Color of Light

This our second post on the subject of light and how light impacts the quality of a photo. Last time we talked about light angle showing how lower angled light creates depth to a photo. Today, we will talk about the color of light.

Light can be most any color. I’m sure you heard of a black-light, where when shined on an object such as a rug, you can easily see areas where Spot couldn’t hold it in (maybe next time you’ll take Spot out for that walk!). Those “areas” fluoresce while the remaining part of the scene stays dark. Not interested in black light? How about blue light which is commonly used in cutting through fog, letting you see the road. Now that we know a little bit about the color of light, let’s get to the question of the day.

How can we use light color in photography?

Everything looks better when bathed in beautiful light. Even a Chevy! I took this shot in Death Valley after the sun had set.  We were right in the middle of an exquisite blue hour (which really only lasted about 11 minutes). Everything looked amazing, even this Chevy:


Notice the signature colors of the Blue Hour – Pinks and Blues in the sky, also called Alpenglow.

So, if a Chevy can look this good, maybe other objects we shoot can look really good. I’m talking about objects such as mountains, lakes, trees, flowers, and people! All of these items can look much better by choosing a proper color of light.

Let’s get back to the question of how can we use the color of light? If you remember from “First Light – Angle of Light“, we talked about the angle of light being determined by time (of day). The same is true about the color of light. The best time to shoot outdoors is early morning and late in the day.

Blue Hour

The blue hour is just before sunrise and just after sunset. You are probably asking, “if we shoot just before sunrise, isn’t it dark?” It is definitely darker than if the sun were out. But, it is still a bit light with the sun aching to show itself. And, the light is an amazing blue. To photograph effectively, you will need a tripod to keep your camera still. The blue hour doesn’t last long, sometimes as short as 10 minutes, so you will have to act fast. You will want to plan your shot in advance and be set up, ready to go when the blue hour hits. You won’t be disappointed.

Notice how well defined the rocks are.

Golden Hour

Just after sunrise and just before sunset, the golden hour casts its magic. The very low angle of sun produces gorgeous golden light (hence, the name, golden hour). This golden light is wonderfully warm with reds, oranges and yellows bathing your scene.  In the photos below you can see the same scene shot a two different times. The one on the left is at the very beginning of the golden hour. The sun is still a bit high but not overhead. The light on Balanced Rock is nice but not dramatic. Whereas the shot on the right was taken in the heart of golden hour. The rocks started glowing red and the sky became purple, making for an immensely dramatic scene. Which one do you prefer?

Balanced Rock looks nice in this photo as the sun has moved into position at the start of golden hour.

Now we are talking! The light during the heart of golden hour produces some striking coloring.

Sun Overhead

This is the worst time of day to shoot, from the end of morning golden hour to the beginning of evening golden hour. As the sun gets higher in the sky, the lighting becomes harsher and harsher. Deep back shadows can form causing our pictures to look icky (yes, this is a technical term). Have you ever taken a picture of a person and the face comes out almost black from shadow? The sun is out and it is bright out, and this is not fair! When this happens, I typically look for a tree or an overhang. I’ll get my subject into the shady area and take make picture. The person looks a lot better – I can even see their face!

We took this self-portrait many years ago before we understood about harsh light and shadows.

The sun was quite harsh this day but we moved under an overhang which produced pleasing light.

Cloudy Day

When we cover the sun with clouds, an interesting effect occurs. The light gets diffused, removing all the shadows. This really helps when photographing objects that have lots of crevices which would normally cause severe shadowing. If you shoot your mountain scene on a cloudy day, your mountain will look much nicer than during the midday sun. Below are two pictures of what the locals call, “Swiss Cheese” rocks. The photo on the left was taken with the sun high in the sky. You can see that there is a lack of definition in the rock formation with a flatness in color. The photo on the right was taken without the sun, just twelve minutes after the shot on the right. Notice the improved rock definition and coloring.

The rocks look flat, the color washed out, and if you look carefully you can see a little bit of harsh shadowing.

Just twelve minutes later with the sun hidden, the rocks come alive with color and definition.

Just twelve minutes later with the sun hidden, the rocks come alive with color and definition.

Hopefully you can see that the color of light is extremely important in our photography. When combined with the proper angle of light, we can produce very dramatic images. This is why we shoot very early and very late each day. We use the daytime to play with our images, hike, and most importantly, sleep.

See you next time when I’ll discuss the roll of lighting in outdoor portraiture. (If you are interested, follow along this category of blog posts I am doing: Photography LearningInstruction.)

And, remember, it’s all about the light! Really!