The photo above shows a perfect cloudless day—great for spending time outside. But when it comes to photographing wildflowers, direct sunlight is not your friend. Of course you need light to take a photo, but direct sunlight is not your friend. This translates to two rules of thumb.
- On sunny days, your best photographs are going to be relatively early in the morning and later in the afternoon, where there is more open shade and/or more diffuse light.
- What you might think of as the best weather for hiking, biking, swimming, or generally enjoying the outdoors is typically not going to be the best weather for wildflower photography.
In fact, a cloudy, misty, or even slightly rainy day can produce the best conditions. This is because clouds diffuse sunlight and “saturate” the colors, making them more intense. Direct sunlight reflects especially off shiny leaves and light-colored or white blossoms, and this typically “translates” to a photo with washed out spots devoid of detail. In overcast weather the camera lens can capture all the fine detail of the blooms. On a clear sunny day, the earlier hours of the morning are when the sun shines at an angle, creating the open shade with plentiful, even lighting, and again, darker and more intense colors. Later in the afternoon can offer the same effect, depending on the location of the subject.
What if you find yourself in the presence of a coveted flower in full bloom with a bright sun overhead? It is often possible to shade the subject. Sometimes a companion can provide this by blocking the direct sun with his or her hand, arm, or body. We’ve also used some pretty simple equipment—an ordinary collapsible umbrella (easy to stow in a day pack), for example—to create instant shade. Although it’s sometimes possible to prop the umbrella or hold it yourself, it’s handy to have a companion to assist you.
Back in the first part of June, on a hike beginning at Rough Ridge trailhead on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we got a later start than we’d planned on a day with perfect weather for hiking—not a cloud in the sky. The sun was was already high overhead. The two photos here show a turkeybeard spike shot in direct sunlight and the very same bloom photographed in shade. See the difference? The first (above left) is washed out; the other (right) has all the detail. So photograph your wildflowers on overcast days when you can; hit the trail on clear days before the sun does; and carry your own shade.