Time, Light and Place
When you’re starting out with photography, or setting about developing your eye and your skills, you’ll hear a lot about choosing the best time of day for the nicest light. The golden hour is the most gorgeous time, people will tell you; the blue hour lends an air of mystery, the midday sun is harsh and best avoided.
Maybe so, and maybe not – but either way, it’s not always you have the luxury of time to play with. Sometimes you’ll be alone, and free, and able to plan your shots around the light. But often, for most people, that’s unrealistic. It’s creatively limiting too.
Most people are not professional photographers, or otherwise granted the luxury of visiting beauty spots at solitary hours, streets at decisive moments, monuments when the light is evocative. You might be passing through, pressed for time, with less patient family or friends who don’t want to wait for an hour in two inches of icy water for that dawn light on the beach to be just so.
If you like photographing places, sometimes you’ll have the time to plan and wait, and sometimes you need to know how to make the most of what the scene is offering you right here, right now.
So I’ve had a trawl through my hard drive, and fished out some of my images to help you with some tips for dealing with the daylight, or lack of it, as it is. They’re not meant to be great photographs – they’re achievable for anyone with a camera that can be set to manual. So here, I give you twenty-four hours in the life of a digital camera.
Dawn is actually quite difficult. First, you’ve got to get up and out in time. Ideally – despite what I’ve just said I’m afraid – you want to be in position a good 30-45 minutes before the official sunrise. Get your composition right – light is unpredictable and it’s rare that the sky colours alone are going to be enough to make a compelling image. Set up your shot, and wait – as dawn arrives, you’ll find the light changing by the second, so keep on shooting because each frame will look different.
This is Budleigh Salterton, in Somerset, with the River Otter flowing into the English Channel, headland in the background. Ok, so I didn’t snap this one on the hoof; in fact, I drove for three and a half hours to be there in time to shoot this on a special day for a special anniversary. Notice I don’t have the sun actually in the shot – this one is about the distinctive scenery with the pink and orange dawn colours lighting up the clouds. It was 6.45 am, late October, and, if you want to know, these are the settings I used: 17mm focal length, f/11, 2.5 sec at ISO 100. I use a tripod for shots like this because nobody can hold a camera still for that long without camera shake.
(Useful rule of thumb- if your focal length is 100mm, use a tripod for shutter speeds longer than 1/100 sec; at 50mm, then it’s 1/50 sec; at 200mm, then 1/200etc. You get the idea.)
This one is Greenan Castle in Ayrshire. I visited this place in March on a photography tour with Light and Land, and to be honest I have never been so cold in all my life, although technically I have been in much colder places. So my top tip for this sort of thing is to wear at least twice the number of layers you think necessary. Again, arrive in good time, but don’t drift off or you will miss the spectacular cloud/sun action.
The trouble with this sort of shot is the massive dynamic range you’ve got going on. The foreground is so dark you can hardly see any detail, and yet the emerging sunshine is so bright it blows your highlights completely. Getting the level of detail you want in both the highlights and the shadows is nigh on impossible. One option is to shoot HDR, or to shoot several different exposures and combine them in post-production. I’m not particularly keen on that technique – and your other problem is that the light can change so fast that combining your images won’t always be seamless. So what I did here was to expose for the highlights – I set the camera for the sunbeams. This meant that the shadows really were dark, with no detail whatsoever, so I had to recover those details in post-production later on. Be careful not to overdo it though, as it can look fake. I prefer to have the foreground not much brighter than a silhouette.
Sometimes, you don’t get any dawn colour at all. But that’s ok. You can go simple and monochrome. This is one of my favourite dawn shots and what I love about it is the minimalism. As we stood there on the beach, a big bank of cloud drifted between the island and the mountains behind. It’s atmospheric – gloomy, if you like, but for me it captures something quite special.
Again, this was quite a long exposure, about 15 seconds. F/11. ISO 100. 28mm focal length. Tripod, of course.
So, as the day wears on and the sun gets a bit stronger, what then? Well, one option, if you’re close to home, is to work out what time of day the local landmarks look great. This is Five Arch Bridge at Virginia Water, and I know from morning runs that it looks super in early autumn at about 9am from a particular spot on the path. I happened to know that when the sun hits the bridge, the stone seems to glow. Waited for a clear, still day – and here we are. You can see I’ve gone for quite a lot of depth of field, because I wanted everything in focus, and a long-ish exposure to smooth the water and bring out the reflections.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen…
It’s really difficult shooting in the midday sun. The sun’s bright and the shadows are harsh; the contrast is so great and the images are often unsatisfying. It’s hard to shoot both people and places in these conditions, and you’ll often hear advice not to do it at all. But sometimes, needs must; indeed, sometimes, it gives you something other times of day just can’t. Every time of day has something special about it. You just have to make the most of what it offers.
To be honest, I do prefer not to shoot in the brightest hours. If I do it, I tend to go for bold shapes and patterns and geometry. It’s worth trying to work the contrast into your composition. Sometimes I look for details instead of trying to capture expanses. Here I’m looking up at the roof of the Pavilion at Virginia Water Lake.
And the roof of the nearby Savill Building:
Somehow, blues and yellows can work really well at this time of day. This one below is the side of a cafe at Coney Island boardwalk. Less exciting perhaps than the rides and roller coasters, but I rather like this sort of thing.
And continuing with the blue and yellow theme, a Soho street in London.
With a sky so low…
Of course, you won’t always get bright sunshine in the middle of the day, especially here in northern Europe. So what then – what if the light is really flat and dull? (See also my blog post “A Certain Slant of Light.“)
Some people I know put the camera away until there’s something they find more interesting. Others pretend it isn’t as gloomy as all that and fake a bit of cheer. But why not just go for it, exaggerate it, capture what you see and feel?
I quite like the fog and the murk, because images in the gloom seem to pose more questions than they answer. They suggest a story, but they don’t tell it. The light might be a bit flat, but it’s soft, muted, quiet. Interpret these how you will, but for me there’s a hint of mystery, uncertainty, something slightly unsettling.
This one speaks to me, because that kiosk is always, always shut; and yet every time I run past I vainly hope that this time, for once, I might be able to get a coffee. It’s desolate, and the image wouldn’t work for me if it were bright and sunny.
Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon
I love afternoon shadows, drawn out, langorous, warm – and yet still somehow enigmatic. Compose for the shadows, look at the depth the light gives your image, think about the stories it all suggests.
I prefer midday shadows and shapes to be simple and geometric. I like this for afternoons too, but I think you can also get away with busier images when the light is softer. Compare and contrast:
In the first image, I’m going for big sharp shapes, with softer shadows. I’ll have set it at about f/11 and a pretty fast shutter speed. However, the monochrome tree shadows in the second image have barely any sharpness at all – everything is more mysterious and evocative. I set the aperture wide for a shallow depth of field, with a fast shutter speed and a low ISO to prevent too much light from hitting the sensor, because I wanted to make this image slightly dark and eerie, despite the bright afternoon light.
The Golden Hour
You may have heard of this one. It’s the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, where the light is warm and soft and golden, and is a favourite time of day for photography. If you’re interested in the science behind the quality of that light, have a look at this wikipedia page.
The shadows are long; images have warmth and depth; the light is gentle.
For the photographer, sunset provides similar challenges to sunrise, with the added difficulty that there are more people around getting in your shot because it’s not so early. There’s a local beauty spot where people gather on fine evenings to watch the sun go down over the lake, and to photograph the changing evening light. It is, honestly, absolutely beautiful, but I’ve never really made a picture there that I’m happy with. It looks stunning to the eye, but as a two-dimensional image, it is, well, a bit ordinary.
On this day there were at least a dozen people there snapping away. I wonder whether they were happier with their phone shots than I was with this one. I do like the colours, and I like the stillness of the water and the reflections of the reeds. I even like the vapour trails because they make me wonder about the journeys of all the passengers whose paths coincide in the air for a few hours in a lifetime. But I don’t really know what this image is doing. Sometimes, I think, you have to put the camera down and just watch.
The image below doesn’t have such warm colours, but I much prefer the composition. And the sunburst is fun, even if it is perhaps a little cheesy.
Technically, you have the same issues here as with the sunrise images above. The high dynamic range is really hard to manage. You’ll need to expose for the sun, because otherwise it’ll be blown and there will be no detail in it at all – and if you try to print it you might end up with no ink on the paper just there and that’s probably not what you want. So hold your nerve, and if you have a decent sensor and you shoot in RAW you’ll be able to recover some shadow detail later. If not, go for the silhouette. Or try HDR if that’s your thing. To get the sunburst effect, you’ll find you’ve only got a couple of minutes when it’s visible, and you’ll need to stop down to about f/22 to get those crepuscular rays with any clarity. Be prepared to be constantly adjusting your settings. Having waited around patiently for an hour while not much is going on, you’ll suddenly find it’s frantic.
And just sometimes, you can be lucky enough to arrive just in time for something like this:
I prefer this to the earlier image of the lake, because I like the solidity and darkness of that cliff, the permanence of it, I like the smoothness of the water, and the way the sunburst sits right in that little dip in the rock face.
Goodnight and Good Luck
I ought really to be telling you not to think about flash-free night shots without a tripod. Ideally you’d have a lovely long exposure to let in all the light you can find. And yet, I didn’t use a tripod for any of these shots – they’re all snaps from family holidays or trips.
Twilight mystery is great, but night time’s even odder. The image above was shot on board ship, on a summer’s night out at sea. I like the fact that you can’t make out very much detail, I like the very deep blue of the night sky, and I like the loneliness of the light I’m looking up at. It’s a bit like a lighthouse – only the lights are on, so if you’re inside, you can’t see out. You’re alone on a wide wide sea and you’ve no idea what’s outside your window.
As for technical details, the aperture was as wide as possible, the shutter speed as slow as I dared hand hold, and the ISO was something crazy like 12,800.
And I’ll leave you with another snap, a summer night in Kyoto. For me there’s mystery here too. See the way that artificial lights make pockets and puddles of illumination, but never quite show you anything in detail. Again, this was hand held, snapped in motion as I walked along the street with my family. This time I’ll have used a narrower aperture for the extra depth of field, and jacked the ISO up again to some very silly number.
Bear in mind that colours at night can be a little off because artificial lights give different colour casts. You can deal with this by changing your White Balance to the appropriate setting, or by shooting in RAW, keeping the White Balance on automatic and making any adjustments later.
See also this article on the Blue Hour – that period of twilight just before sunrise and just after sunset. Again, the light is soft, and there are no harsh contrasts to deal with; added to that you have a sense mystery which you can render as excitement or unease, as you choose.
The lesson? Ignore the folk who tell you when you should and shouldn’t shoot. Time on location is a luxury not everyone has. Instead, get to know your camera, and what it can do, and use it in different ways at different times of day.
If you’re interested learning more about how to make the most of your digital camera, I offer group workshops and one-to-one tuition. If you don’t have a camera, you can borrow one for the day. Click here for details.