5 top tips for taking photos under clear blue skies and the midday Sun
Summer is when most photographers have time off work, spend the most time outdoors and travel in search of great compositions, but it can also be the most difficult time of the year for great photographs. The harsh light from a midday Sun high in the sky can flatten colours, while summer also often sees a lot of atmospheric haze that can wash-out landscapes.
So should you wait for the softer light of autumn, snow-capped winter landscapes or the colourful blooms of spring? Absolutely not! From blue skies and heat waves to slow sunsets and galactic views, summer can give you some great opportunities to create wonderful photographs.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Beat the blue sky blues
What happens if all you get are blue skies? Sure, they’re great for touring, camping and hiking, but bluebird days aren’t really what you want for impactful landscape photography. So when composing landscapes under such conditions give priority to the foreground, giving it the lion’s share of the attention in your compositions. You can even forget all about the sky and purposefully keep it out of your photos as much as possible. Instead, get your zoom lens out and look at the landscape for interesting shadows and textures to capture.
If you’re faced with a blue sky then you’re going to have to ignore it, right? One reason not to might be the Moon, which is ‘up’ as much during the day as it is at night and can add something special to summer landscapes. About five days after the New Moon a big crescent Moon becomes obvious in the east during the morning. It rises about 50 minutes later each day, getting bigger and brighter until it becomes unmissable in the pre-sunset early evening just prior to the full Moon. Consult a Moonrise and Moonset Calculator or apps like Moonrise to get its celestial schedule.
2 Use filters
A circular polarizing filter can be really useful when shooting summer landscapes. Able to reduce the exposure and diffuse the harsh rays of the midday Sun, a circular polarising filter can help add colour and contrast to images that would otherwise be pale and bleached. They’re especially good for reducing glare and reflections, giving more contrast and heaviness to clouds, and increasing the vibrancy of colours – particularly dark blues.
Learn more about the different types of filters available for lenses, with our detailed guide here.
Aimed at reducing ultra-violet rays – the highest frequencies of visible light – a UV filter can be really handy for boosting clarity in landscape photos, particularly on a hazy summer day. Often called ‘haze filters’, they also help protect your lens so they can be a permanent fixture.
3 Coping with overcast skies
Weather in summer is way more unpredictable that people think, but all photographers know that how the light interacts with clouds can make for drama in landscape photos. Overcast skies are a different matter. If they’re completely flat you also need to think about compositions that exclude the sky.
For example, flat, overcast skies and the ideal time to photograph waterfalls. If there has been recent rainfall then all the better, because the flow will be more powerful. While direct sunlight on water tends to instantly over-expose shots, an overcast sky can work as nature’s ND filter and can even allow some long exposures for a ‘silky’ water effect without the need for filters.
You’ll very often find waterfalls within wooded areas and forests, which are also excellent locations on overcast days. Green and leafy in summer, a touch of haze in the morning followed by clear sky means the possibility of light rays streaming through foliage. You’ll also get very differently-lit images depending on whether you walk towards or away from the Sun, with ever-changing angles, leading lines and patches of sunlight coming through the trees making for a fast-changing creative environment.
4 Check for cumulus clouds
Those fluffy, white cotton ball-like clouds in the sky in the warm summer air (often seen before and after storms) can be a photographer’s friend. Floating across a bright blue sky, these cumulus clouds and the shadows they throw across a landscape can add interest to compositions. A cloud drifting across the Sun can also offer a crucial few seconds to take a landscape without the full glare of the Sun. Some clouds in the sky by day means the possibility of a colourful sunset, which can last for a long time in summer (the farther north you are, the longer sunsets will last).
Try to avoid the midday Sun in summer, whose position very high in the sky creates low-contrast landscapes. Instead aim to get your camera out either around dawn (which is extremely early in summer if you are in mid-northern latitudes) or, more likely, in the hours either side of sunset. That way you’ll be dealing with a low Sun, long shadows, warmer colours and an ever-changing quality of light for more contrast.
5 Discovering the Milky Way
A bluebird day can mean a blackbird night! It just so happens that the galactic center is at its highest between July and October, which means that the northern hemisphere’s summer doubles as ‘Milky Way season’. Summer doesn’t automatically mean clear skies, of course, and the further north you are it may be that it doesn’t actually get all that dark a month either side of June’s summer solstice (i.e. in Canada and northern Europe).
It helps if you’re close to a New Moon, but capturing summer night-scapes doesn’t have to be difficult. You’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual controls, but most importantly you’ll need a relatively fast wide-angle lens (say, f/2.8). With your camera on a tripod, your lens at infinity focus and while shooting in raw, try exposures of around 20-25 seconds on ISO 800 and you’ll catch the Milky Way in the south. Don’t be too disappointed if you don’t see much on your camera’s LCD screen because you can drag out a lot of detail and brightness later in post-processing. Push the ISO up if you have a full-frame camera, but not too high (that will create noise) and always think about composition; the Milky Way on its own isn’t that impressive, but adds a whole new dimension to an already skilfully composed night-scape.
More tips on photographing the Milky Way can be found with our dedicated guide, here.
You don’t have to wait until the skies are completely dark to begin taking photographs of astronomical phenomena. Have you ever seen that gorgeous pinkish band about 15° above the horizon opposite the Sun just after sunset? That’s the ‘Belt of Venus’, which briefly glows during civil twilight. You’ll need a tripod and exposure times of a few seconds, so use a tripod and stick to ISO 100.