Maybe more than anything else, a photographers use of light can make or break an image. Light is everything. It’s not simply a question of using the correct exposure settings. It’s much, much more than this. Light is fundamental to composition, it adds warmth or coldness, it creates shadows and depth and gives colour it’s magic. When a person picks up a camera it’s all about the light. As photographers we have two choices when it comes to using light. We can use controlled light, as in a studio shoot, for example, or we can use natural light as provided by the sun and sometimes the moon and milky way. Sometimes it’s possible to combine the two, but basically, that’s it… controlled light and natural light, that’s all we have.
I have a good friend who is an outstanding photographer. He did some wedding photos for my wife and I at his studio here in Ho Chi Minh City. While he was setting up his lights and adjusting a massive boom light. I glanced over his bookshelf. He had rows of books all about lighting and lighting techniques. It was amazing and a little intimidating; I studied lighting when I trained as a forensic photographer almost thirty years ago, but I didn’t even understand the contents page of some of those books. Anyway, after a minute or two he was ready, positioned my wife and I and took a shot. It was fantastic! One shot and he had it in the bag. I was more than happy with it, but he insisted on taking a few dozen more. I wish it was as easy as that when I went to work.
I however, am a travel photographer, and I’m pretty much limited to natural light. It’s almost never easy. I too have a bookcase full of photography books at home, but look at my books and you would be forgiven for thinking I was a geography teacher. I have books about the solar system, about climatology, about the weather and about clouds. This is the reality of lighting if you’re a travel, landscape or almost any kind of outdoor photographer. After over twenty years of living in Vietnam I know the seasons quite well and can read the sky better than most, but that doesn’t always mean very much. If a studio light blows it can easily and quickly be replaced, but if a tropical storm hits the area where you’re working you might as well pack up and go home. Two decades of spending almost every day outdoors with my camera, however, has helped me evolve a reasonably productive workflow. What follows is a simple summary of how to get the most out of 24 hours of natural light.
Planning is the key. While no one wants to ignore the unplanned serendipitous opportunities that present themselves, planning your day is essential to maximizing your potential imaging outcomes. Nothing new here, I know. I have found it most effective to divide my time into seven distinct ‘light’ periods, each with its own photographic advantages and possibilities. The simple diagram below illustrates this.
First, obviously, I divide my day into two major periods… night and day. That’s the horizontal line across the bottom of the diagram which represents sunrise and sunset. As you can see, and I’m sure you know, this provides us with the famous ‘Blue Hours’ and ‘Golden Hours’. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. Two things to consider here. One, the direction of the light is opposite; where you will have frontal light in the morning you will have backlighting in the afternoon, or vice versa. Important for planning. Two, and this is more important, the quality of light is very different. Morning light is colder and often much clearer. By the time late afternoon arrives the land has warmed up and there’s often a kind of haze, which while inhibiting image clarity, can cause refraction and create dramatic and very warm sunsets.
So, blue light in the morning. Make sure you know what direction it’s coming from and plan the start of your day. You don’t want to be running around half-asleep in the dark looking for something to photograph. Sunrise is my favorite time to shoot. The light is cool and more yellow than the orange of the afternoon. The shadows are long and there’s often less human activity. It’s the best time for landscapes. If you’re lucky there will also be low clouds which catch the first light as the sun creeps over the horizon. This moment of lighting perfection doesn’t last long, so as far as possible try to plan your subject matter so that you don’t waste too much time travelling from one location to another.
After sunrise you have a few hours of usable light for outdoor shooting, but as the sun rises the harsher it becomes, the greater the contrast and the shorter the shadows. Generally, after the sun reaches 45 degrees in the sky the light isn’t optimal. As a rule of thumb, I follow the ‘Short Shadow’ rule as far as outdoor shooting goes. It’s really simple, and if you don’t already know it, you should make it a standard in your personal photography toolbox. It goes like this: stand with your back to the sun and if your shadow is longer than you are tall, shoot. If your shadow is shorter than you are tall, then pack it in and get yourself a well-earned cup of coffee.
The middle of the day, however, isn’t a total write off. It’s the ideal time to shoot indoors. The light is high and doesn’t stream in through doorways and windows so there is a little less contrast and fewer problems with dynamic range. It’s also a great time for portraiture. Position your subject next to a doorway or window and the softer sidelight will illuminate them beautifully. The light is usually bright and white and this help a lot with accurate skin tones. Midday is also the best time of day for one specific kind of outdoor photography. Shooting from height. If you are photographing city streets from a very tall building the streets are all well-lit and pedestrian traffic or whatever is easily visible. Likewise, if you are shooting straight down with a drone the same applies, midday is your best friend. To be honest, however, after a 04h00 wakeup and a whole morning shooting, I usually just use this time to download my SD cards and have a nap.
The afternoon is the reverse of the morning. When the shadows are long enough it’s time to grab your camera and go out shooting. Again, consider the direction of the light and plan your locations accordingly, with as little travel time between them as possible. Often the afternoon light is much more orange than in the morning and while this might be perfect for a sunset, remember to pay attention to your white balance if shooting people or buildings. In many parts of the world there is frequently an afternoon convection thunderstorm. These usually start breaking up around sunset. offering scattered clouds for the sun to illuminate. What travel companies call the ‘shoulder season’ are often the best time to travel for photography. Sometimes better even than the sunset shot, is the ‘Blue Hour’ which follows.
Of course, it doesn’t really last an hour, but that doesn’t matter. The biggest mistake most photographers make here, however, is packing up and going for dinner too early. Long after the sun has sunk below the horizon there is still great potential for incredible light. You might no longer see the sun, but it’s light is bouncing off the thermosphere above you and this can reflect all kinds of magical colours, which you can’t always see with your eye. When you use a long exposure you will sometimes be amazed with the results. One last way to make most use of the blue hour if you’re shooting a location with artificial lighting, such as a cityscape, is to use multiple exposures. Place your camera on a tripod and take a photograph of your subject bathed in the warm evening light, with the sun behind you. Wait until the street and window lights all come on and take another long exposure shot. In post blend the two (or more) images and you should have a beautiful photograph clearly showing details and illuminated windows and maybe car light trails.
Well, if you’ve read this far, thank you. A few photographs to go, and you're done. I hope that there was something helpful. Kugara zvakanaka!
Long after the sun has set its light bounces off the atmosphere and adds colour to the sky above the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The setting sun back-lights the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Low clouds catch the sunrise as locals perform their morning exercise routine on the riverfront in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Shooting in this windowless Taoist temple the high sun provides top-light to illuminate the interior.