with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Hot Tips for Hot Shots

Hot Shots!

These two photographs show before and after waiting for a cloud to pass by, casting a softer light on the forest. 
Photos by Lorelle VanFossenCamera and film purchases soar during the summer months. People take more pictures during the summer, especially on vacation, than at any other time except Christmas. Examine their photos and see people standing in front of national monuments and tourist locales squinting back at the camera.

Nature photographers, and even portrait photographers, long for soft, diffused light rather than the harsh, direct light of the sun, especially in the middle of the day. Overcast skies allow the natural colors of the subjects to come out, unobscured by strong shadows. Yet, we aren’t always so lucky to have the perfect bright overcast day, so let’s find out how a nature photographer arranges photographic times on a sunny, summer day.

Twixt Day and Night

Mountains of Bosque Del Apache, photo by Brent VanFossenMountains of Bosque Del Apache, photo by Brent VanFossenThe differences in colors, tone, quality, and emotion of a photograph are controlled by light. These two images were taken moments apart as the sun was setting. What are the differences in emotional quality and intensity? Which do you prefer? Waiting for the light makes all the difference between a good picture and a great picture.


graphic of an alarm clock going off.Getting up early isn’t easy for most people. What makes this more challenging for nature photographers is that we want to BE at the location when dawn comes. Often, this means getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning.

Pre-dawn light, especially on a clear morning, lightly foggy, or with very high clouds, paints soft pastels on your subject. Every luscious warm color can be found in the morning from soft pinks to rich reds. It doesn’t last long in the summer but the magic light is definitely found EARLY. Pre-dawn is the shift change for the working animals and birds. Night creatures are heading to bed and the day creatures are out wandering around trying to wake up. It is the best time to find the animals. Morning light ends during the summer (depending on where you are) between 8:00 and 10:00 in the morning, allowing 2 to 4 hours of photography. That’s when we go get some breakfast.

Mid Day

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This is our time of the day to get work done. When all the people are waking up and crawling around exclaiming about all the beautiful nature around them, we eat, drive or sleep. The heat even drives the mammals and even birds to hide from the sun to nap. Our day changes if clouds fill the sky, and we keep on photographing until the light gets too bright.

If you are determined to photograph in the bright sun light, there are some things best done in bright sunlight. Reflections are more vivid on a clear, sunny day. If the sun is not directly overhead, you can work with strong front light or back light to illuminate your subject. Birds can be great subjects to photograph in strong front light. Grasses, leaves and even hairy mammals are fun to photograph with strong back light creating a rim effect. Silhouettes can be even more fun, especially when you add just a peak of the sun sparkling out from behind the subject.

There are lots of things to do during the day to concentrate on photography without your camera. Scout out potential early morning and evening locations. Research the area to get a better feel for what is there and where to find things to photograph when the light gets right. Talk to rangers and others about what they’ve seen around and ask them for suggestions on good locations. Or just play tourist and have some relaxing fun away from the camera to recharge your spirit.

Midday Light and Wildlife

An elk sits in harsh light and shadows, photo by Brent VanFossenAn elk sits in overcast light, Jasper, Alberta, photo by Brent VanFossenThe midday sun shining directly down upon the forest creates harsh shadows, often disguising the wildlife resting in the forest. When a cloud comes by, the animals are suddenly revealed. Sometimes you can wait for a passing cloud to come by and improve the quality of your wildlife images on a bright and sunny day.

Afternoon – Evening

Examine the Light
When going through photo books or magazine, pay attention to the light. How are they using it? Does the light enhance the photograph? What time of day was it taken? By studying and learning about how light is used in photography you can put those techniques into your images.

An Olympic Marmot stands in the last light of the day along Hurricane Ridge. Photo by Brent VanFossenThis is the best time of the day for photographers, and the busiest. The setting sun creates a wide range of tones and colors from soft to intense, creating ever changing magical light on your subjects. It is also the end of the day shift for animals and beginning of the night shift for the rest. While the crowds are at dinner or staring off into the sunset holding hands, get out your camera and start to work on the warm colors bouncing off everything.

Hot Tips for Hot Shots

Animated graphic of a smiling sunSummer brings many challenges for the photographer, the worst being the battle for space in the popular tourist spots. It’s not just the battle for a place to set up a tripod, it is a fight to get THE SHOT without eight million people in the foreground, in your way, bumping you, or asking you insightful questions like “Are you a professional photographer?” while the moment and light are passing you by.


Photographers and bird watchers line up early at Ding Darling NWR, photo by Brent VanFossenNature photographers know the best time for photography is very early in the morning and late in the evening, both times when most sensible people are either still in bed or having dinner. Photographing at these times keeps you clear of the masses, unless it is sunset time from somewhere spectacular for sunset watching. In that case, look around for another place to capture the same sunset, or use the light to photograph what people are ignoring. Late afternoon and sunset light casts wonderful warm colors on mammals and birds, as well as trees, rocks and flowers. While everyone is staring at the setting sun, turn around and work away from them.

Fighting the crunch and bump of a popular scenic sight is frustrating. Step back and evaluate your choices. If this is a favorite photo opportunity, it has been photographed many times before. The crowd is here to see what the photographer saw. This is the time to look around for other ways to tell the same story from a different point of view. Hike down or up a hill away from the crowd and find a different vantage point. Always work to see things differently from how they’ve been seen before.

No hats in the picture, please

graphic of woman photographer in big hatWith the camera pointed anywhere in the vicinity of the sun, the chance for sun flare increases. Sun flare are created as the sun travels through the barrel of the lens and bounces around between the layers of glass. Where it “bounces” the most, it leaves a bright spot on the film. Zoom lenses are notorious for sun flares. Some flares can be interesting shapes and colors depending upon the shape of the aperture of the lens and the colors of the protective coating on the front element. Usually they are a distraction and nuisance.

All About Weather
One of our most popular newsletter issues is totally dedicated to the issue of weather. We discuss how to deal with weather and photography, writing about weather, and planning for and around weather. If you are interested in receiving our monthly newsletter for serious and professional nature photographers and writers, visit our Newsletter Page.

Most sun flares are noticeable through the viewfinder, though we often get so caught up in the subject we don’t pay attention. To prevent sun flares, use something to cast a shadow across the front of the lens. A deep lens shade is one of the best protectors of sun flare. Your hand, an umbrella, magazine or anything else to cast shade over the front of the lens. A wide-brimmed hat suits this purpose perfectly, just remember to keep the hat out of the picture. Shading the front of the lens will not affect the light entering the lens or the meter, it just shields the sun from glaring in.

Metering and the sun

The sun can influence your camera’s meter even when it is behind you. The more sensitive a camera’s meter is, the more likely sun entering from the viewfinder will influence your meter reading. Try it. With the sun to the side or behind you, look in the meter and put your hands up to shade your eye and the viewfinder. Then remove your hands and shift your head so a little light comes through the viewfinder. Does the meter reading change? You might even see several stops of light difference. If so, it’s time to wear a hat and make sure to shield your viewfinder from the sun.

Keep it Cool: Batteries and Film

Keep it Cool!
Keep your film and other perishables Keep your film cool!in an insulated lunch pouch or ice cooler. Add some watertight ice packs sealed in ziplocks if the temperatures are really soaring.

While newer batteries can withstand extreme conditions, leaving batteries out in the direct sun can cause them to explode or at least leak. Heat can also influence unprocessed film. Both batteries and film need to be protected from excessive heat.

The car is often thought of as a cool, shaded place to store your equipment and film, yet the ambient temperature in a car parked in the sun can rise to even higher than the external temperature. You can also get a “greenhouse” effect inside the car; moisture and condensation will form inside your camera and lenses as it changes temperature and “sweats”. Occassionally this results in a fungus growing on the inside of your camera and lenses.

Hot Bodies

Manufacturers have long decided that black camera bodies sell best. Elementary science class taught you that darker colors absorb heat and light colors reflect heat. Therefore, logic follows that black camera bodies attract heat.

Built with the new plastics, the heat typically won’t hurt the camera but may heat up the film – or be hot to the touch. If it will be sitting in the sun for long periods of time, keep the camera covered up. Large Domke wraps are easy solutions to cover your gear. Extreme temperatures can soften the cements and glues used to bond glass elements in your lenses, causing further damage.

Working in the Judean Desert of Israel, blowing dust is a constant concern. Photo by Brent VanFossenSun wears down almost everything manmade when exposed over long periods of time. Substances most intolerant to excessive sun exposure include rubber and cloth. Rubber lens hoods and rubber viewfinder eye pieces may dry out and crumble over time. Cloth will bleach and disintegrate. Camera bags and packs will discolor. Newer fabrics such as 1000 denier Cordura Plus hold up extremely well under such tortures, but they will fade out under long-term exposure.

Melt Down

Dried mud, California, photo by Brent VanFossenOur own human bodies need to be protected from the sun as well, but the chemicals in sun lotion and bug sprays can damage cameras and lenses. Even if your hands are clean, sun lotion on your face smears along the back of the camera as you look through the viewfinder. While changing rolls of film, you may touch greasy fingers to the film plate or anywhere inside the camera causing damage to the camera’s innards and the film. The chemicals will eat away at the protective coating on your lens front element and dissolve polycarbonate camera bodies. You may end up with your fingerprints permanently impressed on the camera grip, as happened to me.

If sun lotion and bug spray are required, we highly recommend clear glass lens filters (skylight or UV) to protect your front lens element from greasy fingers. Bring a damp towel or pre-moistened travel packets or soapless hand cleaner for washing off your hands when you are away from soap and hot water.

Working out in the sun for long hours, many photographers forget to take care of their bodies as well as their equipment. Drink lots of water to keep hydrated. Cover your arms and legs to protect them from the heat and sun. Dress cool by wearing hats and light cotton and thin fabrics which cover your body and yet still allow the air to cool your body.

Keeping yourself and your equipment cool and shaded is the best advice for summer shooting. There are lots of opportunities and places to go in the summer, along with the rest of the crowd. Keep safe and keep cool, and have fun.

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