an intense energy in the room. This may not be what many people are looking for. It’s far more common for the images on walls to be cooler tones/colors due to their inherent calming effect (think misty forest). From my years of experience working in a gallery, I can tell you with certainty people are not seeking these images for their walls and are much more drawn to mellow or peaceful images. It’s something to consider at least, whether the scene would benefit from a colorful sky or muted/blue sky.

Fall colors in Park City, Utah. Yellow aspens and sunlight.
Backlit aspens near Park City, UT

The Location Determines the Time

The last point to discuss is regarding the location, as it will determine which time of day generally works best. An example of this is in the image above, shot in the late afternoon to show the backlit aspen leaves. Sunrise or sunset wouldn’t have shown this glowing effect. In this case, the location and subject worked best in afternoon backlighting conditions. Below is a different example of a location determining the best time of day. The scene is a particular canyon in Utah but could represent many different landscapes in Southern Utah. In such environments, the light is rarely the best at sunrise or sunset. This image was from around 4PM and the canyon was noticeably fading in vibrancy by the minute, peaking around 2PM.

Yellow cottonwood tree in Capitol Reef National Park during a Photography Workshop in Capitol Reef.
A lone cottonwood in a deep desert canyon.

Intimate vs Grand Landscape

Both of the above images images are more “intimate landscapes” than grand landscapes showcasing the sky. I’ll include one more below, utilizing the sky in the composition. This image from near Zion National Park was shot mid-morning as a snowstorm cleared. This scene is a combination of the location and conditions determining the time to photograph.

Fall colors in Zion National Park on a Zion Photography Workshop in southern utah.
A simple mix of seasons near Zion National Park

It seems like a lot to evaluate if we’re taking into consideration location, sky color, weather conditions, implied depth and balanced contrast. So how do we accomplish this effectively? That’s a topic that is best demonstrated outside and not on a screen or video. It’s something I go into detail during a workshop and is best learned by practicing the learned techniques. There are more misconceptions in landscape photography to discuss and I look forward to continuing this series. Let me know if you have any questions and thank you for reading, Eric.

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