Time of Day Impacts the Light

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There are many events for which a person should not be late: a wedding, job, school, and a plane flight are a few that come to mind. For landscape photographers, two are very significant - sunrise and sunset. If these two times of the day are missed, the opportunity to produce images with dramatic and warm light is lost. The quality of the light on a subject from sunrise to sunset and every hour in between dramatically changes.

Record a scene in predawn light. If you’re lucky, the sky will be filled with an alpenglow on the eastern horizon. The western horizon should be bathed in pink and magenta pastels. Right at sunrise, front lit subjects will have very warm tones but textures will appear flat. Side lit subjects will also appear warmly lit but will reveal shape, patterns, texture and form due to the 90 degree angle of light with which the sun strikes the land. Even though the warmth will dissipate, you have about a 20- to 30-minute window of time to get great images of sidelit subjects. This window can be extended in the fall and winter because the sun remains lower in the sky and ascends more slowly.

After the first hour of sunrise, most of the yellows, oranges and reds are no longer present. The colors shift to a cooler spectrum in that the particulates, pollutants and atmospheric conditions at the horizon are now below the level of the sun. As the sun continues its climb, blues become the predominant color. Midday hours produce the coolest tones. Commensurate with the shift to blue, the light becomes flatter and contrasty. Both of these conditions are not appealing for scenic photography.

About two hours before sunset, the light begins to improve as it transitions back to warmer tones and provides a lower angle of light to once again reveal the textures of the land. At one hour before sunset, the conditions improve even more until the sun drops below the horizon. As with dawn, an alpenglow may appear along with the pink color on the opposite horizon.

Now that you have experienced an entire day, you’ll see for yourself that the time of day at which images are made is extremely important. In the accompanying photographs, note the difference in the quality of light between the image made at dawn vs. the one made 10 minutes after the sun broke the horizon.

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