Lesson 16: Outdoor Light

Since there are many circumstances to think about when it comes to light, for today’s lesson, we’re going to limit our discussion to taking landscape photos outdoors.  We’ll periodically revisit lighting issues in future lessons.

If you’re taking photos while you’re on a trip or visiting with friends, it can be very difficult to be selective about what time of day you’re taking pictures.  However, if you are sitting down to talk about what you’re going to do in a given day, you might think about timing a visit to a scenic overlook early or late in the day around the sun.

You may have heard someone mention the “golden hour” or the “magic hour” from time to time.  This refers to approximately the first and last hour of light in any given day.  During this hour, light takes on a golden hue due to the angle of the sun and can make for some really spectacular landscape lighting.

Because the golden hour varies from day to day and place to place, you may find the golden hour calculator useful.  It will show you the start and end time of the “golden hour” at the beginning and end of each day for your location.  You’ll notice that the “golden hour” isn’t necessarily a full hour.

Another thing to be aware of is that even if the light is no longer golden, you can still get better lighting earlier or later in the day just because the shadows are less harsh.  If getting out and about super early in the summer for the golden hour isn’t feasible, generally you will still get better photos at say 9:00AM than at noon.

As a rule of thumb, when you’re planning activities that you know will inspire you to take lots of outdoor landscapes, try to plan them before 10AM or after 7PM in the summer.  For now, if you’re going to be photographing outdoor landscapes in the middle of the day, you might want to refer back to the lesson on using the Pro HDR app.

In the gallery for today’s lesson, you’ll find several photos of the same scene at different times of day to demonstrate the difference in lighting.  Unfortunately, another reason why it might not be worth getting out of bed on a Sunday for the golden hour is the weather may prevent it from happening.  Additionally, I apparently can’t see first thing in the morning because I failed to realize my early morning photo was blurred!

When you look at the gallery, notice the difference that the bright sunshine vs when the sun was behind a cloud makes.  Overcast skies create flat, even light, which people tend to find less interesting in landscapes, but it works well for other scenarios we’ll cover later.  Also notice that because of the trees on the East side of the pedestrian bridge in the foreground, the evening light is far better than the morning light.

Jumping back to the weather–check the forecast.  My husband recently planned some sight seeing for visiting family.  He took them to the aquarium on the first day when it was a beautiful, clear, cool summer day and then took them to walk in a scenic park the next day when it was cloudy, hot, humid, and bursting into thunderstorms.  Checking the weather before you decide when to do indoor vs outdoor activities will make for a better experience in general, not to mention what it does for your photos.

Your Assignment:  Try looking up the golden hour for a day when you can make time either early or in the evening to take photos.  Check the weather forecast and finalize a date to put on your calendar.

Choose a place you would like to take photos.  This is a really great assignment for that cool neighborhood a few miles from home you’ve always wanted to take pictures of but keep forgetting.  Or how about heading to whatever counts for downtown in your neighborhood?  A neighborhood park will also work.

You don’t have to have an overlook to notice the difference the light will make.  If you have enough patience and time, take a picture of the same scene every 10 minutes from the start of the golden hour until an hour after it’s over (yeah, I know, that might be asking a lot).  Hopefully there’s a comfortable place to hang out.  🙂  Without doing any adjustments to your photos, compare how the lighting in the scene changes as the sun moves higher in the sky.