The “Magic Hour” is that block of time photographers refer to when they talk about the dramatic changes in light and colour that occur, usually just around sunset. It isn’t an hour at all- in fact, often it lasts just a few short minutes. Without getting too technical, as the sun’s angle in the sky lowers, the rays striking the atmosphere skip off and refract in such a way that different colours of the spectrum appear visible. The light itself appears ‘softer’ because the rays are passing through a greater thickness of atmosphere (including dust and water vapour) which is why the sun appears so much dimmer as it’s about to kiss the horizon, than when it’s at the zenith of its passage across the sky around noon.
What that means for the photographer, of course, is lots of pretty colours.
In fact, it’s more than just pretty colours. And it’s more than just sitting around waiting for the sun to go down. Atmospherics change day by day, which is why no two sunsets are ever the same. A really cloudy day will obscure the sunset altogether (duh). A completely clear day might be very attractive to look at, but from a photographer’s perspective, a straight-up shot of the ball of the sun near the horizon can be boring as plywood unless you find a dramatic silhouette to stick in front of it. A scattering of clouds can make for some of the most interesting images, because they provide a sponge-like canvas to soak up the colour. Most exciting of all are days where there are multiple layers of cloud, so that different layers catch sunrays at different angles, meaning the sky goes lots of different colours all at the same time. I love these days.
The time passes quickly. Relative to its passage at the height of the day, the sun moves quickly in the evening- far moreso at the tropics than near the poles, of course, where sunset might only last fifteen or twenty minutes. That means that the angles of the bands of sunlight change quickly too. On a day with scattered cloud, even the clouds may be moving, giving the photographer a dynamic and exciting pallette that might only remain the same for thirty seconds at a time. I’ve grown accustomed to watching (and attempting to predict, with only average ratings) the colours on the clouds change, build to an apex, then quickly fade away leaving nothing but a damp grey colour behind, all in the space of a couple of minutes. If you’re not ready with the shot, you’ll lose it forever.
What you put in front of the light is every bit as important as the light itself. I’m frustrated at the moment because the sunsets where I am right now are perfect. The monsoon sky gives a scattered cloud cover most evenings that means that it turns wonderful hues of magenta and ochre. The city faces westward over the ocean so there’s an unfettered view of the light right until its last moments above the horizon. Unfortunately, given the placing of the hotel I’m in and its grounds, I have nothing to place in front of the dusk that doesn’t make it look terribly cluttered, and so I end up with photos of a sky, but nothing else, and while these can be quite dramatic for a while, they quickly grow tedious. You want something striking which you can place against the canvas of the sky to break up the image, give the eye a point of focus, but you want it to be simple so that it doesn’t take away from the complexity of the play of light, and something that will work as a silhouette.
Sometimes, everything conspires in your favour, and these are the moments you live for as a photographer: When you have a good horizon, a suitably-painted skyscape, an interesting subject, and then the light throws in something special. Like the first image in this set, where beams of light slipping underneath a strip of cloud splashed over the branches of the tree I was photographing for just a few short seconds, and gave the image an extra spark. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it’s what we’re waiting for.
This series of images was shot over a twenty-five minute time-period on the edge of the Woomera flats north of Port Augusta, the start of the South Australian Outback. The expanses of flat horizon made for perfect framing opportunities, and when Ash and I found this tree perched in the middle of an open field it was too good to pass up. We looked at the sky and figured the afternoon for a good sunset, so we actually perched ourselves here and waited for an hour or so for the light to change. It was well worth the investment, and a really enjoyable shoot as we ran back and forth with our cameras, trying to make the most of the Magic Hour.