There should be no confusion ever about what to shoot outdoors: follow the light.
Developing the photographer's eye involves a great many things, key among them is being able to find subjects in great lighting, regardless of subject matter. Once you learn what great lighting is - and why it's great lighting - then you can move onto the great splitting of light into its many genres. From the realm of genres, which boils down to subject selection, one moves onto discerning how to control the light - or how to find the best lighting conditions for your choice of subject.
For the purpose of this piece, I'm talking strictly about outdoor lighting. There are a few ways to ensure that you'll be shooting in optimum light. There too are ways to find great lighting situations in otherwise poor lighting conditions. I'll talk about these conditions now, starting with the story of the above image of the men transporting ice into a boat.
To be transparent here, the morning sunrise on the ice wasn't as obvious as the image might suggest. The sun had just risen for nearly 15 minutes or so. I was shooting in manual mode, as should be the case if you're ever shooting sunrise or sunset. Looking at my settings, I had my ISO pegged at 100 and my shutter speed topped out at 1/4000 on my Sony A6000. I'm not sure what my aperture was at because I was using a manual lens, but I suspect I had it wide open at 1.8 or so.
Now, at this point I'd like to say that shooting on a mirrorless system has a magnificent advantage over DSLRs in that you can view the exposure in real time without having to take a picture. Therefore, what I saw in "real life" was completely different than what I was viewing on my LCD screen: what I was looking at in my camera was closer to the final image, where the light play is obvious and beautiful. It helps too shooting in Golden Hour, which should be the usual routine for any outdoor shoot.
My formula for shooting people outdoors
This formula isn't meant to be mathematical; it's more like a thought procedure for dealing with light outdoors during different times of day.
If Light is less than or greater than Golden Hour, then follow the light.
This covers all matters of outdoor lighting for me. Because during Golden Hour, if you're shooting your subject (let's assume people) outdoors in direct sunlight, then you have the ultimate all-natural lighting. It's only a matter of placing or framing up your subject according to the desired effect. Done deal.
But prior to or after Golden Hour times, you're going to have to hunt for the light. It certainly doesn't mean you have to give up shooting because all of the light sucks, it only becomes more challenging to find.
Dappled light is simply patches, spots, or various patterns of filtered light, as highlighted in the above image. Notice the patterns of light on the model's face and skin, and in the background? Trees and shrubs are wonderful creators of dappled light. I found this particular patch by looking at patterns on the concrete.
As a side note, notice too that the model is sweating? That's because it's past 11am in this shot and Golden Hour had passed us by long before. The problem with Mumbai and other hot climates is that continuous shooting after Golden Hour during the day should be handled with care and attention otherwise you end up with imperfect images, or at least images you wouldn't want to use in a portfolio. Heat and humidity wreak havoc if there's any activity as simple as walking around. Which is why it's important to either stick to Golden Hour when shooting models or at least have the model fresh before shooting in such conditions.
Another example of dappled light above. We were in an abandoned building looking for sunlight through cracks but could only find something decent alongside one of the walls. Now, even though there is a nice pattern of the tree projected onto her you'll notice that the light is pretty intense and contrasty. Although this shot was taken before the other example at around 9:30am, it's still not ideal light, unless you're going for an image with high contrast. Again, the model must take care not to sweat, which is still happening here a little bit although not as much as the post 11am shot.
There are other kinds of lighting situations out there, like artificial light from buildings or reflected light off surfaces which can be brought into play for image-making. Substances like water and liquids, smoke, and fire also have the potential to help the photographer create beautiful shots outside of Golden Hour times. I would take it a step further and propose that one should always check to see if any of these situations are shootable, even without people. What kind of reflections are found in that puddle of water? How could I frame the smoke from that fire to make an interesting shot? Will that flame from the blow torch make a brilliant image? Different kinds of light and their modifiers should always be sought out.
Lighting is key for the photographer. Regardless of genre of choice, light should be the indicator of what to shoot if lighting is not exactly controllable, like in a studio situation or when not using lighting equipment outdoors. This is why the time of day is so vitally important to photography, especially for beautiful portraiture.
This is what I've told a few of my workshop clients when they've asked what they should be shooting. Apart from the obvious things which catch your eye, look for the great light opportunities. See what is being revealed. Shoot that.
Photography translates in Latin to "drawing with light." As photographers then, our paintbrushes are our cameras and we are the artists. As artists, the subject selection and canvas may be up to us but nothing we do will have any impact unless we make use of this drawing with light in intelligent and artistic ways.
Follow the light, always.