“Noon” – a four letter word to a landscape photographer. There is nothing more important to the quality of our landscape images than the quality of light entering the front element of the lens and ultimately onto the sensor or film. There are two distinct times of day when the light of the world is at its best; sunrise and sunset. These two times are known as the Magic Hours and each is split into two halves. The Blue Hour and the Golden Hour. Blue Hour occurs in the period between the end of true darkness and the first light of day falling on the earth around us. Golden Hour is the time after those first beams of light streak through the sky up until, well, the good light is gone and ‘day light’ reigns. The opposite sequence happens at the end of the day, with Golden Hour fading into Blue Hour as the sun slides below the horizon and night gains hold of the heavens once again.
So what is so special about these times of day? Why are they magic? Obviously the quality of light is the first reason. Softer, longer shadows draw across the landscape adding to a feeling of depth to the land. The light reflecting on dust an other elements in the air can also fade out the distant horizons, bringing yet more feeling of depth. In all the overall contrast of the world starts to fade, allowing our cameras to capture more of the entire dynamic range in a single shot, reducing the need for bracketing and other techniques.
But it’s more than that really. It’s the dawn of a new day, a promise of a new beginning, the stillness that is those early hours. It’s the end of the day, a moment to pause and look back at all that they day was and a hope for another. It’s a time, for me, that allows me to look more deeply at the world. To see beyond what I once knew of a place, and see it in finer detail, to experience it on another level that lets me connect to it. It is one thing to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon in the middle of the day, with the bustle of hundreds of other tourists moving all about. It is quite another to arrive at the overlook before dawn, on a day so cold that your breath fogs the moment you step out of the car and you use your tripod to steady your way across a frozen parking area. To wait, freezing, scanning the horizon for the first signs of the day’s light. That is the real magic in the magic hours, a time when the world is so beautiful you don’t care how early you got up, how cold it is, how late you were out the night before watching the stars appear one by one overhead. That is what great landscape photography aims to capture.
Arrive Early for evening Golden Hour
Now that I’ve got you sold on being insane enough on getting up early and staying out late, most likely out in the middle of nowhere, how do you make the most of this light? Let’s start in the evening, the easier in my opinion of the two Magic Hours to work with. The first thing to do is arrive at your intended shooting location early. If sunset is at 7pm sharp, you don’t want to be swearing to yourself in the car at 6:30 still in route when the sky is already picking up color. Depending on the time of the year, the sky, and surrounding landscape, the good light can start as much as 90 minutes or more before the official sunset. While apps like PhotoPills will tell you when ‘Golden Hour’ and ‘Blue Hour’ begin and end, I’ve found that few sunsets consult such information before hand. There can be quality golden light before the minute specified, or you may have to wait for things to develop a tad longer. Consider these to be a guideline only for planning how early to depart base camp. If sunset light is my aim, I want to be on location at least a half hour before I expect the light to be good. This gives me time to find the composition(s) I want to shoot, see if there are any unexpected challenges to overcome, and if I realize my initial plan isn’t going to pan out it gives me some time to adjust and adapt. I don’t want to be stressed and in a rush, few things do that more than stepping out of the car with the best light already starting to fade.
Visualizing sunset light can be difficult when the sun is still fairly high in the sky when you first get to your intended location. Determining where exactly on the horizon the sun will fall is another consideration.
The Photographer’s Ephemeris is my preferred tool, both during planning prior to the trip and while on location with its mobile app, for figuring out if I’m in an ideal location to catch the sun where I want it to be. I also use PhotoPills on my phone for it’s set of visualization tools, and I’m always referring to is widget that I have on one of my phone’s home screens for exact timing of sunrise and set as well as other important information. Beyond using these tools, it really just takes experience and research of other shots from your chosen, or similar, locations to get a feel for how the light is going to develop on any given night. Even with all the experience and planning in the world, the natural world will surprise you more often than not. Thankfully, most of the time, that surprise is a pleasant one, especially if I don’t allow myself to either become too flustered and frustrated that it isn’t working exactly to plan, or becoming so stuck with one idea in my head that I’m not willing to make the changes in settings or gear necessary to shoot the scene as it develops. Swapping from an ultra-wide angle lens to a tighter short-telephoto if the wind isn’t working for a reflection shot or if the clouds don’t span the sky as much as necessary should always be ‘in the back pocket’.
Know the topography that you’re going to be shooting in, and your shooting location in relation to other significant elevation changes around you.
Mountains in the direction of the sunset will drastically change when the valley below loses its direct sunlight, and when the sun drops below the ridge completely, compared let’s say to shooting on the Pacific coast where the only thing between you and the horizon is the swells of the sea. The best light in the world doesn’t do a lot of good when it’s on the far side of a mountain range an you’re sitting at the bottom of a valley with shade all around. Likewise realize that when the sun is no longer visible to you doesn’t mean the show is over. On my first out of state photography trip to Yellowstone National Park I missed out on an amazing sunset because I called it a day too early, only to see the sky lit up in the rear view mirror, in an area of the park where there was no options to pull over at all.
Reading the skies
The type of clouds, the height of the clouds also will affect how soon, or how late, color will be in those clouds or how much good golden light will be falling across the foreground landscape. Thin high clouds are better than lower blankets of clouds that often choke out the light before its time. In the photo above from Monument Valley there were enough clouds for good light to start early and lasted right to sunset, but never really got spectacular color. Websites such as sunsetwx.com and apps such as Skyfire or The Photographer’s Ephemeris all attempt to predict sunset quality, but don’t necessarily know the look, feel, or exact conditions you’ll be shooting. I refer to, but don’t rely on these tools for planning when and how to shoot. They can not predict when or exactly where the backside of a storm front will clear, sending rays of deep gold across the land, nor if the few clouds in the sky just happen to be sitting right on top of the mountains you planned to shoot.
In the Southwest, the light can get ‘good’ very early on in the evening. During trips to Arizona, California, West Texas and New Mexico, I’ve seen the skies can change rapidly. What was perfectly clear skies 30 minutes before sunrise becomes moody storms by the time the sun hits the horizon. What was flat uninteresting sunsets in Death Valley can often bring high clouds shortly after sunset. Topography of these regions often dictate what the skies will do, and thus what the light will do.
Shooting the Golden Hour
In the evening hours, golden light usually starts closest to the setting sun itself with hues of yellows and golds. With the sun still fairly high in the sky, this is going to still be a very high-contrast situation if shooting directly into the sun, especially if there are few or only thin high level clouds to diffuse the light. With shadows growing long, but still decent amounts of light reaching the ground, now is actually a good time to look for side-lit views until the sun starts getting lower on the horizon and the colors start to take on deeper colors. Otherwise, you’ll likely need to bracket heavily to pick up details in both the shadows and the region of the sky nearest the sun. Depending on the type of clouds in the sky, blending these types of heavily bracketed shots is a challenge to make appear natural. The thicker the clouds are the better they are at diffusing light, though too heavy of cloud cover will obscure the light completely, leaving your only hope that the sun beams through for a brief moment when the sun hits the horizon.
I tend to start with wider angle shots earlier on in the golden hour, and then progressively move to slightly longer focal lengths as the sunset colors progress. The ultra-wide lenses such as a Rokinon 14mm, or the even wider 12-24mm or 11-24mm’s that are on the market today do a great job at minimizing the blown out regions right around the sun early in the evening. Likewise, a 70-200 can produce some spectacular shots of the sun just moments before it hits the horizon, especially if the skies have emptied of color everywhere other than right around the sun itself. As with any time of day, even in these evening hours, it’s not advisable to look directly into the sun with any DSLR camera, I avoid it even when shooting at a very wide focal length, or the sun is well diffused. While it is true that the same ultra-strong light is now hitting your camera’s sensor if you use the live-view features instead, a camera sensor is not as sensitive as your eye, and in the long run far cheaper to replace if damage should occur. Telephoto lenses amplify these problems, so be even more cautious when shooting with a 70-200 or longer lens.
Shooting the Blue Hour
When the light of day finally fades away, but night has not yet fully claimed the day, that is the time known as the Blue Hour. The sky, and the rest of the world around you, takes on ever deepening hues of blues with only hints of warm hues left along the horizon. If the sunset itself wasn’t so spectacular, especially if the skies were a bit too clear for good drama and interest in the sky, then Blue Hour may be your savior. The best shots I have from the blue hours were all from nights that ended up being fantastic for astrophotography. Either shots that were taken as I was getting on location and starting to scout for foregrounds for later Milky Way shots, photos taken at the end of a night of night photography, or shots I had considered for composite of night shots taken later. The tricky part of shooting during blue hour is how fast the light changes. You’ll find yourself adjusting your exposure very frequently as the light either waxes or wanes on the horizon. This makes getting the ideal exposure difficult, especially when also trying to add foreground artificial lighting to get additional focus on something up close. Trying to balance all the changing elements can be a challenge, especially in the morning when you’re likely a tad sleep deprived.
If you have clear skies, at the very beginning of Blue Hour (in the evening, or at the very end during the morning hours) you can also capture a phenomenon known as the Belt of Venus. It can be found on the opposite horizon as the setting (or rising) sun. Right on the horizon will be a deep blue band that fades into a pastel pinks and rose or almost orange hues before transitioning into the lighter blues of the sky itself. The darker blue on the horizon is caused by the earth’s own shadow being cast against the atmosphere. I’ve always found the Belt of Venus difficult to work with in post processing, the soft light and pastel tones often can get over saturated if one does not have a gentle hand, but get it right and it can produce an amazing backdrop for your landscapes.