Light so buttery you can taste it – the magic hour

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography. –George Eastman

Learning photography is a tricky business – starting out it’s easy to believe that there are just a few simple rules to master to become an expert. In truth, the more that you learn the more that you realize that you’ve barely scratched the surface of what there was to learn. Such is the case with learning about light. I used to think that there were a few simple rules of thumb to using light in photography. I thought that with practice I would learn them all. And I have learned a trick or two in the last few years, but what I’ve learned more than anything is that light isn’t just a component of photography, light IS photography. Light lends the mood to an image, bends around objects and shows us the forms of our subjects. Light creates reflections and casts shadows. Light can be warm or cool, artificial or natural – but it always, always deserves consideration when shooting. I sat down to start a post about light and realized that it is impossible to sum up everything I want to say in one post, so instead I’m going to start a series. And what better way to start a series on light than to tell you about the first moment that I noticed the light around me as a photographer. It’s called the “magic hour” – some people call it the golden hour. It’s commonly defined as the last hour before sunset and I’m going to tell you a few things about shooting at this time of day.

Back in 2007 (before kids, can you imagine?!) my family and I were on a trip to Normandy and I was toting my camera everywhere with me. We were on a tour of historic WWII sites and happened to be at one of the old bunkers right around sunset. I was walking around snapping away when all of the sudden something MAGICAL started happening. The whole sky started to get a glow – a golden, shimmery, amazing, dreamy, buttery (there really aren’t enough adjectives to describe it) GLOW. The quality of light was so amazing that it literally felt like something you could reach out and touch. As I stood there, awestruck, it seemed that I couldn’t possibly take enough pictures to capture the feeling of being in that moment, bathed in that glow. The light was imparting an aura and emotion onto everything that it touched and it was literally begging me to push the shutter button (again, and again, and again). Still when I look at these images I can FEEL what it was like to stand in that light. It was the magic hour at its very best.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent Riotmagic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent Riotmagic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotAt this point in time I was what I would describe as an aspiring professional. I had set up a website to showcase my work, I was begging all friends and family to let me practice on them, and I was starting to shoot a few weddings. I had heard photographers talking about how light was important in photography and I knew the term magic hour, but I hadn’t ever really experienced it for myself. After seeing and feeling that light in Normandy I all of the sudden knew that light was way more important than I had ever imagined. I could feel its power and knew that learning to find it would make me a better photographer, but I didn’t know where to start.

I was told by more experienced photographers that the best way to capture the magic hour was to shoot during the last hour before sunset. In that hour you will find a magical, mystical warm glow. Or so I was told. So I scheduled an engagement session and pumped myself up. Let’s get ready for some MAGIC! And yet… what I got was this.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotSquinting? Harsh shadows? Raccoon eyes? This is not what I had in mind. The entire first half hour (maybe longer?) of our session looks like this. I’ll spare you the photos, they kind of make me cringe. At this point I was having a bit of an internal panic. What is going on?! I thought it was supposed to be the magic hour?! Why can’t I make any magic?

But then, slowly but surely the sun started to dip lower in the sky and a familiar warmth crept back in.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotIt turns out we had just started shooting too early, we were in midday harsh light territory and not the magic hour. If we were at a location with open shade this would have been a great place to start the session, but alas we were at the beach. Once the lighting was less harsh and more manageable things started falling into place a bit more. Keep in mind this is still very early in my photography journey, if I were here again there would be a few things I might do differently. Even so, what a difference between these and that first image.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent Riotmagic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotSo why had all of those other photographers told me to start shooting the last hour before sunset if that last hour was so harsh? The real “magic hour” in my beach session was only about 5 minutes long immediately before the sun dipped below the horizon and the glow lasted a few minutes after the sun was gone as well. Does that mean you should only schedule shoots right at sunset with a little padding for lateness and “get to know you” time? Well not exactly. Here’s the part that took me a while to figure out. The magic hour really has very little to do with the clock. Light doesn’t care what time it is. Magic hour light comes from the interaction between light and objects. In the case of magic hour at the beach, the object is the horizon. But if you’re in a location with a hill, you’re going to lose light a lot earlier. If you’re in an urban location, the sun dipping below a building can give a magic hour glow. And both of those things are going to happen a lot earlier than if you were waiting for the sun to drop below the absolute horizon.

My yard backs up to a hill. The magic hour in my backyard is at least an hour (more like two depending on the time of year) before sunset. If I wait until the local sunset time to shoot in my yard I will be looking at a big blue blob of shadows. If I shoot at *my* magic hour I get something like this.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotThe effect in my yard at the very end of the day is so dramatic because the entire hill is in shadow while the glow creeps into the foreground. It’s an effect that changes by the minute and one that you can miss if you wait too long to shoot it.

Light filtered through trees will give a different look. The leaves appear to glow giving more brightness to the entire image compared to the darkness of the background in the previous image.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotAnd backlighting at the magic hour with the sun directly behind your subjects will result in an almost all white sky.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent Riotmagic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotBut the amazing thing about light in photography and learning to use it is that the possibilities are endless. The image directly above was shot with the sun behind the subjects and the sky is blown to white, but if you take a few steps to the side and shoot at the very same time of day from a different angle… well there is your sky again.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotThe way that you position yourself and the way that you set your camera will make all the difference in the world, and the beautiful thing is that the more you learn to see the way that light interacts with your lens, the more you can control it.

Sunlight hitting your lens directly will cause haze and lower contrast. Get that sun out of the same shot and the haze will disappear. The image on the left has a sliver of sun to the right side of the frame which is causing some haze and sun flare. Just a step to the right for me and a change in angle and the haze and flare are gone. Whether you prefer one or the other is totally up to you. It’s a stylistic choice but the important thing to realize is that it IS a choice. If you know how light works you can use it instead of having it use you.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotI tend to prefer backlit images to ones with front light. Even though the sun being low on the horizon gets rid of harsh under-eye shadows I still prefer the softer look of indirect lighting on faces and the bright airiness that comes with the light sky in a backlit image. If bright blue skies are more your style, don’t be afraid to shoot from an angle that sheds a lot of light on your subjects. The colors right before sunset are bright and vibrant with a delicious golden hue.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent RiotThis kind of shot also translates well into black and white, since the higher level of contrast gives a nice depth of tones that might be absent in a backlit black and white.

magic hour light explanation - Photography lessons on Permanent Riot

If I let myself, I could just go on pulling images for this post indefinitely. Even though it’s one single time of day there are a million ways to use it, and I love the light at this time of day THAT much. But the crazy thing is that I have barely begun the journey in my own learning of what this light can do. I find myself discovering new ways to use it every time I shoot. Even though I have been practicing for years, I am just a novice when it comes to light. I hope that in writing a bit about how light moves and inspires me, that you will find some inspiration for your own journey. I hope that you will look at the world with fresh eyes and a bit of wonder at the amazing beauty that surrounds us, just waiting to be captured.

In the future I hope to share a bit about some of my other favorite types of light (I have a lot of them) and how I use them. In the meantime if you want to read any of my photography lessons you can find them right here. I hope you enjoy!

Light so buttery you can taste it – the magic hour

days 108-113 {a little bit of San Francisco}

This past weekend was my niece Natalie’s birthday and to help celebrate I flew up to San Francisco for her party. Everyone kept saying that we brought the warm weather with us from down south, it was so warm (almost downright hot) and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky… perfect weather for an outdoor party! Happy Birthday miss Natalie! I love you!

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days 108-113 {a little bit of San Francisco}

days 100-107 {one hundred days!!}

This week’s photos started with a bang and finished with a blur. How is it that each and every week seems faster than the last?! I realized at the beginning of last week that we were about to hit day 100 – and started getting nostalgic about what I’d been doing on April 10 back during the very first of my project 365s in 2007. As it turns out I was doing one of my very first light paintings and using Ben as a guinea pig. Exhibit A from 2007:

Project 365 on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photographyI thought it might be fun to do another light painting to commemorate the 100th day (I haven’t given up, hooray!)

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days 100-107 {one hundred days!!}

Win a portrait session to benefit the March of Dimes

Win a portrait session from Katy Regnier photography in the Team Peyton Mark March for Babies auction
Getting a great deal on a portrait session makes you feel good. Getting a great deal on a portrait session AND knowing that your money is going to the March of Dimes to help fund research into preventing prematurity and infant loss – now that makes you feel AWESOME.

My sister is running an auction to raise money for the March of Dimes, in honor of her son Peyton Mark. Everything up for bid in this auction was donated and absolutely all of the proceeds from the winning bids will be given directly to the March of Dimes. You can find my portrait session right here – Photography package with Katy Regnier Photography and there are lots of other great items up for bid as well. Many of them can be shipped nationally, so even if you’re not in San Diego you can still lend a hand!- Team Peyton Mark March for Babies auction

The auction ends tomorrow at midnight so get your bids in soon! Thank you so much for your support!

Win a portrait session to benefit the March of Dimes

days 93-99 {a little of this and a little of that}

My favorite part about compiling weekly 365 posts is seeing all that we DID in the last week. Sometimes I can’t believe that we managed to fit so many projects and ideas into a single week. It’s been so beautiful out and our yard was getting a little (a lot) out of control on the weed front, so we spent a lot of time trying to tame the jungle that has sprung up on our back hill. It’s kind of an endless task but it makes me feel so accomplished to see an entire trash can full of weeds (yeah, it’s totally out of control back there). Plus doing one project always starts an improvement snowball for me – the yard was looking so much better that I finally decided it was time to hang the string lights I bought something like two months ago. They are just a few inexpensive sets of lights but they have literally changed our lives (I know, lights, really?) They are so pretty that they make me want to spend more time outside. We’ve been eating almost all of our dinners out under the lights and even trading in some mindless phone-staring after the kids’ bedtime for bundled up conversations out on the patio. Totally worth every last penny.
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days 93-99 {a little of this and a little of that}

Some thoughts on springtime, growth and change

I am a Californian born and raised. I grew up in a land without snow where even the summers are mild. As a result of our year round temperate climates, the seasons of my childhood were more defined by holidays and television commercials than actual palpable changes in weather. It took moving out of state to a city with real snow and freezing temperatures to really realize what much of the world sees in spring. To me, the whole year was full of color and life and greenery… it was only after a stark winter of cold and white and bare branches that I understood the magic of a spring blossom peeking up through the frozen ground.

But somehow this year, maybe because I’ve been spending more time outside, I have started to realize that even California has spring. It’s a much more subtle change. You can see it in the blooming of my very favorite yellow flowers all along the roadside, and you can see it right in your own backyard in the amazing new growth on every single bush and tree. Even though many of them kept their leaves throughout our mild winter, they are still reaching for the sky in the springtime. Growing and changing at an amazing rate.

Thoughts on spring and new growth - Permanent Riot - a blog by Katy RegnierI have been spending a lot of time in our yard soaking up the sunshine and marveling at the magic of springtime. And in all of my plant-gazing I have noticed something this year that I had never seen before. In almost every plant, big or small, the new growth of spring is different from the old growth in every single way. It’s lighter or brighter or a different color entirely. Sometimes it has a different texture or shape. But you can always, always tell what is new.

Thoughts on spring and new growth - Permanent Riot - a blog by Katy RegnierI have been making a lot of changes in my own life lately and a lot of them have made me feel awkward, self conscious or conspicuous. I want to try or do something new. I want to change. But that feeling of newness is easy to confuse with a feeling of inauthenticity. We are constantly reminded to be true to ourselves, to show our real personalities and express our true opinions. But sometimes the things that pique our attention, the things that we want to try and learn and do, will not be the same things that our selves of yesteryear would have done. We might like to try painting but brush it off saying “oh but I’m not artistic”. Says who? Maybe your old self wasn’t artistic but who’s to say you can’t learn? Just because something doesn’t fit perfectly into your current definition of self doesn’t mean that it can’t fit into the ever-evolving definition of your new self. We are growing and changing every minute of every day.

Thoughts on spring and new growth - Permanent Riot - a blog by Katy RegnierIt is so easy to get caught up in defining who we are and what we like to do, but it’s important to realize that our notions of self can and must change. I certainly don’t want to wake up on my 60th birthday and realize that I am exactly as I was on my 30th.

In noticing the color of the leaves that are growing in my own backyard I have begun to realize that all new growth – be it on a tree or in my own life – is by the very nature of being new going to be distinguishable from the old. It would be silly to expect a seamless transition from one stage of life to the next. So of course we are going to feel conspicuous as beginners when we are learning a new skill. Of course it will be possible for outsiders to see that we are growing, learning and changing. But what is important to remember is that soon enough, even by the very next spring, that new growth will have somehow mystically blended into the old. What once felt foreign and new will soon become an established part of ourselves. And if that isn’t the magic of spring, well then I don’t know what is.

Thoughts on spring and new growth - Permanent Riot - a blog by Katy RegnierAll images courtesy of my iphone 4s. They say the best camera is the one you have with you…

Some thoughts on springtime, growth and change

days 85-92 {feeling film-ish}

I don’t know what it is about the last week, it’s been hard for me to pick up my digital SLR. I have had no problem getting excited about shooting with film, but that takes at least a week to come back from the lab, so I haven’t figured out a good way to incorporate it into a 365. The only way I could get them up quickly would be if I just learned how to develop it at home. I used to develop my own black and white film way back in high school and I’ve had the itch to try it out again, maybe it’s time to take the leap. For now, I’m filling in the gaps of my film-only days with some iphone snaps. I just sent in a few rolls of portra and I can’t wait to get them back and see how they came out.

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days 85-92 {feeling film-ish}