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Photography is capturing light and accordingly, knowing when the light is at its best is one of the most important skills to have. It can take your photo from nay to yay. Especially when it comes to shooting landscapes, time of day is what you should be looking out for the most. The morning sunlight right after sunrise is soft, mid-day light can basically be described as harsh laser beams shooting from the sky, the golden hour is soft, perfect and well, golden, and the blue hours makes the sky light up in colours.
What this means, is that during the majority of the day, you can kick back or do whatever else needs to be done – but you probably shouldn’t waste your time on going out and shooting landscapes in the harsh mid-day light. Stay on the couch, have a beer, wait it out.
How to Take Your Photography from Boring to Awesome: An Example from the Crescent Lake in Dunhuang, China
Recently, I went to Dunhuang in China‘s Gansu Province. Dunhuang is a small city, and fairly out of the way for the average traveller. But, it has some awesome photography spots to offer and the long trip into this northwestern corner of China is absolutely worth it. Near Dunhuang, you can find parts of the Gobi Desert and hidden behind some dunes lies the Crescent Lake Oasis with its little temple and pagoda. Crescent Lake is over 2000 years old and naturally shaped like a half moon. However, due to desertification, the little oasis was in danger of disappearing beneath the dunes forever – until the Chinese government stepped in to save the beautiful spot and refill the fresh water spring with more water.
There is quite a lot to do in the desert, from camel riding, to driving ATVs, wandering up and sliding down the dunes to simply watching the stunning landscape and because I spent the better part of the day playing in the sand, I had plenty of time to watch the light progress throughout the day.
Know the Basics: Golden Hour, Sunset/Sunrise, Blue Hour
So the first thing you need to do, is figure out when sunset in your location is. Alternatively, and if you are a morning person, sunrise works just as well, but of course the light will be reversed, with the blue hour arriving first and a golden hour taking place right after sunrise.
Of course, the length of the golden and blue “hours” usually aren’t exactly one hour and when they occur varies depending on where in the world you are. Sometimes you get a blue minute, while in northern and southern latitudes the blue colour can last for hours. The light you get also depends on the elevation, weather conditions and particles in the air. No two skies are the same and oftentimes, a bit of luck is involved, as well, in getting the perfect sky, preferably with stunning, colourful cloud formations.
The blue hour is the time between sunset and pitch black night when the sky has this deep blue colour. There are even different degrees of twilight encompassed by the term blue hour, depending on how many degrees below the horizon the sun is. During the civil twilight, the sun is between 0° and 6° below the horizon and there is still enough light to see details in the landscape. Most photographers shooting artificially lit architecture and cityscapes prefer the nautical twilight, as the sky is this incredible deep rich blue shade. The sun is now 6° to 12° below the horizon, the stars are coming out. During the astronomical twilight, where the sun is between 12° and 18° below the horizon, the sky is almost black, but nebulae and and galaxies are not yet visible.
Landscapes are best shot during the golden hour as well as the early civil twilight. After that, the scene gets too dark without artificial lighting and the landscape is plunged into dark shadow.
Sunset in Dunhuang at that time of the year was at 9:15pm, which meant that I would start getting decent light maybe an hour before that and probably for another 10 minutes or so after the sun had set
For the sake of this tutorial, I needed to head into the desert in the early afternoon though, and took this first photo right after I arrived:
For the majority of the day, landscape photos will look like this: colourless, sky blown out and – if the sky is cloudless and the sun is out and beating down – dominated by harsh shadows. In short: landscape photos taken in the middle of the day often look terrible. So if you are serious about taking good landscape photos and want to do the beautiful scenery justice, don’t bother going out during the day. Take a nap, relax, edit photos or scout out locations for later in the day.
I spent the next six hours wandering the dunes, watching the sky and waiting for the golden hour.
8:42pm: Money Shot Nr.1!
In this photo the sun was finally just about to set behind the sand dune. The actual sunset, when the sun goes below the horizon, was still some minutes away though. You can see that the sun set a bit to the right of Crescent Lake. While I could have started to shoot this wide scene earlier if the sun was setting behind me, in this case I had to wait for it to touch the horizon so I wouldn’t have to shoot directly into the sun, get more colour in the sky and so I could star the sun, as well as play with some lens flare.
See how the last sun-rays are baking the oasis in this incredibly soft light? The dunes look positively smooth and creamy! This is exactly the time you should be shooting.
I also made sure to zoom in and capture some details:
8:55pm: Waiting for the sky to darken
After the sun had disappeared behind the dunes, the sky was still to bright and the clouds were only just showing hints of colour.
Time to wait a little bit longer.
9:08pm: Money Shot Nr.2
Only a few minutes later, right around the time of the true sunset, the clouds lit up in vibrant colours of yellow, orange and red. There was still enough light on the dunes and the pagoda to make out plenty of details and give the landscape this soft, rosy glow.
9:17pm: Aaand it’s gone
Early into the civil twilight, the colour in the clouds was almost gone and the soft light on the dunes had disappeared completely, turning them this dull grey colour. This is because without sunlight or artificial light, the scene darkens quickly and looks less dynamic and more flat. From this point in time, the sky turns a deeper blue, which is, as I mentioned, the perfect time to be shooting artificially lit up cityscapes and architecture. But since the Crescent Lake pagoda doesn’t get lit up and it was already too dark, I was done taking photos.
As you can see, the contrast between daytime and golden hour/blue hour photos is stark. And this is how you take your landscape photos…