When you read or hear the expression, “Photography is all about light,” you clearly understand the definition of each word; however, the true meaning from a photography perspective can be elusive. It takes time to fully grasp.
I clearly remember my first true photography experiment that accelerated my understanding of the basics of photography in regard to light.
It was a family camping trip. We had our campsite set on the beach of a small lake nestled in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. I had plenty of time to experiment with my new Canon Digital Rebel. I set the camera on a tripod and took one picture every hour without changing the camera’s position or settings.
I took a total of 17 shots.
Back home, I transferred the photos to my computer and started analyzing them in Photoshop (Lightroom did not yet exist). I was completely astonished by the results of my seemingly simple experiment. Depending on the time of day, the location was completely unrecognizable. Any photo taken during the middle of the day looked washed out and quite boring. On the other hand, the photos taken during sunset and sunrise looked vibrant and full of energy.
This is when I realized that photography is defined by the quality of light and, contrary to common belief, that location is the secondary component of the equation.
ANATOMY OF LIGHT IN SUNSET PHOTOGRAPHY
In outdoor photography, the sun is the predominant light source with the earth’s atmosphere acting as a giant diffuser, softening the light as it passes through. Because of the position of the sun in the middle of the day, sunlight travels through the atmosphere almost vertically, taking the shortest distance to reach the surface of the earth. The effect of the atmosphere as a diffuser is minimal.
The midday light produces photos with harsher shadows and stronger highlights.
Before sunset in the evening, the sun is low to the horizon and, as a result, sunlight travels a much longer distance through the atmosphere. The diffusive effect of the atmosphere is more prominent and produces an image with much softer light that creates softer shadows and highlights.
It is easy to understand why the most favorable times for photography are the hours around sunrises and sunsets, which are also known as the “Magic Hours.”
Magic Hours consists of Golden Hour and Blue Hour. It starts with the Golden Hour approximately 30-60 minutes before sunset. After the sun disappears behind the horizon, the Golden Hour transforms into the Blue Hour. The Magic Hours end approximately 30-60 minutes after sunset, which gives us about 1-2 hours of favorable light.
According to Photopills, the Golden Hour occurs when the sun is 6 degrees above the horizon and it ends when it falls to -4 degrees below the horizon.
The characteristics of the Golden Hour are soft, diffused light with a warm golden glow that produces long, soft shadows.
The Blue Hour occurs after sunset when the position of the sun is between -4 and -6 degrees below the horizon.
The characteristics of the Blue Hour are the much darker sky, especially when compared to the Golden Hour, and soft texturesthat feature predominantly cool, blue hues.
The beauty of sunset photography is that it produces different visual effects in a very short period of time because the quality of light constantly changes. At the same time, it creates complexity. And you, as a photographer, must be ready for the changes and adjust your photography technique accordingly