You’ll often hear a photographer pass a comment on how good the light is. More often than not this will be in the early hours of the morning or late afternoon as the sun is either rising or about to sink below the African horizon. Most of us know when to find good light but have you ever paused to reflect on what makes the light so good for photography?
The Position of the Sun in relation to the Horizon
The most important component of good light is the fact that the sun is low on the horizon. Almost all of the other elements of good light revolve around the simple position of the sun. Rather than the harsh mid-day light which dominates for the vast majority of the day, the first and last parts of the suns journey across the sky makes for an interesting collection of variables which come together to provide us with that all important “golden light”.
The Colour of light
A quick study of the light spectrum reveals a range of colours starting with those of the shortest wavelength (easily scattered by particles in the earths atmosphere) and ending with the longest wavelengths.
Whilst the mid day sky is dominated by crisp blues, the early morning and late afternoon light is made up of a variety of shades of yellows, oranges and reds. This coupled with refractive dust particles and debris in the sky are responsible for the spectacular sunsets which our beautiful continent is known for.
If for some bizarre reason you’re not sure what golden light is, check out this collection of images from our weekly #BeInspiredBy feature. Notice the common colour tone which runs through almost every image? Yip, its those warm yellow and orange tones.
The intensity of the Light
As the sun sinks low on the horizon the light rays are forced to travel a greater distance through the earths atmosphere which results not only in the beautiful gold and orange tones but in a less intense light source. From an exposure point of view, this means that a scene is pretty evenly illuminated when shooting with the sun directly behind you.
The colour of light combined with the intensity of light also creates some of the most beautiful pastel tones in a scene just as the last rays of light reflect off the opposite ends of the sky. Beautiful pinks and blues will often dominate the western skies in the morning and the eastern skies in the evening. Throw in a couple of clouds and you have the makings of an incredible sunrise or sunset.
Shadows and Depth
Given the suns position in the sky and low angle, shadows become more pronounced and enhanced when shooting during the early morning and late afternoon. Compared to the mid-day light provided by the sun being high in the sky and almost completely washing out any hint of a shadow, the late afternoon and early morning light casts a variety of shadows which add depth to a scene.
A skilled photographer will learn how to make use of this depth and of the shadows to enhance the story told within a frame. This dynamic lighting allows one to find patches and beams of light falling onto a subject making it literally burst out form the background – something commonly referred to as key-lighting.
The opportunity to Shoot into the sun
With all this good light going on its often easy to forget about the opportunity to shoot into the light and capture dynamic backlight scenes. One of the most captivating features of a backlight scene is the rim-lighting which is created when the fine features of an animal or grass plant are highlighted by the sun. By underexposing a backlight scene one can accentuate these finer details and create interesting images.
What is my point?
Well I’m hoping that this will help you realize that good light is not just about the light but also about the shadows, color and intensity of light.
If you know what to look for and where to position yourself in relation to the sun, it is possible to capture a variety of different images of the same scene. Be patient, wait for the good light when you have an opportunity or are able to spend time at a sighting.
Don’t forget to shoot into the sun!