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

Sunshine 101 – the basics of shooting outdoors

I get asked a lot what the secrets are to shooting nice portraits outdoors. I’m not going to lie, great outdoor lighting is a little harder to master than great indoor lighting. The sun is a tricky light source and a powerful one at that, so it can be a little overwhelming trying to figure it out. There are a lot of ways to tackle outdoor lighting including reflectors, diffusers and fill flash, but for now let’s just stick with the basics. You, your subject, your camera, and a patch of shade.

If all you’ve got are the items listed above, there are going to be three basic options for shooting. You can either face your subject into the sun, face your subject away from the sun, or put them in the shade. Most people’s gut reaction is to face their subject into the sun. Light is good right? Well not so fast. Remember how I said that the sun was a tricky light source? That’s because it’s extremely bright and it’s coming from overhead, meaning that it casts harsh shadows and on people those shadows tend to fall below the nose and eyes, giving a lovely raccoon look. I tend to find that one of the major culprits of outdoor photos looking amateur and “snapshotty” are the strong shadows below the eyes and nose. Check out this example. Shot at ISO 100, f2.8 and shutter speed 1/2500.

photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

Definitely not my favorite. Now turn the subject around in the EXACT same spot so that the sun is behind and I find this to be a much more appealing shot. Taken at ISO 100, f2.8 shutter speed 1/1000

photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

You’ll notice there are a few of what we call “hotspots” in this photo, areas that are somewhat overexposed when compared to the rest of the image. There are parts of her leg and blanket that are very very bright. But I’ll take those little hotspots over the first image any day. Remember if we had more equipment (diffuser, reflector, etc) we could take care of these problems but we’re just sticking to basics here. You should also know that if the sky had been visible in this shot it would have been “blown out” to white. It gives a sort of high key look that some people hate… I just happen to love it 🙂

The third option when the sun just isn’t doing it for you is the shade. This is by far the safest option and a good fallback. This one was shot in the shade at the same location, ISO 100, f2.8 and shutter speed 1/320

photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

One part of shade shooting that most new photographers overlook is the quality of the shade. You want your subject to be out of the sun, but you also want for there to be natural light still hitting their faces. The best way to do this is to put the subject right at the edge of the shade, as close as possible to the sunlight without actually being in it. The difference in these next two is kind of subtle but to me it makes a big difference. The first is right at the edge of the shade, facing the direction of the sun. Notice they still have a bit of the sunkissed look even while being in the shade. ISO 100, f2.8, shutter speed 1/320

photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

Even moving back a just a few feet will cause you to lose that “glow”. Same spot, just moved further into the shade. This time the shutter speed is 1/200

photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

So there you go. Three different options for shooting in the sun, which you choose is up to you! One final warning note about shade shooting. While a park may seem like a great location for shooting portraits (lots of trees equals lots of shade right?) it’s actually hardly ever ideal. In my experience the shade from trees is almost always splotchy. Those little dots of light peeking through lead to what we call *dappled light* – great if you’re going to be painting a monet. Not so great if you’re shooting portraits. You’ll end up with those aforementioned “hotspots” right on your subject’s faces and nobody wants that.

Sunshine 101 – the basics of shooting outdoors