The concept of the Magic Hour, sometimes called the Golden Hour, is well known: This is roughly the first hour of sunlight in the morning, and the last hour of sunlight in the evening. It's the hour when the light is warmest in tone, softest (most diffuse), and when shadows are longest. I use the term "hour" loosely here; depending on time of year, weather, shooting location, and the photographer's intentions, the magic hour may stretch into several hours, last only minutes, or not occur at all.

The sun's low angle during magic hour causes the light to travel through more of our atmosphere than at other times of day. The atmosphere scatters blue light, causing the red/orange/yellow range to appear more intense. In good conditions shadows are long but soft-edged; texture in the subject is enhanced, sometimes to extremes, which can be a nice creative tool. In mid-day when the sun is overhead, the light is harsh, shadows are hard and short, and highlights are difficult to manage.

Magic Hour is all about the fringes, those fuzzy edges of the day.

A Walk in the Dark

The Path to Enlightenment

Sunrise and morning mist in Glacier National Park. This was a single frame exposed for roughly the center of the frame, enhancing the "god beams" while letting the darkest areas go black.

Like most photographers I like to push the magic hour a bit, getting to my locations early and waiting (and waiting) for the perfect light. This can require interesting (OK, scary) walks in the dark. The photo at the top of this page shows moonrise over western Montana's Mission Mountains, a day after the November full moon. To make this picture I started walking from home about 5:30 PM. It was below freezing and the light was fading fast, but it wasn't quite dark. I walked for 20 minutes to the shooting location, set up my gear, and waited. It was now quite dark; I stayed in an open area, avoiding the trees. I heard great horned owls calling to each other, and somewhere in the hills below a pack of coyotes yipping and howling. Deer and black bears frequent the area, but I'm happy to report I heard nothing in the woods behind me that sounded like large mammals moving around.

The moon rose above the mountains about 40 minutes later. It was another 10 before it was positioned as you see in the photo and I could begin working. When finished I walked back to the house in darkness, using my flashlight to avoid obstacles and large-mammal sounds. For the record, I'm quite familiar with the area, and I had my bear spray.

At the other end of the day, morning, it's usually necessary to hike in darkness to insure arrival at the desired shooting location when the light is right for the envisioned photos. I'll typically arrive at the destination in darkness, set up for the shot, and wait for the good light. At least I can walk out in daylight after the shooting is finished.

Photographs From the Edge(s)

Spring Snowstorm

A late June storm brought 10 inches (25cm) of snow in 24 hours. Two days later it was completely gone, melted away by summer warmth.

It's not just the day that has fringes. The best conditions for photography occur at the edges of any number of events. These often present lousy conditions for the photographer; that's perhaps the subject of another article. It's been said one must suffer for one's art. Nobody knows that like the outdoor photographer!

Light, color, and subject matter often come together at the edges of weather systems. An approaching or receding storm can provide dramatic light, sky, and other conditions. There may be lightning, wind, virga, back- or bottom-lit clouds, rain or ice or snow (or all at once), fog, even sunshine! With some preparation and appropriate precautions, some of the very best outdoor photographs are made in these transitions.

Great light happens at the edges of the seasons; the landscape changes as the hours of daylight increase or diminish. Wildlife constantly adapts to the environment. Here in northwest Montana, spring can be quite wet, while summer can be quite the opposite, and often smoky. The golden light of fall is unmatched by that of any other season. Most of our moisture comes in the form of winter's snow. There is no better time to be outside exploring with the camera as when one season makes its transition to the next.

Pushing the metaphor a bit, even wildlife has its edges, although these tend to coincide with the seasons. The coats of many fur-bearing animals change in spring and fall, mating behaviors are displayed, babies are born (or hatched) and raised, feather coloration changes, antlers grow and are shed.

Capturing the Edges

Despite being softer than at mid-day, light at the fringes can have a dynamic range greater than our cameras, whether digital or film, can capture. This generally isn't so in cloudy or foggy weather or in other conditions where the light is fairly flat. But sunrises and sunsets, with their often dramatic lighting, require some "taming" if the drama of the scene is to be captured.

Sometimes for creative reasons you'll want to expose for the highlights or shadows and let the rest of the image go where it may. This results in blocked up shadows or blown highlights, but in many instances that can work in an image. When you want to retain some detail in the dark foreground while capturing the amazing light in the clouds half an hour after the sun has set, there are some techniques and equipment to help.

Split and graduated neutral-density filters have been in use for decades. These filters are dark at the top, clear at the bottom, and have either a hard line or a graduated transition in between. They are available in increments from one to several stops for the dark top section. The filters I use are rectangular, and can be installed in a holder or hand-held in front of the lens (tripod recommended, as always). The filter is positioned so the transition between light and dark is hidden along the horizon or other feature in the scene. The clear area allows the darker parts of the scene to be exposed normally. The top of the filter darkens the bright sky by one or more stops. These filters can be finicky to use and seem to fingerprint at a glance, but with a little practice are quite effective. Do some searching on the Web and you'll find endless articles describing their use.

Freezeout Lake Sunset

A late March sunset at Freezeout Lake. Open water reflects a dramatic sky, which was held back a little with a 2-stop graduated neutral-density filter.

Another method for taming dynamic range is shooting for HDR, or high dynamic range, processing of the image files. This requires some planning when capturing your images. It is necessary to make a series of exposures, varying the shutter speed (NOT the aperture) with each. Depending on your interpretation of the scene and the method you'll use when processing the files, you'll need at least two, and as many as six (or more) exposures bracketed a stop apart. There are techniques for blending these exposures, in your image processing software, so detail is retained in the highlights and shadows. Photoshop has tools for doing this, and there are stand-alone (and plug-in) programs for HDR processing. Again, a little Web searching will net a list of products and plenty of instruction for getting the best results.

You can also sometimes use the approach I used to capture the moonrise panorama at the top of the page. This combined several techniques, including multiple exposures and digital blending so both highlights (the moon) and shadow areas (everything but the moon in this case) were rendered as the coyotes and I saw the scene that evening in the dark.

Fringe Recommendations

January, 2010