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The Color of Light (courtesy Istock Photo)

The composition of an image has everything to do with the time of day you took it. We can't program our digital cameras to wait for ideal outdoor light yet, so it's up to us to know when the light outside is perfect for photography. For some of us, figuring this out is no easy task.

To help demonstrate the dramatic difference that even a little passing time can have on an image's lighting quality, we arranged a little experiment. This image series was shot from the same location, off the same tripod, which was an absolute necessity to capture the long exposures. The white balance setting was set to daylight, which would be the equivalent of daylight balanced film. Then we waited - twenty minutes between each shot, to show the difference a little patience can make.

If you take your camera outside about an hour after the sun comes up, until an hour before it goes down, your image will look more or less like this. The shadows may fall at a different angle, but the high-contrast, washed-out look will remain relatively constant. Bright, direct sunlight adds to the harshness of the lighting. It's best to resist the urge to take the shot now, because a little patience will make all these problems go away.

Everything changes if we wait until the sun is on its way down behind us. This time of day is usually referred to as the Golden Hour, and sure enough there is rich, golden light reflecting off the buildings. The shadows are not as deep and the color of light has changed dramatically from just a half hour earlier - everything is richer and softer. The whole composition really comes to life once the sun is setting behind the camera.

Another 20 minutes or so have passed by and the sun has just about gone down behind the camera. Once again we can see just how dramatically the light has changed and how that has affected the color of light and the impact of the photograph. The scene has flattened out and looks relatively dull due to the lack of contrast. There is still some orange glow in the buildings on the lower right from the sun left, but not for long. The colors have cooled and the whole emotional tone of the image has really changed.

The sun is now fully out of view behind the camera in another twenty minutes. Notice how the building lights are now much more prominent then they were just a few minutes earlier. The sky in our composition has darkened from the lack of sun light, and those buildings are really starting to shine. We have more contrast than in the last image, and the overall brightness of the scene allows us to get loads of detail from the skyline. The sky is a rich color and doesn't get blown out or lost.

Night falls shortly after. Now the buildings provide the majority of our image's light, making for another drastic change in mood. There is still some separation between the buildings and the sky but not very much. The brightness values of the scene now fall out of the dynamic range of our camera/film, so if we take a much longer exposure we can get some sky back and some detail in the buildings, but the artificial lights will begin to overwhelm the photograph.

Each of us will have a preference as to which photograph we feel has the most impact but one thing is for sure, the color of light has everything to do with the overall impact of your photograph and time of day is the key element. After spending all day avoiding the bland, direct sunlight, we get a dramatic range of completely different compositions all pass by in the space of an hour. Getting to know exactly when the color of light is perfect for the photograph you want takes time, but will add a whole new dimension to your work. Now get out there and make a mess!


Michael S Richter © 2000 - 2008 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED