A Guest post by Lin Junjiefrom Phocus Academy.
When I first started out in photography many years ago, I didn’t quite appreciate how important light is to photography.
In fact the young and ambitious me often fought against light.
I refused to be restricted by something as fickle as the weather and light. After all, a good photographer should be able to make anything look good—whether it’s noon, sunrise or dusk, right?
The result of my foolhardiness was that I often end up with photos with highlights that are too bright and shadows that are too dark for my camera to handle because I shot them at 12 noon. Or worse—I end up making my human subjects look like racoons because of the high overhead noon light.
Due to the poor lighting I shot the photos under, I wasn’t comfortable showing others the photos that I’ve just taken on my camera because they didn’t look good without extensive post-processing.
Truth as I learnt is that even the most mundane things on a simple handphone camera can look good in great light, and they can look really good right away without needing any or much post-processing at all.
As a photographer who understands how light can make or break a photo, I now only choose to photograph my day shots at two timings of the day known as the magic hours (or golden hours). In practical terms, they’re basically an hour or two after sunrise, and an hour or two before sunset. The exact timing will depend on where you are and which part of the year you are in.
Here in Singapore where we’re situated close to the equator, and the magic hours are almost always from 7-8.30am and 5-6.30pm. At these hours, light is most interesting because of three reasons:
- light is directional and that provides interesting side lighting that can emphasize shape and texture, in addition to casting long, interesting shadows of your subjects,
- light has a more warmer and more attractive colour than midday sun (thus the name ‘golden hour’), and
- light quality is softer and produces highlights and shadows that your camera can deal with more easily than the extremely contrasty light produced by the high midday sun.
To illustrate, I was photographing the temple ruins at Ayutthaya in Thailand sometime late last year. Although I had chosen to shoot in the evening magic hours, the strong cloud cover that day would constantly block and diffuse the warm evening sun.
However I knew I would get a dramatically different—and better—shot once the sun breaks through the clouds and lit the scene in front of me.
Sure enough, patience paid off and I got myself the shot I was looking for. The shots were taken less than 2 minutes apart but made a world of a difference.
While I am not usually inspired to photograph my neighbourhood in the same way as I would photograph the world heritage site of the temple ruins in Ayutthaya, mundane everyday sights in my neighbourhood can look gorgeous in the right light.
On one occasion on my way back home, I saw how the evening light was casting beautiful shadows of the trees on the apartment blocks nearby. I quickly returned home, grabbed my camera and took two a few shots of the scenes around me.
Within a span of 18 seconds, I had two completely different photos of the same scene.
So while choosing to shoot at the magic hours dramatically increases your chances of getting a good photo, you’re still very much subjected to the weather and cloud cover. But if you choose to fight against light and photograph at the less ideal timings, chances of you getting a good photo are probably terribly slim.
In the world of photography today where people obsess themselves over expensive gear and equipment, light is probably the most understated part of photography.
I often tell my students that learning to appreciate and exploit great light is probably the single, biggest improvement you can do to your photography, even more so than spurlging their paycheque on the expensive lens they’re eyeing after.
Lin Junjie is a professional photographer and photography instructor based in Singapore. He conducts photography workshops and courses in Singapore at Phocus Academy.