The 9 phases of natural light…

Every photographer has heard the term “golden hour,” and most photographers have learned to avoid the harsh light of mid day, but one of the things that really helped me get variety into what I shoot, was learning how to use the entire 24 hours of the day.

Pre-light.  Dawn.  If I get one question more than any other, from other photographers, it’s “how do you shoot your sunset pics.”

I don’t.

They’re not sunset, they’re sunRISE.   And the trick to it is pretty simple….they’re not sunrise pictures either.  They’re taken in the half hour BEFORE sunrise.   I control the light on the subject, and use the glow in the sky, rather than the rising sun itself.  Light is soft, sky colors are vibrant………….and the world is quiet.  It’s almost always just me out there, getting a huge headstart of the rest of the photographers.


My mornings are divided into three phases.  At least on sunny days.
1. sunrise (pre-light)
2. actual sunrise
3. soft light morning

They are actually 3, distinctive kinds of light.  While I bleed pre-light for every ounce of color:

…actual sunrise is very much like sunset, a war of light between me and the sun.
I can either blast my subject with tons of light of my own:

…or allow the sun to partially dominate the subject:

…or completely overwhelm the scene and produce a silhouette:


Pre-light is that glow we get a half hour before sunrise.  Soft morning light is what we get when the sun if fully up, and all the reds and oranges are gone from the sky, but the light is still being scattered by the atmosphere, and can be blocked by hills and objects.  The sunlight bounces off the very sky, to create an enormous blue (or gray) softbox behind us.

No need for fill flash or reflectors, just put the sun behind the subject, blocked by objects, and let the entire sky behind you softly light the scene.

In a perfect world, I would do three shoots a day, one in pre-light, one at sunrise and one in soft morning light.  Then I’d drink coffee.

After the AWESOME and INCOMPARABLE soft morning light, we enter the work zone.  Harsh mid day light is tough.   You need shade.  Good, mature shade, from tall trees, with more shade far in the distance for a background, and you can still shoot natural light images with no extra struggle….but without that mature shade, we have to go to reflectors, or fill flash, or off-camera flash.  We have to ADD light.

….after the tortuous gauntlet that is mid-day, harsh light, we get our first three phases, but in reverse.

Soft evening light is very much like soft morning light…
Sunset is very much like sunrise…
and post-light is very much like pre-light.

HOWEVER.  I don’t like the three late phases as much as the three early phases, for a few simple reasons.

  1. It’s usually hotter and more humid at night, so the colors are more vibrant in the morning
  2. There are more people out and about, it’s harder to find peaceful locations at night
  3. Morning shooting gets me AHEAD of the world….

Evening shoots can be beautiful, and a lot of subjects won’t be available at 5am….so they’re necessary.  But given a choice, I’d have all my shooting done, every day, by 10am.

The EIGHTH phase of light, is blue hour.  It’s not pitch black, but the sun is down and the glow is gone and most of the color is washed from the scene.  There are no shadows, it’s the ultimate soft light, but it only works for special goals…the images automatically lack punch.


And lastly, DIRECTED NATURAL LIGHT.  It’s any time that natural light spills into a controlled space.  The most obvious is window light.  Window light can be soft, from the side of the building away from the sun, or harsh, with direct sun blasting in, but there are so many ways for indoor spaces to modify light, we’ll save it for it’s own essay.

1 Comment

Comments are closed.