In essential travel photography tips: Part I we focused on some of the basic compositional rules you can apply to your photography right away regardless if you have a smart phone or DSLR. In Part II we will focus on understanding when is the best time of day to create the maximum impact in your photos.
Knowing the best time of day to capture images is one of the biggest lessons you need to learn in photography. So if you want to make the best photo possible you need to make sure you capture them in the best possible light.
Most people when they start out in photography are not aware just how much of an important factor light plays in creating a great image and that making sure you understand even the basics will produce a marked improvement in your photos. Always remember that your camera is not taking a picture of the scene in front of you but capturing the quality of direct light (from the sun) and indirect or re-flexed light. That’s why I firmly believe it doesn’t matter what gear you have in your hand, whether it’s a point and shoot or medium format camera. If you know how to read, manipulate and predict light you will be able to capture great images. The best part is that both the information and the sun are completely free so this is one of the rare opportunities to improve your photos without having to break the bank, but might mean setting your alarm clock as we’ll see later.
The most common source of light is obviously the sun and its patterns can be predicted to a certain degree. The sun will be your main light source in 99% of your images, unless you’re doing night or studio photography. The light from the sun can vary greatly in intensity, direction and duration depending on the time of day, weather and your location. So it is important to know what combination of these factors will give you the best lighting for your image.
A typical day can be split into different phases when the sun is in different positions and at different intensities, all of which have their own unique qualities and limitations.
First, the Golden hour
The “golden hour” or “magic hour” is the time just before and after, sunrise and sunset. You will hear this mentioned over and over again the more you read photography articles or watch tutorials, and there are very good reasons for this. The golden hour is when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky; this means the light has to travel through more of the atmosphere than at mid-day and therefore its intensity is reduced. This reduction in light intensity leads to less harsh shadows being cast on your landscape or subject and creating a “softer” quality of light.
Warning: there is some science coming! Also due to the light having to pass through more of the atmosphere it scatters the shorter wavelengths of light (violent and blues) leaving the longer wavelengths (yellow, orange and red) which give the sky its characteristic warm colours during sunrise and sunset. This is a very important tip to remember because when there are clouds in the sky during the golden hour you will see that they take on a range of different colours. That’s because the light has to travel through the clouds as well as the atmosphere scattering the light even more, creating a much wider range of colours than on a completely clear evening.
This is demonstrated in the image below where you can see that the sun has just come over the horizon on the left of the image and with the clouds in the sky this causes a range of colours from red and yellows to violets and blues.
Bonus tip: Sunrise owns sunset. Sorry folks, this means that if you want the best possible light (in my opinion) you need to be setting your alarm for 4-5am, strapping on a head torch and marching out to that viewpoint in the dark. This can be a bit scary sometimes so make sure you’re comfortable with where you’re going and you have walked the paths in the day time. The up side to this is that all tourists will be happily tucked up in bed so this will be your best chance to get the cleanest photograph. Just pack some strong coffee, some snacks and plenty of clothes as it can get pretty cold.
This phase is the final transition between sunrise/sunset and full night-time, meaning there is no direct sun light reaching you or your camera but only the indirect sun light reflected off the sky, hence giving it a blue hue. This can give a great contrast between the blue sky and the yellow street lights, so you tend to see a lot of cityscapes or urban photos taken at this time.
This was what I did with the image on Lombard Street in San Francisco below and you can see that the street lights really pop against the blue sky. This is emphasised by using the simple trick of decreasing the size of your aperture (f/11 and above is a good place to start) as this will give you the star burst effect you can see on the street lights.
Middle of the day
Once the sun is up and at its highest point this is when the sun is at its most intense and the highest amount of direct sun light is hitting the earth. This high intensity results in hard shadows being cast and generally is seen to giving a less appealing image.
As a general rule this is the time of day that will not produce the best quality light but that doesn’t mean you should put your camera away. It is a great time to check out new locations and predict where the sun will rise and set to see if you need to come back in a few hours for the golden hour. Also a quick tip to minimise the harsh shadows during the day is to use clouds to block out the sun by acting as a giant soft box. This is what I did during our helicopter flight through the Grand Canyon, I couldn’t avoid shooting at 1pm (as this was when our flight was booked) but I was lucky to get a cloudy day so this softened the light and allowed some great shots.
CAUTION: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY INTO THE SUN EVEN WITH SUN GLASSES, this can cause damage to your eyes. Rather look at what direction the clouds are travelling and try to predict when a large cloud is going to block out the sun or use other physical features (building, trees etc) to block out the sun.
Night time is one of my favourite times to shoot as it is one of the biggest challenges as a photographer and still an area I have not fully mastered. With night photography you will 100% need a tripod, it will be almost impossible to get a clean image without one. This is because your camera will need a much longer shutter speed, meaning your images will be highly susceptible any motion blur and camera shake.
You can use this to your advantage though, as you can paint with all different types of light such as car headlights, moonlight reflecting off rivers or stars moving light years away. The possibilities are endless!
I created the image of Half Dome in Yosemite by setting up my camera on a tripod to take a series of exposures over a one hour period. As the camera didn’t move relative to the mountains or tress they are still shown like a regular image but as the earth is still rotating you are able to capture this through the movement of the stars.
This technique can give you some amazing images (with a little practice) and allow you as a photographer to explore your creative side by creating something which can’t easily be seen with the naked eye.
Always make sure you take the appropriate precautions when doing night photography, don’t go into areas where you’re not comfortable or feel unsafe. Also remember to bring a head torch or flashlight, wear the right clothes to keep warm and remember to have fun!