digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Want to Take Better Photos? Time of Day Matters!

I do a lot of image critiques in my classes and photo tours and one question that comes up time and time again is, “how could I make this photo better?”

Often it is not a matter of anything that can be done in post-processing, or even at the time it was shot, but rather going back and shooting the same thing again at a different time of day. If the light is super contrasty and there are harsh shadows, cropping and camera angle really aren't going to solve the problem. If the light is flat and boring, you can punch it up a bit in post-processing but the best plan is to return and shoot it again.

Lighting experiment

So I decided to do a little experiment to demonstrate to you just how much the light changes, and how important it is to creating the look you want for your image. Not only does the direction and quality of light change, but also the color. If you want to take better photos, read on and see if you pick up any tips.

The two sets of images below were shot from the same spot (or as close as I could get), at the same angle, using the same aperture and white balance settings. The only thing that has changed in each of the images is the corresponding shutter speed and ISO as the light changed – and take careful notice at the color tint as well. There were all processed minimally in Lightroom to adjust for the building tilt, lens distortion, and keep the exposures fairly consistent. But other than that I have not changed the white balance or done any processing magic on them.

Example #1 – The Church

As I am currently living in Granada, Nicaragua for two months this is the view outside our front door. It's a popular tourist stop and we often sit on our stoop and watch the buses come, people get out and take photos, and they then leave. Because I would be doing this so often during the day I wanted a subject that was nearby and the light changes so dramatically on the face of the church it's a great example. Let's take a look.

Time of day 6 a m 750px 01

6 a.m. It is worth noting here I am NOT a morning person. Early for me is 8 a.m., so I must have been really motivated to do this for you! The church faces west so the sun is coming up right behind it. My timing was perfect, and yes I did go back to bed until 8 a.m. after I took this shot.

What do you notice about the lighting? Okay if you want a sunrise shot but the church itself looks kinda blah. Let's continue.

Time of day 8 15 a m 750px 02

8 a.m. Now the sky is really bright and there is starting to be a little bit of light coming across the steps of the church but it's still pretty flat. You'll also notice it's damn near impossible to get a shot of it without cars, a bicycle or horse buggy.

Time of day 10 a m 750px 03

10 a.m. Can you start to see the side lighting here? Look at the curved railing and the shadow it is making on the steps. The sky is a bit richer blue as well. I have not used any filters for these images, just the light moving has made these changes.

Time of day 12 p m 750px 04

Noon Okay now we're talking! Can you see what I'm seeing here? Deeply coloured blue sky, side light, shadows, texture and depth. That is what light direction does for your images. Compare this image to the ones above and notice how flat the front of the church looks in them. Did you even realize the columns were raised prior to this image?

Time of day 2 p m cloudy 750px 05

2 p.m. Cloudy – when I went out to shoot on this time it was cloudy. I took the photo anyway to show you the difference soft light makes. What do you notice here? Does this image have more or less contrast showing in the scene and on the church?

Keep in mind this is neither good nor bad, it just is. If you're photographing people it can be a good thing to have overcast or softer lighting. You can also get some dramatic cloud formations. If you don't want the washed out white sky, just frame your image so you don't see any or crop it out later. I recommend shooting as close as you can in camera though and trying to “see” the shot when you take it, instead of searching for it with the crop tool later.

Time of day 2 p m sunny 750px 06

2 p.m. Sunny – this is pretty nice too for texture on the church. Not as much cross lighting at the one at noon though, but still good.

Time of day 3 15 p m rainy 750px 07

3 p.m. Rain! I took this as an example that sometimes shooting in the rain or inclement weather can help you get some unique images. So don't be afraid to shoot in the rain, just cover your gear and make sure it's protected.

Time of day 4 15 p m 750px 08

4 p.m. Wow look at that sky! Now the sun is pretty much behind the building I'm shooting from, hitting the front of the church almost directly straight on. What a difference in the sky from the early morning images. Again I swear I did NOT use a filter here to make the sky blue or darken it in post production – it's just like that.

Time of day 5 p m 750px 09

5 p.m. This is sunset time in Granada, Nicaragua or close to it. So there are some nice pink tones in the sky. The contrast is much lower and the overall feel is gentler.

Time of day 6 p m 750px 10

6 p.m. I got some crazy green street lighting showing up here, but notice how dramatic this looks. Blue hour, which is right after sunset, can be a great time to capture city shots especially. The lights come on, the sky is still blue not black, and it's the type of shot that most photographers miss because they've already gone home or called it quits for the day and are doing something silly like eating dinner.

Let's review. I have not used any filters on the lens during shooting, nor have I changed the white balance. All the images above were shot using the Daylight or Sunlight white balance preset. Of course, normally I would do some tweaks to the color in Lightroom but I wanted to leave it to show how much it changes during the day and how important white balance is to the mood of your image.

Example #2 – The Courtyard

Here in Nicaragua it is very common to have your garden on the inside of your house. So in the house we are renting we have an inner courtyard and even a small dipping pool (about the size of a hot tub). The light actually changes so drastically that I have to move from one room to the other to work. Yes the sun is great but it's really challenging to see a computer screen when it's either in the sun or strongly backlit. Here's how that series went down:

Time of day 6am 750px 17

6 a.m. One thing to notice here is how blue this image appears compared to the following shots. Once again, all done at the same white balance setting and not adjusted in Lightroom.

Time of day 8am 750px 18

8:15 a.m. Roughly – not much difference in the lighting direction or feel, but the color temperature is much warmer than the previous image.

Time of day 10 15am 750px 19

10 a.m. This is the time of day I either hang a big gray sheet up to block the sun, or move to another room. Yes is sounds like a rough life, but keep in mind the sun is also hot! You can see the huge contrast range in this image from the extreme brights of the floor and trees, to the deep shadows of the wall and pool in behind.

Time of day 12pm 750px 20

Noon Not a huge visible difference from the last image. If you look closely though you can see the shadows on the floor have moved. Can you see it?

Time of day 2pm 750px 21

2 p.m. The shadows are longer in this image and the back wall is more lit up, reducing the huge contrast range that was present in the earlier shots.

Time of day 3pm 750px 22

3 p.m. Afternoon rain shower! Pretty common here at this time of year. It rains for a few minutes almost every day, then it's done and back to sunny. Can you see the rain in the air? Landing on the pool? Remember, think “different” and that will help you achieve “better”.

Time of day 4pm 750px 23

4 p.m. Notice once again how blue this image is overall. The sun has moved out of the courtyard and it's all reflected light from the sky. Go look at the photo of the church at 4 pm again – what color is the sky? Hmmm . . . coincidence?

Summary and action plan

So what have you learned from these examples? You tell me? While you may not always have the luxury of coming back later, or planning what time of day to shoot your scene – it's certainly a good idea to do it when you can. That often means just being out shooting at the edge of light – meaning just after sunrise, or the couple hours before sunset.

My suggestion and exercise for you is to practice this at home. Pick a subject really close like I did – I'd suggest your front or back yard even – and shoot it from the same angle, with the same lens, using the same white balance, at as many different hours during the day as possible. If you can't get it all done in one day spread it out and tick off the hours you have done over a few days like I did. If it rains, shoot that too.

Please share in the comments below your observations on the example images and if you do the exercise share your images here too.


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  • Helen Curtis

    Hi Darlene, thank you so much for showing us this visually! I haven’t yet tried the comparison of the same place at different times, but I did recently go out at sunset, (here in Adelaide, South Australia, that was about 7.30pm). My goodness, it truly is the “golden hour!” This shot is not perfect by any means, but it’s one of my ‘aha’ moments; I will be paying much more attention to this lesson from here on in. Thanks again, Helen.

  • Nicholas Fulford

    Be aware that you have at least two light sources, the sky and the sun. This changes characteristics of diffusion and colour temperature. (Always shoot RAW, and then the colour temperature is metadata about the image, not a decision imposed at the time of the shot.)

    What is your intent with the shot. (Ansel Adams always said that you should be visualizing the print before hitting the shutter. I agree.) That is worth thinking about when deciding time of day, time of year, position, focal length, shutter speed, aperture, et cetera. Each choice should be thought out. Do you want people out of the scene? If you don’t want people in the scene: Multiple shots and layering works, as does a very, very long exposure time, and that is why we all have a 10 stop neutral density and polarizing filter in our kit bag.

    We have so many variables that we can change to realise our vision, but first we need to have our vision! I know, sometimes it just unfolds in front of us, and then the decisions have to be made fast and furious. It could be really dynamic lighting, a street photograph, hiking into an unknown place and it all just confronts us.

    Are you ready?

    Being ready with intimate familiarity with your kit, having the right kit with you, and knowing how to make due, (i.e. to improvise), is key.

    The unexpected tests us in so many ways, and the planned image displays both our artistic sensibility and our technical skill.

    Don’t forget to carry an off-camera flash and diffuser, and experiment, experiment, experiment. Creative play is wonderful.

    • Helen Curtis

      Hi Nicholas, this is great advice and offers great support to Darlene’s article. My question is can I, with a 2yo D3100 and 2 kit lenses, still utilise the lesson here and get some decent images? Or is it just that I’ll be restricted in the times of day and type of light I can shoot in and expect good images? I hope that makes sense?! Thanks again for your comments, they are greatly appreciated. Regards, Helen.

      • Nicholas Fulford

        Yes, you can.

        The D3100 can shoot raw so you can take advantage of that with respect to providing more exposure latitude – for highlight recovery and removing colour casting during post-processing.

        The camera also does not change the importance of how I use all the variables to realise my vision. They all still apply. Whether I am using my D800 or my point and shoot, how I frame the image, the time of day and year, lens focal length, aperture, shutter speed, ISO setting, and the location of the sun are arrows in my photographic quiver.

        Look at the scene. If I want to shoot it there must be something compelling about it. Emotionally it is creating an impression that makes me want to capture it. Now can I see what I need to do to capture my emotional impression most effectively. If the primary subject is a waterfall, is the impression that I am getting more effectively conveyed with a short shutter speed, which sharpens the water and freezes it like ice, OR is it more effectively conveyed with a 1 second exposure that captures the motion – the long swirling movements? If the image is of a bicyclist racing by, does panning the camera and using a longer exposure (e.g. 1/30 second) isolate the bicyclist and create a feeling of motion better than a 1/1000 second exposure that freezes the subject?

        What am I trying to convey with this image? That is the question. Knowing that, determines everything.

        When I used to shoot large format landscape – back in ye ole film days – I kept a sheet of paper with a set of questions on it for each image. Outside of the obvious technical choices I was making, I also wrote a sentence or two about my emotional impression, and what I wanted to realise. Doing that reminded me later what my vision was so that when I got back into the darkroom I would keep that very much in mind when developing and printing.

        None of that changes with digital. I can even keep a notebook, with frame numbers on each page to note my impressions. This is actually a really good discipline because it slows me down when in the field. It makes me express my intent in words, and that sharpens my artistic focus.

        Do not be afraid to take numerous shots of the same scene changing the framing or one of the variables. With time you will build up a repertoire of skills that you know you can draw upon. But do change things up so that you don’t always realise the same type of image time and time again, as that can get pretty stale.

        • Helen Curtis

          Thanks for the response, Nicholas. I particularly like the notebook idea; being a visual person, a notebook will definitely help me to see what’s going on, rather than just guessing. It can be so easy to get caught up in the technicalities of the craft, it’s so good to be reminded to look once again to the end; what is the pic saying, why am I taking it, etc.

          (Oh, the one thing I always do now is shoot in RAW; I noticed the difference on one shot I opened up last night, thought it was a gonner, but the RAW saved it!).

          Thanks again, I appreciate you taking the time to help ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Guest

    Hi Darlene, thank you so much for the post. This is going to help a lot for beginner like me. I always like to shoot either in afternoon (4pm or later) or in early morning. This one I took at 5 pm when the sun was exactly opposite the temple (I only resized the photo to fit in the limit mentioned here). But I never thought photos taken at noon can be so dramatic as you have pointed out here. So, from now on I’ll try to make the most of natural light while shooting because while travelling I may get only one chance to visit a place and capture images.

  • Hi Darlene, thank you so much for the post. This is going to help a lot for beginner like me. I always like to shoot either in afternoon (4pm or later) or in early morning. This one I took at 5 pm when the sun was exactly opposite the temple (I only resized the photo to fit in the limit mentioned here). But I never thought photos taken at noon can be so dramatic, especially for photographing architecture. So, from now on I’ll try to make the most of natural light while shooting because while travelling I may get only one chance to visit a place and capture images.

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