Anyone becoming excited about photography, especially landscape photography, will soon here about the “Golden hour” and how all of their outdoor shots must be taken during this crucial time due to the lighting advantages it infers. Soon, in fact, you may begin to feel that any shots attempted outside of this special time aren’t worth taking. While this is not absolutely correct (and the topic for another discussion) the Golden Hour and Blue Hour do offer unique lighting opportunities not available at other times of the day.
So, armed with this knowledge and your camera, out you run to your favorite, or nearest, location to begin the shooting! However, if you head out only with the basic adage to shoot during these times without knowing exactly the behavior of light over the time between full light and full dark you will likely be disappointed by the experience. That is because while most books will inform you about the quality of light at the peak moments, they will not tell you how to actually get yourself to the shot at the right moment, and most all neglect to inform you that between the peak lighting, Golden hour and Blue Hour, lies some less than desirable lighting conditions.
The following discussion is a full description of the light – dark transitions that occur in the morning and evening (luckily the process is the same in reverse!) illustrated with two famous landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin shot in the early morning hours and the Parliament building in Budapest shot in the afternoon through evening. In Berlin, these shots happened by “accident” and out of extreme perseverance over the course of about 3 hours, while in Budapest, the final shots were carefully planned specifically to catch Parliament in its best light as well as to use for this specific illustration.
First, there are a few things to find out about your chosen photo shoot location
1. Sunrise and sunset for the day
www.sunrisesunset.com online works well
“Sunrise Sunset” app for iPhone work very well. This app will provide key time:
2. Direction of sunlight at your chosen time of day
“The Photographer’s Ephemeris” app for iPhone is excellent!
3. Special lighting issues
Does the place/structure you want to photograph light up at night?
Are there impediments (deep canyons, buildings, etc.) that affect the available light?
Next, you need to know the different phases/aspects of light as time passes from “bad” light to “good” light and back again to “bad” light. There are five distinct lighting times in both morning and evening light: Dark, Blue, Flat, Golden, and Bright. Dark, Blue and Golden imply the similar light qualities in the morning and evening, while Flat is frequently right around the designated “sunrise” or “sunset” times, respectively, and Bright is either harsh morning or afternoon light. I’ve included a basic graph of the relative quality of light as time passes through these stages.
The First important fact most books leave out is that actual sunrise or sunset light is sometimes NOT good! It may be absolutely breathtaking, or it may be flat and disappointing. The Golden Hour follows sunrise in the morning (either immediately or after some time) and precedes sunset in the evening (again either immediately or after some time). The Blue hour is just the opposite, preceding sunrise and following sunset. The trouble with the adage of sunrise and sunset as the “Golden Lighting” is that the conditions change from location to location, and these conditions affect the optimal timing for photography much more than basic sunrise and sunset.
In this blog, I will go through two locations where sunrise and sunset were NOT the best times to shoot. In an upcoming blog on Southwestern Landscape Sunrises and Sunsets I will show some examples where the actual times were exact correct, and times where it was not.
The Second important related fact usually left out is that, if you want to shoot during both the Golden and Blue Hour, you will inevitably have to sit through some bad lighting in between the two. This is a relatively short-lived dull moment, coming between twilight and dawn in the morning and between sunset and dusk in the evening. You can use it to your advantage to change your camera settings, etc. between good light, but if you are not aware that the bad light is coming you may be surprised. Again, based on location, this may be longer or shorter in duration.
The Third important fact is that the Golden and Blue “hours” are usually not an hour in length at all, in fact usually much shorter, and change throughout the year in length and quality depending on location. At a couple of recent locations (covered in the Southwestern Landscape Sunrises and Sunsets blog) there were about 10 minutes or less of “optimal” lighting!
The Final point, then , that stems from these previous facts, is that each location will have its own “rules’ for optimal lighting, and therefore, some measure of research or pure perseverance will be needed to get in the right place at the right time.
So, with that background, let’s look two real-life illustrated timelines, one for morning in Berlin, without much of the necessary information I outlined above, and one for evening in Budapest armed it all.
Photo Shoot #1
Brandenberg Gate, Berlin, morning hours of June 7th, 2010
Official times for that day and location:
The early morning photo shoot of the Brandenberg Gate was made possible by my complete lack of adjustment to the six hr time change from Atlanta to Berlin, causing me to be wide awake at the unusual hour of 2:30 am. After coming to the realization that I was not getting back to sleep I decided to make the best of the situation by visiting the Brandenberg gate, where I had been a day before on a cloudy afternoon. Armed with my camera and tripod I made my way to the location and found a spot to my liking. Over the course of the next three hours I photographed the monument t from a variety of angles, and when it was getting liter I wondered over to the Reichstad to look around. The gate is illuminated at night , while the Reichstad is not – information that would have been helpful to have ahead of time.
While I shot from multilevel angles, I have used similar locations to illustrate the difference between dark, blue, dawn, and the morning golden hour lighting at the Brandenberg Gate.
In most locations I am not overly fond of the dark shots; however, I do like the contrast between the very dark sky and the white structure with its relatively intense illumination. My favorite is still the blue hour at this location – the hue of the sky gives the whole composition a more dramatic feel to me. No matter which is your favorite, I think most all will agree that the dawn shot is the worst, with flat lighting providing little to highlight the structure.
In short, while this photo shoot was great fun and quite an adventure for me be out in Berlin in the early morning hours and almost entirely alone, it was not an efficient shoot. That would have been enhanced greatly by prior research so that I would have known the times for each lighting situation and been able to plan accordingly.
Photo Shoot #2
Parliament building, Budapest, evening hours of September
Official times for that day and location:
My calculations from direct observation on-site:
Actual “Golden” hour: 5:30pm-6:10pm
“Waiting” hour: 6:15pm-7:00pm
“Building/Bridge” lights on: 7:00pm
Actual “Blue” hour: 7:00-7:15pm
Black sky after 7:30pm
In Budapest, with better preparation, more information, and close proximity to the Parliament building, it was easy to capture the sequence of images from the afternoon “Golden” light through sunset, the blue time, and a dark shot for comparison. I had two nights in which to capture the Parliament as well as the Chain bridge, so I had to be judicious in my time use. By arriving at the oak of the golden light I was able to capture a series of shots from multiple angles in varying lighting in just over an hour, returning for the dark shot at a later time. Tis efficiency allowed me to fully capture my chosen subjects in my preferred lighting by maximizing my time at both locations and using the dull lighting time to travel between spots.
I again prefer the blue hour image at the Parliament, and here the example from the dark time is more representative of most dark time images – inserting but a bit harsh. Again, no matter your preferred lit, most will agree that the worst lighting occurs at sunset.
So, hopefully this discussion has better prepared you to maximize the light at the beginning and end of the day, and also prepared you for the down time between high quality lighting. Use the information you have available to you from online resources or apps, as well as some personal scouting of the locations as time allows, to make the most out of your time and get the images you seek!
For more on this subject, please read my upcoming blog Southwestern Landscape Sunrises and Sunsets!