Using Light - Golden Hour and "Harsh" light

Using Light - Golden Hour and "Harsh" light

A guest post by Scott Keys

We often comment on lighting in images and the dreaded term “harsh light” starts to come in to play.  Even with nice images that have a pretty subject, nice backgrounds, and sharp focus, the results can be unfavorable when the light is not just right.   To demonstrate this, I put together an example of how light can quickly change in the morning.  Below are several images taken a couple weeks ago at a shoot at a wetlands in South Jersey.   I will take you through the progression by explaining a little bit about the lighting and what I was looking for at the time.   The sun came up at approximated 6 am.  I was on site and set up at 5:45.  Here is a sampling of the images that I captured chronologically

(1) This image was taken before the sun came up (blue hour).  You can see the sky has not turned to yellow and has lots of purples and blues.  Here I am thinking about soft portraits; wide open (for me f/4)  Slower shutter (1/100-250) and higher ISO (1000-2000) as there is not much light to use, moving subjects are tough, but results are different and interesting.  I am shooting a D500 crop sensor, a Full Frame body might be able to handle even higher ISO and get that shutter a little faster.  At 1/250 and below you are not going to get sharp images of anything moving much, but here the egrets are holding still preparing to fish

(2) A set of Dunlin just as the sun breaks the horizon.  Very soft light and not much of it.  I am shooting at 1/250, f/4, ISO 1000 for this image.

(3) 6:10ish, True golden hour, the sun has just come over the horizon and things are golden and glowing.  There is still not a ton of light but the shutter can become a little faster(1/500-1000), still wide open,  ISO probably at 800-1000 for a while.

(4)  6:20ish more light but still ideal golden hour.  Notice this white bird now glows, nothing is blown out and there are nice details.  Here I'm shooting 1/500, f/4, ISO 200. I wanted a super clean image and he was very still so I lowered shutter and ISO.

(5) 6:30 I found these in a more shaded area, the light is softer as it is in some shadow. I love this light, it is one of my favorite pics of the year.   1/640, f/4, ISO 800

(6) By 6:40 the light is changing significantly, the golden tones are already leaving.   The Dowitcher is still in good light, but it is getting stronger.  1/1000, f/4, ISO 500

(7)  At 7:15 I noticed the light was strong, so I stopped portraits and went for action, with Snowy Egrets fishing.  Here the light is strong but still usable for fast shutter freezing, 1/5000, f/4, ISO 400.   Notice the significant difference in the last 45 minutes.  I went from equivalent shutter speeds of ~1/500 to 1/5000 on the same white birds in under an hour. 

By 7:30, I noticed the light was getting harsh.  I check a few images on the back of the camera and felt like I had a great morning and I was losing the light.  I could have stayed and tried for more action but the whites on the egrets in the area would become hard to deal with and the sweet portrait light was really over.   90 minutes after arriving, I was done.  Not because I was out of time, I was out of light.

I am using this to show the drastic difference when shooting in direct sun with little or no atmosphere.   Often people say, I was out in the morning and assume that this means the light must be good, but in certain conditions, you can really only maximize direct sun for 30-45 minutes before it starts to become harsh.  After that, think about ways to capture action, or change the environment completely.  Sometimes in direct sun, I will shoot along the edge of the forest for an hour and then move inside to where there may be complete shade.   There are times when we meet for a shoot at sunrise on a sunny day and get exceptional images.  We are wrapped up by 8 am and recapping the shoot in the parking lot or more likely planning breakfast when we notice other photographers just showing up.  To me, what’s the point of investing your valuable time and purchasing expensive gear just to shoot in bad light?  Images taken with an entry level wildlife set up would be much more appealing at golden hour as compared to images taken with $20k worth of professional gear taken in direct sun at 10 am.  

I hope you found this helpful.  Ray and I host a Wildlife Photography Critique group on Facebook which is where this topic comes up often.  You can see my full gallery at  and no it's not all in perfect light, but I continue to try!