Understanding Natural Light

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If you make the right choices when selecting a time of day to shoot then you won’t need a big budget to get gorgeous lighting on your set. By understanding natural lighting based on the position of the sun you will have many choices for controlling the look of your photography. This principle is often framed in what is called, “The Golden Hour.”

In photography, the golden hour (sometimes known as magic hour, especially in cinematography) is the first and last hour of sunlight during the day. When a specific photographic effect is achieved due to the quality of the light.

The color temperature varies by time of day. During sunrise and sunset, color temperature tends to be around 2,000 K, during the “golden hour” it is around 3,500 K and during midday it is around 5,500 K (the color temperature can vary significantly based on altitude, latitude and weather conditions).

Typically, lighting is softer (more diffuse) and warmer in hue. Shadows are relatively non-existent if the sun is below the horizon. When the sun is near or below the horizon, sunlight travels through more of the atmosphere, reducing the intensity of the direct light, so that more of the illumination comes from indirect light from the sky (Thomas 1973, 9–13), reducing the lighting ratio. More blue light is scattered, so if the sun is present, its light appears more reddish. In addition, the sun’s small angle with the horizon produces longer shadows.

“Hour” is used here quite loosely. The character of the lighting is determined by the sun’s altitude, and the time for the sun to move from the horizon to a specified altitude depends on a location’s latitude and the time of year. In Los Angeles, California, at an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset, the sun has an altitude of about 10°–12°. For a location closer to the equator, the altitude is greater (or the time less), and for a location farther from the equator, the altitude is less (or the time greater). For a location sufficiently far from the equator, the sun may not reach an altitude of 10°, and the golden hour lasts for the entire day in certain seasons.

In the middle of the day, the bright overhead sun can create too-bright highlights and dark shadows. The degree to which overexposure can occur varies because different types of film and digital cameras have different dynamic ranges. This harsh-lighting problem is particularly important in portrait photography, where a fill flash is often necessary to balance lighting across the subject’s face or body, filling in strong shadows that are usually considered undesirable.

Because the contrast is less during the golden hour, shadows are less dark, and highlights are less likely to be overexposed. In landscape photography, the warm color of the low sun is often considered desirable to enhance the colours of the scene.

 

Color Temperature

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The color temperature varies by time of day. During sunrise and sunset, color temperature tends to be around 2,000 K, during the “golden hour” it is around 3,500 K and during midday it is around 5,500 K (the color temperature can vary significantly based on altitude, latitude and weather conditions).

Student example shots using the same subject during sunrise, midday and sunset:

1. Photos by Brandon Dennis

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2. Photos by Lincoln Dutcher

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3. Photos by Naxiely Cortez

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