Those of you that have already read some of my other articles may be aware of what I consider the most important rule of photography: all great photography is about communicating an emotion. Taking it one step further, one of the most important aspects of being able to communicate emotion through a photograph is the proper use of light. While there are, certainly, many other aspects of great photography, if the light is wrong, nothing else will work!
The first question then becomes, "What is the best light?" That depends entirely on what emotion the photographer is trying to produce. A photographer that wishes to communicate the delicacy of a fragile flower will choose a different light than one that wants to communicate the devastation of a battlefield.
That being said, a large number of images are taken in the outdoors where the photographer wants to communicate the beauty of the natural environment or the animals within it. In this case, the best light is often a soft, warm, directional light that creates saturated colors and soft highlights and shadows. You might be thinking that it would be nice if you knew when you could expect such a light. Then, you could anticipate the light and get in position ahead of time to take advantage of it. Actually, there is a time when such light occurs -- this time is known as the magic hour. Best of all, baring weather issues, it happens twice a day. The purpose of this article is to explore the magic hour. If you have not done so already, I strongly suggest that you read the article The Nature of Light as the information in it is a prerequisite for fully understanding the information in this article.
Photographers often talk about the magic hour. However, there are actually two magic hours, and each of the magic hours has its own type of light. This article will cover both magic hours.
Magic hour #1 is really two, approximately, half hour periods. The first period is the half hour after the sun rises above the horizon in the morning. The second period is the half hour before the sun sinks below the horizon in the late afternoon. During these periods, the light that is generally produced is a beautiful light that is a favorite of landscape and nature photographers. Let us take a look at this light and why it is so often sought out by photographers.
As covered in the Nature of Light article, from a photographic point of view, light can be characterized by its color, quality, and direction. Thus, the magic hour #1 light can be evaluated from this perspective. In short, the magic hour light is as follows:
Color: The light is warm and has a lower content of white light mixed in than during the day. This results in objects with warm, saturated colors.
Quality: The light is soft and produces pleasant shadows and gentle tonal transitions.
Direction: The light is directional (often used as side or back lighting) which emphasizes texture and shape.
Thus, the magic hour #1 light creates colorful, saturated images with gentle tonal transitions and detailed textures or shapes -- just what most photographers want in their nature or landscape images.
Figure 1 shows an image that uses the magic hour #1 light to enhance the scene. As can be seen in the image, the natural red color of the rock has been enhanced on the spires by the warm light. In addition, the soft quality of the light has created gentle shadows that hold detail. This can especially be seen on the base of the rock, which has fallen into shadow.
One might wonder why the magic hour #1 light has these qualities that make it special. The answer resides in the low angle of the sun to the horizon and in the atmosphere.
A comparison of midday light to magic hour #1 light will help clarify the issue. Figure 2 shows the relative position of the sun and earth during midday. For illustrative purposes, the atmosphere has been divided into two parts: the upper and lower atmospheres. The upper atmosphere has fewer air molecules than in the lower atmosphere. This is why people who live at lower elevations tire easily and get altitude sickness at higher elevations. It is also the reason that military pilots wear oxygen masks when flying at very high elevations.
The lower altitude has a much denser air with more air molecules. The air molecules in the lower atmosphere are key to understanding the difference between midday light and magic hour #1 light. These lower atmosphere air molecules scatter the cool, blue rays in light much more than they scatter the warmer rays. The air molecules in the upper atmosphere also scatter blue rays, but there are far fewer air molecules at those higher elevations, so much less scattering occurs.
As seen in Figure 2, during the midday, the sun takes a fairly short, direct route through the atmosphere. This shortens the amount of distance that the light must travel through the lower atmosphere.
This extra travel through the lower atmosphere also explains the quality of the magic hour #1 light. Those lower atmosphere air molecules serve to diffuse the light. This creates a softer light than that at midday.
The only aspect of the magic hour #1 light that can not be attributed to the lower atmosphere is the directional nature of the light. Instead, this is due to the low angle of the sun with respect to the horizon. Since the sun is low on the horizon, it tends to glance across the surface of the earth. This low angle light creates shadows that tend to emphasize texture and shapes.
The first magic hour is fairly well known in photography. What I call magic hour #2 is probably not as well recognized by photographers. Magic Hour #2 is also composed of two, approximately, half hour periods. The first period is the half hour before the sun rises above the horizon in the morning. The second period is the half hour after the sun sinks below the horizon in the early evening. Typically, the most intense colors occur about twenty minutes before sunrise or after sunset. Depending on atmospheric conditions, magic hour #2 can produce two different types of lighting conditions. The first type of light is as follows:
Color: The light is very warm and produces very saturated colors.
Quality: The light is soft.
Direction: The light directly illuminates clouds from below. Everything else is in shadow.
The difference between this light and the magic hour #1 light is that this light only illuminates clouds since the sun has dropped below the horizon. Everything else is in shadow. Furthermore, this light is a super saturated, super warm light. In short, this light is great for incredibly intense sunrise or sunset shots.
Figure 5 illustrates how this type of light is produced during magic hour #2. The key is, again, the lower atmosphere. The sun has now dropped below the horizon (the distance that the sun has dropped below the horizon is exaggerated in Figures 5 and 7 for illustrative purposes). As a consequence, the light is again traveling a long distance through the lower atmosphere, even a longer distance than during the first magic hour. This scatters even more of the blue light, creating an even warmer, saturated light. This light strikes the clouds from underneath. The white clouds serve as the perfect surface to display the deeply saturated colors of the light. Everything else will be in shadow.
Of course, this only happens under the right conditions. If the cloud cover is too heavy, it blocks the sunlight and no color appears.
If the sky has the right amount of haze, the second type of magic hour #2 light may occur. In this case the light is as follows:
Color: Depending on conditions, the light can be either cool or warm.
Quality: The light is soft.
Direction: The light is being bounced off the sky, so the light is not directional.
In this case, the light illuminates the sky with either a cool or warm light. This light then illuminates the earth with a soft, dim light.
It is simply a matter of planning. Once you have a location selected, you:
Determine which magic hour light you wish to use.
Visualize how that light will interact with the environment.
Plan how to set up your image to optimize the use of the light to create the emotional impact that you desire.
Head to your destination with enough time to get in place and set up before the light happens.
One word of caution. There are no guarantees with the magic hour. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. I once had an image in mind that I wanted to shoot. It involved a rock in the ocean that I wanted to photograph with a dramatic sunset behind it. In order to get that shot, I had to go out onto another rock that stuck out into the ocean, set up my tripod, and wait for the magic hour light as the waves crashed around me. The first five times that I went, the magic hour light failed to materialize due to heavy cloud cover. On the sixth outing, I got my shot.
The magic is simple: rise early and stay late. You might be tired, but you'll have some great images.