You hear photographers talk about it all the time. We call it “The Magic Hour.” It’s that period of time the first 30 minutes after sunrise and the last 30 minutes before sunset. Most of the really dramatic photographs you see are created during this period of time. The angle and quality of light during these times is what makes it “magic.” Shadows are softer, highlights are not as bright, and colors are at maximum saturation. We love these times.
When I go on a photo trip my schedule is pretty standard: Get out of bed and on location (pre-determined) for sunrise. Back to camp/town/home for some breakfast then maybe a nap. Mid-Day and the afternoon is usually spent alternatively napping and scouting locations for sunset. Shoot sunset, back to camp/town/home for supper then get to bed cause I gotta get up and do it all again the next day. Lots of short nights and long days on a photo trip.
Usually when I’m out shooting my cameras stay in the bag during the middle of the day. Shadows are deeper, they’re darker, and the light is much harsher than during the magic hour. The contrast range at noon in the desert can be over 16 stops of light. Even today’s most sophisticated cameras can only see and record about 12 stops of light. That usually translates to blown out highlights and black shadows with no detail. Yeah, I know there is some great software out there for processing high dynamic range images and I use it sometimes but for the most part I’m a traditionalist: I prefer to make as many adjustments as I can in the camera instead of spending hours or days trying to get a blend to look just right.
But there is a downside to leaving your camera packed up during the middle hours. Take a look at the image at the top of the blog. I spent the weekend in Moab, Utah and the area around there with some friends from Rocky Mountain Nature Photographers. We had 2 great shoots: Saturday Sunrise at Grandview Point in Canyonlands National Park and sunset at False Kiva, also in Canyonlands. Sunday I slept through sunrise but that was okay because it was clear blue skies..no drama. In keeping with my traditional schedule I decided to drive over to Goblin Valley State Park on a scouting trip to see what it would be like at sunset. On that drive I came around a curve on the road to Lilttle Wild Horse Canyon and got smacked in the face by this image. It immediately started screaming at me: “Poofy white clouds….B&W conversion…Yellow or Red filter for a deep blue sky.” So out came the camera and stared clicking away. Yes, I knew the shadows would be deep and black. Yes, I knew there would be hot highlights. But I shot it anyway and it turned out just the way I saw it in my mind.
There is one factor that makes this kind of image a little easier to pull off. The rocks and dirt must have a lot of gypsum in them because they were nearly white. God’s natural reflector. The white stone and dirt served as a natural reflector to throw light into the shadows of the tree and that’s what made this image possible. If it had been in a different environment like the red sandstone and dirt over near Moab or even in Goblin Valley I would not have been able to pull this shot off. The contrast range would have been overwhelming.
So next time you’re out during the day, scouting locations or whatever, don’t put your camera away. You never know when you’re going to find a scene like this. We all like to concentrate on the Magic Hour but sometimes you have to take advantage of what the Photo Gods offer you.