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Questions & Answers

  1. What do photographers mean when they talk about "magic hour"?

    Most people define "magic hour" as the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, when the color and quality of light make for especially beautiful photographs. I actually call it "magic hours." You have two hours in the morning and two or maybe three hours in the late afternoon to use this wonderful light. There's a big difference in the quality of light when the sun is up and directly lighting things, versus when the sun is below the horizon and everything is softly lit by the twilight sky. I try to shoot right through the transition (FIG. 4.16).

    Fig 4.16

    Fig 4.16 Just after the sun went down, the eastern sky over this little fishing town in Costa Rica erupted in color. The clouds are catching the sun's light and reflecting it everywhere. You can feel this tangible "pink air." A high viewpoint can provide a better sense of the place you're photographing. (Nikon D2X, ISO 100, 12–24 mm lens, tripod, 1/25 sec. @ f/4.)

    The colors you see during magic hours change, depending on what's happening in the sky. Let's take sunrise as an example of one type of magic hour. Before the sun gets above the horizon, all the light is being reflected from the sky. If the sky is clear, the light usually graduates from cool colors above to warmer tones on the horizon. But if the sky is filled with clouds, you have a chance for one of those amazing red sunrises. The clouds reflect the light from the sun, which is still below the horizon, spreading soft warm light everywhere and lightly filling the shadows. Once the sun crests the horizon, everything changes. The light is more directional, creating long shadows, and the colors fade to more neutral tones. This can happen very quickly at sunrise (FIG. 4.17 and 4.18).

    Fig 4.17

    Fig 4.17 Dawn, just before sunrise, from the deck of the Nautilus Explorer. I was on a trip to Guadalupe Island, off the coast of Mexico, to photograph great white sharks. The clear, clean skies over the ocean offer some of the most vivid colors you can find. Unless you just want a background, you need to include subjects in scenes like this. Although it's tiny, the moon is my subject here.

    Nikon D2X, ISO 200, 12-24 mm lens, handheld, 1/25 sec. @ f/4.)

    Fig 4.18

    Fig 4.18 There's an old saying, "Red sky at morning, sailors take warning." I arranged to have the boat captain put me on shore at Santa Rosa Island before sunrise, so I could get this shot using my tripod. The boat is too unstable to get sharp images in such low light. Channel Islands National Park, California. (Nikon D100, ISO 200, 14 mm lens, tripod, 1/20 sec. @ f/4.)

    Sunsets usually take longer to go through their cycle than sunrises. I don't know why; it's like the sun doesn't want to go to bed. In the hour before sunset, the color of the light begins to warm, shadows stretch across the ground and fill with hazy light. If you're looking toward the sun, textures and shapes stand out. This type of light is a favorite for landscape photographers. After the sun sets, the light loses direction, shadows fade away, and the color can either go cool or warm, depending on what's happening in the air. Smog, dust, volcanoes erupting a thousand miles away, high humidity—all affect the color and texture of magic hour light.

  2. If the color of light in the shade is cooler than direct sunlight, why do they look the same to me?

    Our brains can do a pretty good job of neutralizing light, making things look normal no matter what color of light we're in. You can prove it by looking at a piece of white paper outside and then looking at it again in a room lit only by lamps. The paper looks white in both cases, but you know that the light isn't the same color, because you just read about Kelvin temperatures. Cameras don't have brains to neutralize the light. To the camera, light in the shade of a cliff is cooler than light coming directly from the sun, because it's coming from the clear sky overhead (FIG. 4.19 and 4.20).

    Fig 4.19

    Fig 4.19 The colors of these aspens and rocks changed dramatically during the couple of hours when I photographed them. In direct sunlight, the hard light creates strong shadows, warmer tones, and specular highlights on the leaves. Bishop, California. (Nikon D300, ISO 200, 28–70 mm lens, tripod, 1/1250 sec. @ f/6.3.)

    Fig 4.20

    Fig 4.20 The difference between Fig. 4.19 and this shot is really amazing. The sun has dropped behind the mountains, and the canyon is in shade. Only the blue sky is providing light. I actually prefer this softer light for scenes like this. The blue of the rocks is complementary to the yellow of the trees. Shady, cool light really made this scene work. Worth the wait. Bishop, California. (Nikon D300, ISO 200, 28–70 mm lens, tripod, 1/40 sec. @ f/5.6.)

    Overcast light is also cool because the light from the sun is filtered through the water that makes up the clouds. Even the light in a forest or jungle is cooler than sunlight, but it's more greenish than blue because of all the leaves.

    Photographs taken in all these environments won't look very "natural," because the camera can't interpret the colors—it just records them. You'll have to manipulate your camera with the white balance tool to record the colors the way you see them.

  3. I set my white balance. Why does the color look wrong?

    The camera probably won't record color exactly as you remember it, but it can get close. In many cameras, the white balance presets can be fine-tuned either warmer or cooler. Try altering the presets until you get something you like. Your camera manual (yes, you have to read it) probably lists how much warmer or cooler you can make each setting. Another option: Try white-balancing manually with a color other than pure white. If you white-balance on the faded blue jeans you're wearing, you'll get a look that's warmer than neutral.

    Another component to white balance is your computer monitor; it's the bridge between your camera and the print you display or the image you post on your website. If your monitor isn't properly adjusted for brightness and color, you'll make wrong decisions about color and exposure when processing your images, or working on them in Photoshop. Having a properly calibrated monitor is critical if you want to be sure that all your camera settings and processing work translate to what you originally saw when you took the photograph (FIG. 4.21).

    Fig 4.21

    Fig 4.21 The sun is up, I'm front-lighting the geyser, and I want the steam to be white—even a little bit cool white, because the steam looked white and I'm cold. I might have been able to use a custom white balance on the snow in the sun, but I didn't. I just fine-tuned my daylight preset to give me light that was a bit cooler. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (Nikon D100, ISO 200, 16 mm lens, tripod, 1/320 sec. @ f/16.)

    The best way to calibrate your monitor is to use software and hardware tools specifically designed for color control. I use one called ColorMunki Photo. The appendix lists several other resources as well. These systems aren't cheap, so check with your local camera or computer club first; maybe someone who has a color calibration kit will come to your house and calibrate your monitor in exchange for a piece of lemon pie.

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