The "good" Light

February 02, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The "good" Light

I remember a very interesting discussion with Humphrey Gumpo one day, after returning to Chitake 3 camp site (Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe) from an extended bush walk. We had been out walking since before sunrise and it was now around 11:00h on a very hot morning. As we sat down for a cooldrink, I quickly went to arrange the tripod and camera, overlooking puddles of water in the Chitake river bed. Humphrey was positively surprised by this... a short while before I arrived in Zimbabwe to start this safari, he had been guiding a group of professional photographers from Europe. This group, Humphrey said, had for the duration of their entire trip refused to pick up a camera, and in many cases to leave camp if not in golden hour light. For photography and cinematography, golden hour light does hold special qualities, but with so many images captured in this warm, soft light, I have come to prefer other lighing situations for many cases.

Colour temperatures
Colour temperatures are a characteristic of any visible light, measured in Degrees Kelvin (K). This measurement system was developed in the late 1800s by British mathematical physicist William Kelvin. It provides a method of describing the relevant characteristics: A light having higher color temperature will have more blue light and thus, a larger Kelvin value than a light with lower colour temperature. The following table shows the color temperature of various sources of light:

As opposed to steady light sources, with natural ambient light, colour temperatures vary throughout the day. During sunrise and sunset, color temperatures tend to be around 2,000 Kelvin, during the golden hour they range around 3,500 Kelvin and during midday, colour temps are around 5,500 Kelvin.

What exactly is the golden hour in terms of natural ambient light?
Golden hour light basically describes the warm, soft light with its long shadwos, as it occurs during a morning's first hour of sunshine, starting right before sunrise and an evening's last hour of sunlight, visible until after the sun disappears behind the horizon. Very distinctive photographic effects can be achieved in this light. Technically speaking, though, golden hour light conditions may prevail for more or less than 60 minutes, depending on the geographical location, weather situation and season. Most importantly, golden hour light can be cut short by smoke, haze or clouds blocking the sun as it stands low over the horizon.

When the sun is near the horizon, sunlight travels through more of the atmosphere, reducing direct light intensity, so that more of the illumination comes from indirect light. Blue light is somewhat 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. Furthermore, because there is less contrast during golden hour, shadows are less dark, and highlights are less likely to be overexposed. Landscape photographers in particular appreciate the warm color of the low sun and often consider it desirable to enhance the colours of a scene, especially with the support of polarising filters.

Some examples of golden hour light images:

A late afternoon shot of a Zambezi side channel, with the Zambian escarpment in the background. I used a circular polarising filter to reduce indirect glare and enhance colour saturation. The clear atmosphere and calm, flowing water create a beautiful effect.

Late afternoon along the Zambezi.

A golden hour classic: This male cheetah, member of a coalition of three at Kwara, Botswana is looking straight towards the setting sun. As with the image above, colour tones are generally warmer in the foreground, than in the background. No filter was used.

Golden hour light also provides the unique setting required for silhouette images. All it takes is a bit of courage, to leave the beautifully lit subject and start shooting against the rising or setting sun. Silhouettes can be fantastically spectacular. One of my personal favourites is this huge elephant bull, wading through the flooded Chobe river shoreline, as the sun begins to set over Namibia.

Chobe RiverChobe River

A a last example, golden hour light gone wrong this time. Although the sun stands low over the horizon, the light is almost gone as the atmosphere is filled with dense smoke from bush fires, blocking the warm, golden glow that usually would prevail during a sunset over the Selinda spillway in northern Botswana.

Of course there are a gerat many images in my galleries that have been captured during golden hour light. However, in my humble opinion, my most outstanding photographs I have captured in more difficult light conditions, namely in blue hour light and on dark, overcast and even rainy days. To me, these light conditions just add so much more drama and depth and I have come to prefer blue hour light over the warm, "perfect world" golden hour light in many cases.

The next blog entry will be titled "The bad Light", and I will describe what I mean and compare golden hour images to blue hour images.



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