Introduction to Light
When is the best time of the day to take photographs outdoors? What are the ideal weather conditions for outdoor photography? Why should I take photographs during blue hour or in the morning light? What can I photograph on a dull cloudy day for example? What can I photograph when it’s raining? How does the guy who drives the snowplow get to work in the morning? This series of tutorials on light and weather conditions aims to answer most of these questions and more.
Photography is all about light. To be more precise, photography is all about the quality of the light. This can be a particular challenge for outdoor/landscape photographers. A photographer photographing a model in a studio has complete control over the lighting conditions. Studio lights can be easily adjusted depending on the desired result.
This is not the case for us outdoor photographers. We regularly find ourselves at the mercy of the weather and lighting conditions on any given day. Coming from Ireland, where the weather can change by the minute, I understand this challenge only too well. I once came home from a 30 minute shoot soaking wet, freezing cold and sun-burnt!
When the light and conditions co-operate however, the results can be spectacular. It is the quality of light that can turn a photograph from decent to something special. Luck often plays a role in this of course. Sometimes, a period of beautiful light may only last a few seconds. That said, doing some research in advance and making the effort to be in a location at the right time will dramatically increase your chances of finding a quality of light that will bring your photograph up a level or two.
In this series of tutorials, I’m going to go through the different times of the day and explain what type of light we might typically expect at that time and what kind of photography produces attractive results at these times. I’ll also take a look at the types of photos that work best in various weather conditions in particular conditions that we would view as being challenging for photography.
Taking Photographs in the Morning Light
In the first tutorial in this series on light and weather, we will take a look at the different types of light that are possible in the morning time. We start with the morning blue hour and finish with the morning golden hour light. In between we will look at examples of photographs taken at dawn and sunrise.
Taking Photographs during Morning Blue Hour
We most often associate blue hour with taking photographs in the evening time but we often forget that there is a morning blue hour too! This is the period when the darkness of the night is beginning to lift and the sky takes on a deep blue colour just before the dawn. Using the word “hour” is bit of a misnomer. Blue hour can last from a few minutes to several hours. Depending on the time of year and your latitude, the morning blue hour can be anything from about half an hour to several hours before sunrise.
Blue hour is by far the best time to capture night photos, especially in cities. There is just enough ambient light to balance the city illuminations with the darkness of the sky. When the sky is black, there is often too much contrast between the black of the sky leading to exposure issues. The deep navy tones of the blue hour sky also tend to provide a more attractive background to the foreground scene. Funnily enough, most of my night time photos of of my home city of Dublin were actually taken in the morning!
The Ha’penny Bridge is one of the most recognizable landmarks in my home city. I love photographing cities during the morning blue hour. Often, it feels like I have the whole place to myself at this time. In this photo, the deep shade of blue in the sky is very apparent. See how more attractive this is than a pure black sky.
The Customs House is another well-known building in Dublin. Many people are surprised when I tell them this photo was actually taken in the morning! You can see the sky beginning to brighten in the right of the frame as the sun (although still below the horizon) begins to light up the sky.
The next photograph was taken on St. Mark’s Square in Venice during the morning blue hour. St Mark’s Square is usually packed with tourists and trinket sellers all day long. At 6 am however, during the morning blue hour, I had the place to myself. The only other people on the piazza were another photographer and a man gently sweeping the ground with an old-fashioned broom.
As my wife can confirm, I am not a morning person but it really is worth the effort to drag oneself from the cosiness of a warm bed to visit a famous location before the crowds arrive.
I tried to visit the basilica later in the day with my wife and two year-old son later on that day. It turns out toddlers don’t really like dark medieval churches all that much. He didn’t really appreciate the Byzantine art and Venetian architecture as much as I’d hoped. I don’t think such screams had been heard in Venice since Napoleon attacked the area over 200 years ago. He much preferred chasing pigeons on St. Mark’s Square (my son, not Napoleon).
The final morning blue hour photograph in this series was taken on an autumn morning at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Thankfully the illuminations were still lighting up this impressive monument at this time. This is not always the case in the morning. I was actually very lucky to get this shot. I had to wait about fifteen minutes for an airport bus that was blocking this view to move out of the way. Being patient is a very important part of successful photography.
The Arc de Triomphe was of course commissioned by our pigeon chasing friend Napoleon to celebrate his many military victories. He never got to see his vision completed however as the arch was not completed until 1836, fifteen years after his death. There was actually a plan (before Napoleon came along) to erect a giant elephant in this spot. How different my photograph might have been.
Taking Photographs in the Early Morning Light – Dawn and Sunrise
Dawn is a great time for natural landscapes. The morning light in the period just before sunrise is one of my favourite to take photos in. Often at this time, the light has a slightly more subtle almost pastel feel than the time just after sunset for example. As the day gradually moves from blue hour to dawn, the lighting conditions begin to change dramatically.
This photo was taken near my former university town of Maynooth in County Kildare. As the sunrise approaches, the sky often contains some really beautiful colours. You can see the soft orange glow of the soon to rise sun merge with the soft pink tones of the dawn sky. The ever brightening sky also allowed me to capture a silhouette of the tree on the river bank. Dawn is an excellent time for photographing silhouettes.
This photo of the Ha’penny Bridge was taken about twenty minutes later than the morning blue hour example in the morning blue hour tutorial. It was taken from the other side of the bridge this time. Although the sun is still just below the horizon in this shot, its light has illuminated the clouds above in an attractive pink hue. A little bit of scattered cloud at this time is often preferable as the light from the sun bounces off the underside of these leading to some beautiful colours.
What a difference twenty minutes makes! As I said in the introduction to this section, interesting light may only last a few minutes or even seconds in some cases. This scene will look completely different later with the harsher light of the midday sun….. or under heavy rain as it’s in Ireland! It really is worth it to get up early to capture a scene in such interesting and attractive light.
As with St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the area I took this photo from is usually crowded with hordes of tourists. At 6 am however, I had the place to myself with the exception of a very drunk Parisian who would randomly wander into the frame every so often. Again, you can see how capturing silhouettes against the colourful sky is often an option when taking photographs at dawn. As I was leaving, my drunken friend was chatting up one of the golden statues. I hope he was successful. I was certainly rooting for him.
Earlier, I featured a photograph the Arc de Triomphe taken during the morning blue hour. The photograph above was taken from a very similar angle about 30 minutes after the blue hour one when the soft dawn light had taken over the scene. Again, I was very lucky to get this shot at all. The illuminations on the monument switched off only a few seconds after I took this photo.
Shooting directly towards the area where then sun will soon rise can produce dramatic results. In this photo of the Dublin Docklands, I have pointed the camera towards the mouth of the River Liffey to the east. You can see the orange glow of the sun on the horizon which contrasts really beautifully with the purple hues in the early morning sky. Think back to the section on colour combinations tutorial in the composition section. These are two colours that can be very striking when featured together.
Taking a photograph just at the moment the sun is about to emerge from below the horizon can produce stunning results if the conditions are just right. The first direct morning light from the sun is fleeting though. In the photograph above, this light lasted only a few seconds. I was also lucky that the windless conditions created beautiful reflections.
Taking Photographs during the Morning Golden Hour
Most novice photographers know about the virtues of shooting at golden hour and with good reason too. The morning light at this time can help produce stunning results. The golden hour refers to the period just after the sun rises or just before it sets. In this tutorial we are going to focus on the photographic possibilities during the morning golden hour.
I’m sure you’ve noticed how the light of the early morning sunrise and its evening sunset counterpart often bathe buildings or a landscape scene in a beautiful golden glow. This golden warm tone is due to the fact that the sun is lower in the sky in the morning and evening. This means its light passes through more of the atmosphere which scatters the bluer cooler light in the colour spectrum. This leaves us with the warmer red, orange, and yellow tones.
I took this photo from behind Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris just after sunrise. Notice how the early morning sun bathes the whole scene in a wonderful golden light. As the day goes on and the sun climbs higher, the light loses this warm toned quality and becomes harsher and cooler.
In the tutorial on colour temperature and white balance, we saw a comparison of the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral taken during the day time and during golden hour. The difference in the tones and overall feel of the photograph was very striking. In that tutorial, we saw how different light sources can affect the white balance and colour tones in a scene. We learnt that often it is desirable to keep these tones (especially warm tones) rather than trying to correct them.
Autumn/Fall is a particularly good time for golden hour landscape photography. The golden light really makes the already warm tones in the scene really pop. Look at the light on side of the boathouse. This shot was taken a few seconds after the sun had risen when the light was at its absolute warmest.
This photo was taken at the same location as the last one. The warm early morning light is really evident on the bridge. I was very lucky that morning as one of the local swans would obligingly drift into frame now and then. I named him Henry. He was very tasty.
The final morning golden hour photos in this series all come from Dublin. In the photo above, the buildings along Grand Canal Dock are bathed in the golden glow of the early morning light.
The next two photos were taken on the same morning a few minutes later at the nearby Samuel Beckett Bridge. In both images, the golden light on the buildings is combined with some beautiful colours in the sky created by the warm toned light from the low sun bouncing off the underside of the clouds.
In the next tutorial, we will look at taking photographs in one of the most challenging types of light: harsh daytime sunlight.
Improve your Photography Skills
The full collection of my photography tutorials covering exposure, camera settings, composition and light can be found in my Kindle e-book: Outdoor Photography Essentials. This e-book can be read on most Kindles or any tablet or smart phone with the Kindle app installed (€7.06 / $7.00 / £6.34).