SUNRISE – SUNSET
By Bill Dobbins
Photography actually means “painting with light” and what makes a photo is light falling on and being recorded by a light-sensitive surface – such as film or a card in a digital camera. Photographers can do a lot to modify how that light is recorded. And nowadays with digital photography a lot can be done using software like Photoshop and Lightroom. But the better and most appropriate the quality of light you are working with the easier it is to get truly outstanding results.
Shooting outdoors you can encounter all sorts of light and weather conditions. But by far the most beautiful is generally thought to be sunlight just as the sun rises in early morning or sets in the evening. When the sun is low on the horizon on a clear day the light rays have to go through a lot more atmosphere than when the sun is higher in the sky. This makes it softer and much more red. Light like this can be breathtaking and lends itself to all sorts of photo subjects from glamour and beauty to landscapes.
There is a difference between light at sunrise and sunset. Early in the morning, there tends to be less dust in the air so the light is somewhat less red and a little sharper. In the evening, after the wind has blown all day, there is much more dust that softens the light and creates a redder look. But both times of day can yield gorgeous results.
By the way, people often think the term “The Golden Hour” uscd by movie makers refers to these times when sunlight is so golden. Actually, it means the time when there is still light in the sky after the sun has set. A filmmaker like Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) loves to shoot at this time of day, which extends his shooting schedule because this gives him a very short window to work on any given day.
Shooting in summer, it is difficult (not impossible) to shoot during the middle of the day without a lot of light modification – like strobes, reflectors and scrims. If I where doing a commercial shoot with a decebt budget I would make use of all of these techniques. But many of my shoots do not involve this kind of budget, I’m out on location with just a model – and sometimes an assistant and MUA – so doing photos at sunrise and sunset the only modification I use is some kind of strobe (often just flash on camera) mostly when my subject is backlit. As the sun is almost on horizon is becomes so weak that it doesn’t take much additional light to brighten up the subject. Especially shooting digital where the tools in Lightroom allow you to so easily bring up shadows and paint in brightness.
I frequently take models out to the desert near Los Angeles and love shooting at sunrise and sunset. In the summer when days are so long, I sometimes drive out in the afternoon, shoot until sunset, get something to eat and a few hours sleep at a motel and then am up again and ready to do another photo session at 6am. That gives me two shoots for the same trip in a period of less than 24 hours.
There are a lot of good desert or beach shoot days in California in the winter or early spring. But the days are much shorter and the light in middle of the day is much softer. So in that case, I arrange to shoot in the afternoon and continue until the sun goes down. Of course, where time is concerned, I need to keep in mind that locations where I shoot are often surrounded by mountains. This means the sun rises a little later and sets a big later. In fact, went to shoot at The Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley at sunrise and realized the rising sun had to get above an 11,000 foot range of mountains before it became visible. A similar thing happened when I shot one morning at Sedona. You can encounter problems like this shooting at unfamiliar locations without time to reconnoiter before hand.