One of the most important secrets to taking a spectacular outdoor photo is great light. The right light can make an image snapped on your phone camera look worthy of a gallery.

What do I mean by “great light”? Two kinds: sunrise / sunset light and overcast. I’m not saying you can’t get a great picture during other times of the day.

However, by and large, the best photos happen within 1 1/2 hours after sunrise, 1 1/2 hours before sunset, or under an overcast sky (bright overcast, preferably).

First, we’ll look at sunrise / sunset light.

When the sun is low, the light can become almost magical. First off, it gives everything it touches a “warmer” look. The scene automatically looks more inviting.

Next, low light adds drama to a scene. It brings out all the textures that get lost on a noontime sky. Think of a beach scene. If you look at the sand around noon, it’s flat and uninteresting. Look again at sunset and you see every bump and ridge.

Another thing you’ll notice with sunrise / sunset light is that you get some awesome shadow action. The shadows are longer and more pronounced, yet they aren’t as dark and black as they are during midday.

Oh, and there’s an added advantage of shooting at sunrise in particular—fewer crowds. I’ll tell ya, it sure makes getting into that perfect spot much easier, plus you don’t have to “photoshop” out people who stray into you composition.

Add it all up and you have the recipe for some seriously great shots. In reality, sometimes all you really need to do is pick a scenic spot and be there when the light gets good. When I’m on a photo trip, I’ll spend a good amount of my day figuring our where I want to be at sunset and where to be the next day at sunrise (besides in bed sleeping in 🙂

Take a look at magazines, calendars, and posters—you’ll see I’m not the only one who thinks that when the sun is low it’s time to go out and shoot.

Now, we’ll look at overcast light.

Most people don’t think of overcast as “good light” – after all, isn’t sunshine better for pictures?

Not really – here’s why:

Digital cameras (and that old “analog” film stuff for that matter) can’t “see” the same range of brightness your eyes can.

For example, look out a nearby window. If it’s sunny, I’ll bet you can see detail in both shady areas and those in the sunlight. No problem huh?

Well, digital cameras can’t do that little trick. They can give you good detail in the shadows, but the areas exposed to sunshine will tend to burn out. Shooting for the highlights gives you the opposite problem – dark or black shadows that have no detail. There’s just too much difference between the sunlight and shadows for the camera’s sensor.

What does all this have to do with shooting in overcast? Everything.

See, overcast is an equalizer of sorts. It evens out the light so that there are no super-dark shadows and no blown out highlight areas – the camera can “see” detail in everything. Your photos look the way YOU see them (except for the way you cut Aunt Edna’s head off that one time, but we don’t want to bring up that again 🙂

Take a look through some professional nature / outdoor photos and you’ll see that overcast is a photographers favorite.

A couple tricks for shooting in overcast conditions:

1. Try to keep the sky out of the photo. Any areas with clouds in them will tend to “blow out” and turn white. Light areas in a photograph attract the eye like a trampoline attracts a 5 year old. And the results are the same – a lot of bouncing around. In the case of the photo, this bouncing takes the form of your viewer’s eyes – bouncing away from the main subject, up to the white spot, then back again.

2. Cloudy is great, rain is better. Well, OK, maybe right after a rain. You still have some cloud cover, and a good rainstorm will really bring out some color saturation. Try this for fall color and you’ll see what I mean.