“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time” – John Berger. The Booker Prize awardee has summed up in this statement of his, an aspect which every great photographer exploits, to create the best masterpieces. Understanding light is important for photography. With every passing minute of the day, the light varies. The quality of light changes. The weather conditions further define its character.
Golden Hour at Dawn
This is that time of the day by which landscape photographers swear by. This is the time before the sunrise when the sky starts to lighten up and the time after the sunset when the sky is still filled with some amount of light. Though commonly termed as an hour, the period can vary from a few minutes to couple of hours. It all depends on the latitude and the time of the year. The closer you are to the line over which the sun passes, the shorter will be the golden hour. Generally speaking, tropical countries have a shorter golden hour than the countries where the sun never passes overhead.
Golden hour at dawn is the time when the sun is yet to rise. Many photographers will disagree with me and suggest that the golden hour occurs in the evening, but everyone is free to decide. The atmosphere in the early morning is usually clearer than evenings and so the amount of light that gets scattered is less. This results in shades of pink and blue. The sunrises are quite often cooler in their hues than sunsets. I’ll write about the golden hour after the sun sets, later in this article. If you are after the fog this is the time when it starts to rise.
(Fog starting to rise. Clicked at about half past seven in the morning during winters in Northern India. The colors are subdued due to fog)
Early Morning Hours
There is another interesting atmospheric measurement that can have a good impact on nature photography. This is the Dew Point. A low dew point will form those wonderful water droplets everywhere. Is it a surprise why this is called ‘dew’ point? A dip in temperature at nights helps in forming dew. The resulting photographs themselves have a very refreshing feeling to themselves.
A high dew point with clear skies can create fog. This also when photographed well can add a surreal feel to the photographs. Fog starts with the golden hour and starts rising as the temperature rises and by late morning it usually thins out.
Most humans are lazy and so early mornings have less of traffic, noise, dust and humans themselves. Great for photographing nature!
Birds also start to come out of their nests and go about their daily tasks of finding food or building better and better nests. If you are into bird photography, set your alarm early and be there at the spot before the sun rises.
Same applies to butterflies as well. As soon as the sun rays starts to light up the nature, the butterflies start becoming active. They spread their wings to bask in the sunlight. Moving from one flower to another, they are also easily spotted as the sun starts to rise. With the passing time when the sun is high up, the temperature also increases. The butterflies then become extra active making it difficult to photograph them.
(Nikon Df with 135mm lens, f/8, 1/160 sec. Photograph clicked at about 8:00 AM on the banks of river Ganges)
Late Morning Hours
Slanting sunlight can do wonders for textures. Buildings start to look lively. The interplay of light and shadow adds depth to all structures. Sunlight also brings out the colors and contrast in everything. The large amount of available light makes it easy to use high shutter speeds at desired apertures and get away with no camera shake. Late morning hours are best for getting punchy pictures that stand out and appear to be three dimensional.
(Nikon Df with 25mm lens, f/8, 1/320 sec at 100 ISO. Clicked at 7:30 AM in the morning in mid February in India. Though the right side of the building is very dark, it still adds a three dimensional effect to the photograph)
When the sun is almost overhead
This used to be a good time for most press photographers due to the amount of available light. However for anything serious, this is not too good. The overhead sun takes away the impact which most photographs can have in any other time of the day. For portraits, this is the worst time of the day generally. The harsh sun creates unsightly shadows under the eyes, under the nose and at the neck. Photographers use fill flash to overcome this but if you can click the same photographs at some other time of the day then do that.
(Step Farming – Clicked at quarter past three in the afternoon. The almost vertical sun lighted up the farming area while the slight slant added the dark shades between each of the steps. Nikon Df with Nikkor 18-35mm lens, f/5.6 at 1/125 sec, 100 ISO)
Once again the world starts to look more photogenic. The slanting light combined with the slightly warm colors adds impact to photographs. Added advantage of the evening hours is the human element. If you like street photography, this is the best time to step out with your camera. After a hard days’ work, people are aware of their surroundings and the exhaustion gives way to clear expressions which somehow are hidden behind the poker faces in the mornings. The warm light combined with the specific angle at which it lightens up the scene, is also very good for landscapes and architecture photography.
(Nikon D200 with Nikkor 18-35mm lens, f/8, 1/250 sec. Time 7:30 PM in summers in a non-tropical country. Notice the long slanting shadows and overall warm hues)
Golden Hour at Dusk
The atmosphere is usually filled with dust by the time the sun starts to set. Vehicle movements, industries, hot air currents in the day… these all contribute to this dust. The light gets scattered a lot and the resulting hues are warm. Sunsets are quite often followed by saturated skies filled with colors ranging from light yellows to deep reds. This is another of God’s gift to all the nature photographers.
Alpenglow is another related phenomenon that occurs when the sun has just moved below the horizon and the light takes a different path to light up objects like mountain tops.
(Sometimes a quick thunderstorm in the evening can reduce the overwhelming warm hues. The trick of the trade is to stick around even when everyone else is ready to return back)
Cloudy, overcast or clear sky?
A clear sky is characterless. It does not contribute anything to the image. If that is what your intention is, then wait for clear skies before photographing.
Overcast skies act like a large diffuser. The shadows are not well defined and almost everything gets lit almost equally. This also takes care of the mid-day hours when the direct sunlight looks bad. The colors do not look as saturated as with clear skies. Overall white balance of the overcast skies is slightly shifted towards cooler side. This may require correction while clicking or post-processing.
A cloudy sky is what really attracts me. This adds elements of interest to the skies and can be used as an important part of the overall composition. Even sunrises and sunsets look good when there are scattered clouds in the skies.
(The drama in this photograph is due to the cloudy sky)
Northern lights or Southern lights
These are not available to most people on a regular basis but if you happen to travel towards any of the poles, these are hard to miss. I call northern and southern lights as extended golden hour light effects and that is what they actually are. I have never photographed them but then this is one of the items on my bucket list. I have added this sub-heading to the article for the sake of completion.