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Thoughts on the Golden Hour

Posted by Tom Benedict on 20/04/2011

About a year ago, one of the members of the Kona Camera Club looked at some panoramas I’d done in Pololu Valley, and made the comment that I had a great vantage point, but shot under lousy light.  To be fair he worded it far more kindly than that, but that’s what it boiled down to.  As I’ve seen it put elsewhere, if you see a supermodel in a bikini walking a cheetah through Times Square at noon, enjoy the spectacle, but leave the camera in the bag and ask her to come back toward sunset.  My panoramas were made at noon.  Cheetah or no, the light really wasn’t ideal.

This pushed me.  I started trying to do KAP in the evening and ran into all sorts of problems.  The first is that the wind changes as the sun sets.  Without their heat source thermals collapse and everything shifts.  Sometimes it can be predicted, and at other times your gear just falls out of the sky.  Each location has its own behavior.  Living on the west side of Hawaii Island, the change is typically sudden and strong.  I’ve done evening photography on the east side, and I didn’t even notice the change as the sun set.  It just depends on where you are.

The second problem I ran into is that the light falls off as the sun sets.  No big deal on a tripod, but this can be a show stopper on a kite.  In order to minimize motion blur, I typically shoot at 1/1000 of a second or faster.  Because my camera is a compact, I can’t shoot at over ISO 80 or ISO 100 and expect to get usable noise.  Put these two together and you can see that it’s a recipe for disaster.

The third problem I ran into ties back to the reason why I keep a set of graduated neutral density filters in my camera bag.  Toward sunset the difference in luminosity between sky and ground can be so high that only one of them can be properly exposed.  This is great for sunrise silhouettes, but with KAP the idea is to photograph the landscape, not throw it into darkness.  So I started using a graduated neutral density filter in the air.  Putting any filter in front of a lens costs you light.  This only made the noise issue worse.

And all of this is why I wound up buying a Canon T2i to be my new KAP camera.  It should arrive in the next two days.  I can’t wait!

But in the meanwhile I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching on what constitutes the golden hour.  Traditionally it’s the hour right around sunrise and sunset.  Here in the tropics that light only exists for about thirty minutes around sunrise and sunset, unfortunately.  So is this the only time a photographer can really work?  Does it really mean that I should pack my gear and leave it in the bag throughout the rest of the day?

A recent trip to Kiholo Bay convinced me this isn’t the case.  I was there to photograph honu, or Pacific Green Sea Turtles.  They swim in the waters of the Kiholo Bay Lagoon, and make great KAP subjects.  I showed up just before noon and did photography until about 2:00pm.  In every case the reflections off the water spoiled the photographs I made.  Even the ones I made using a polarizing filter have these  hot spots in them.  There’s only so much a filter can do.

But I’ve tried photographing underwater subjects around sunset, and the conditions are equally bad then.  In this case the light just can’t penetrate the water enough to illuminate the subject, and the detail is lost.  I’ve found the best time for this is between 3:30pm and 5:00pm: several hours before sunset.

Another favorite subject is people’s shadows.  The idea is to point the camera straight down and photograph people as they do what they do.  The real subject of the photograph isn’t the people themselves, it’s their shadows.  But for this to work their shadows have to be just long enough for them to look like people, but not so long that they stretch beyond the edge of the frame.  During the traditional golden hour the shadows are just too long.  Shadow people have to be photographed earlier in the day.  This winds up working well around 4:00-5:00pm.

So clearly there is more than one golden hour, depending on the subject.

As I said, I should have my new camera some time in the next couple of days.  I have plans to build two KAP rigs for it so far: a panorama rig using a Geneva mechanism on the pan axis, and an ortho rig that points the camera straight down.  I also have plans to use these to find which subjects work best at each hour of the day.  I do think noon is out.  I haven’t found anything that really shines under that harsh light.  But I do think it’s possible for a kite aerial photographer to put in a full day of photography under ideal conditions, not just in the half hour around sunrise or sunset.

It’ll be fun.

– Tom


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