While you might not think that meteorology or trigonometry come high on the list of necessary topics for photographers, you might find that running through the basics will help in identifying the kinds of light that bring richness to photography.
Time of day meets weather to create these many lighting situations, and behind them lay location and climate. Quite a lot to keep a handle on, particularly if you travel.
It probably helps to subtract the weather from this equation and just concentrate on the sun and its passage through the sky. The key end-points, as you’d expect, are sunrise and sunset, and not only do these set the timing for the day’s light, but on either side of them, for about a couple of hours, the light not only changes more rapidly, but is also for various reasons especially favoured for shooting. This means that most people like the light at these times of day, and even non-photographers start paying attention.
Nevertheless, you will doubtless find that there’s little point asking around for when the sun rises and sets (standard practice before GPS and smartphones could give you a running commentary on the timetables). There are, in fact, relatively few professions and trades that live by the sun; photography happens to be one of them.
With Golden Hour taking up the lower 20º of the sun’s path above the horizon, it’s useful to be able to judge its height, particularly if you want to match this to tables. Approximately, then, if you hold your hand like this, arm out-stretched, these are the heights: 8º for the top of the palm and 15º for the tip of the thumb. Add a third again for 20º.
It makes every sense now to rely on phones, tablets, or laptops for daylight tables, without needing to calculate anything, but the track of the sun through the sky is a slightly different matter. It changes constantly—very slowly near the equator, more definitely in higher latitudes. You might wish to try a phone app called Helios, which was designed for cinematographers, and has everything from a clinometer to a shadow-length calculator. As long as it has your location, you can work out not only where and when the sun will hit the horizon, but also where and when it will clear a skyline ridge or a high-rise block.
Factoring in the weather dramatically multiplies the possibilities, for confusion as well as shooting opportunities, so be aware that certainty is rare. Weather includes everything from atmospheric haze to clouds and storms—basically anything that prevents the sky from being crystal clear—and it’s the subtleties of weather that create the many nuances of lighting that figure largely in the lives of photographers, filmmakers, and painters, but not too many others.
Capturing Light is Michael Freeman’s simple but practical approach to interpreting, reacting to, and capturing photography’s most valuable commodity. Light. It shows you how to interpret, approach, and master whatever lighting situation you find yourself in, so you’ll always get the best shot.
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RRP for print edition: £19.99