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

More on aperture (your new best friend)

Hopefully you already read the last post (how your camera works) and saw the very very brief introduction to aperture (aka f-stops). This is going to be one of the most important pieces in the puzzle for you to learn how to take pictures that look “professional” so I thought it would be good to start here. I always think it’s best to learn about one feature of your camera or aspect of photography at a time so that you can really get a hang of it before you move on. Once you nail this one you’ll be well on your way to taking much better pictures so get ready to impress yourself with your mad photo skills 🙂

I’m sure you’ve all seen a picture where the subject (let’s just say it’s a baby because as a mom I’d say 90% of my pictures are probably of my babies) is in focus. You can very clearly see the little eyes and mouth peering out at you from the image, but the background is out of focus. That’s the result of something called depth of field, and depth of field is a result of a few things but mainly the distance you are from your subject and your aperture. If more of the image is out of focus we say it has a shallower depth of field. More in focus it’s got a longer depth of field.

I already mentioned that the depth of field has to do with your aperture and that the smaller the number (which if you remember means BIGGER opening and more light coming in) the more potential there is for the background of your image to be out of focus, which is what a lot of you are probably going for.  Lucky for us this actually works to our advantage. Generally we want to have a fast shutter speed (to keep those little hands and feet in focus and not turn them into a blurry mess) and a wider aperture will not only let us get that “out of focus background” effect we want (which by the way photographers refer to as “bokeh”) but it will also allow us to crank up our shutter speed a little and have a better chance of stopping the motion of our little ones. The other main factor is how far you are from your subject, and how far that subject is from the background you want to be out of focus. generally speaking you want to be closer to your subject than your subject is to the background in order to get the greatest amount of blur. If you are shooting a baby on a couch for instance, chances are the back of the couch is still going to be in focus when you take your picture UNLESS YOU ARE VERY VERY CLOSE TO THE BABY. If your lens is closer to the baby than the baby is to the back of the couch, bingo. Out of focus background. The smaller your f-stop the more blur, and the more you’ll get that fabulous bokeh.

Let’s just take a look at a few photos to illustrate the point. Both of these were shot with a 50mm lens. Both at f 2.8 and 1/50th of a second. In the first one I’m much further than from the baby than she is from the back of the couch and you can see the texture of the couch.

In the second shot I moved closer (this is not a feature of zooming or cropping, I actually moved myself) and now not only is the back of the couch out of focus but so is a little bit of the blanket in the foreground. Same settings, totally different effect.

Want to learn to use your aperture settings to get exactly the look you’re going for? Try setting your camera to the AV mode (aperture priority) and changing your f-stop to see what difference it has on your pictures. Then try moving closer to and further from your subject and see what that does. After playing with it for a while I’m sure you’ll start to be able to visualize what the effect will be before you even snap the shutter. One last word of warning. When you first start playing with wider apertures you may be frustrated by more “out of focus” shots. This is because when using a shallow depth of field it’s absolutely critical that you have your focus locked in on your subject. When shooting people I always suggest focusing on the eyes. If the eyes are in focus your mind will perceive everything else to be in focus as well, even if it’s not. It’s a neat trick 🙂

More on aperture (your new best friend)

How your camera works…

Ok so you’ve agonized over the decision, read reviews, questioned your friends and family and you finally went out and bought that dream SLR you’ve had your eyes on.  You rip open the box, pick it up, and you realize you have no idea how it works.  Yes, if you push the shutter button (provided it’s got a battery and memory card in it) it will probably take a picture.  But do you have any idea how that picture is going to come out?  How can you make that picture look like the one that you meant for this new and fancy camera to take?

Your camera can’t read your mind.  It doesn’t know what kind of picture you want to take.  So chances are it’s going to play it safe.  It’s going to try to get all of the picture in focus (so that your subject is in focus) and it’s going to shoot for an even and predictable exposure (because that’s what its little camera computer brain is programmed to do).  In order to take the kind of picture that YOU want to take (and not the one your camera wants to take) you’re going to have to learn a little bit about how your camera and photography in general work.  I know it sounds daunting but it’s really not that bad and we’ll take it slowly.  Promise 🙂

First things first, exposure.  Exposure is the result of three elements all working together: shutter speed, aperture, and iso.  I’m going to explain them all very briefly and we’ll come back to each one later in a separate post (because goodness knows that all there is to learn about exposure could fill a book… or several… and does)

First up is shutter speed.  This is the one you are most likely to already know a little something about.  Shutter speed is simple.  It is the length of time that your camera’s shutter is open for when you’re taking the picture.  Take a picture at a fast shutter speed and it will “freeze” the action.  Take a picture at a slow shutter speed and chances are it will be blurry.  A quick and dirty rule of thumb is that if you are trying to take a picture handheld (aka you’re not using a tripod) the ABSOLUTE slowest shutter speed you should ever use is 1/the focal length of your lens.  I know we haven’t gotten to focal length yet but say you’re using a 50mm lens.  You couldn’t take a steady picture slower than at 1/50th of a second.  I promise we’ll get into it more later but for now just stay above 1/60th an everything will be groovy 🙂

Next up is aperture.  This one is a little trickier but you probably know more about it than you think.  When your camera’s shutter opens it doesn’t always open the same amount.  The amount that it opens controls the amount of light that comes into the camera at one time, so the bigger the opening the more light, smaller opening less light.  The increments of aperture are f-stops.  It would be nice if the bigger the f-stop number the more light but it’s actually the opposite.  Bigger number = smaller opening = less light.  Lenses that open wide (less than f 2.0) cost more and are generally pretty desirable pieces of equipment.  Your”kit lens” that came with your camera probably doesn’t open any wider than f 3.5 which is why I always recommend getting another lens with a wider aperture.  Canon makes a great “thrifty fifty” 50mm lens that goes to f 1.8, but equipment suggestions are for another day 🙂  There’s one more catch about aperture that I haven’t mentioned yet and that is what the change in aperture does to the picture besides controlling the amount of light.  Aperture is one of the major contributors to something called “depth of field” which is (to put it very simply) the range of distance in front and behind your subject that is in focus.  The wider your lens is open the more opportunity there is for the background and foreground of your shot to be out of focus.  This isn’t a bad thing.  This is how photographers get that great separation between their background and subject and make everything else look “fuzzy”.  It’s something that takes practice to control (and needs way more explanation than I’m giving right now) but for the moment just keep in mind that it’s one more variable when to consider when choosing the perfect exposure.

Last but not least is ISO.  On your digital camera this variable may be controlled way down in the depths of your menu.. somewhere you’d never look… or it may be easy to get to.  It depends on your specific model.  Check with your manual if you’re not sure.  ISO is the digital equivalent of film speed from the olden days.  You used to have to choose how fast your film was and shoot an entire roll of the same speed.  Lucky us digital shooters we can change our ISO every shot if we want.  The ISO controls how sensitive your camera is to light.  The higher the ISO number the more sensitive it will be, so a picture shot outside may be shot at ISO 100, but once you go inside you may need to bump it up to more like 800.  This will allow you to keep your same settings (shutter speed and f-stop) for a shot without it being much to dim due to the reduced light situation indoors.  This is one setting you most likely cannot change while in “green square” auto mode on your camera.  But we don’t want you using that anyways 🙂

Ok are you worn out yet?  I’m worn out just from typing so I can’t imagine how you must be feeling after reading all this.  My suggestion is to just try to master one of these variables at a time by playing with your camera’s AV and TV settings.  AV is “aperture value” and allows you to choose your aperture while the camera will pick the right shutter speed for a good exposure.  TV is “time value” and will allow you to choose your shutter speed while the camera chooses an appropriate aperture.  Both are great tools for the beginning photographer while you learn how to set exposure.  Once you’re good and practiced with these settings we’ll get into a little bit more detail about each of the variables and how you can use them to your advantage.

And just because I hate to have you read all of this text without at least one photo, here’s a favorite of my little ones.  I’m going to try to put up new photos with each post and give you some the exposure info so you can get an idea of how each of them was shot.  This was at 1/125th, f 2.8, ISO 1600 in natural light:
photography lessons on Permanent Riot by Katy Regnier photography

How your camera works…