We are all attracted to beautiful, breathtaking landscapes, but photographs often fall short of capturing what we see. The reason is that we see in three dimensions while a photograph is a two-dimensional object. To best capture what the eye sees, landscape photographers need help from light.
Two Magic Hours
The first, which is best for shooting landscapes, is the half hour after the sun rises in the morning and the half hour before the sun sets in the evening.
The second magic hour, which is best for shooting sunrises and sunsets, especially when clouds are illuminated by the sunrise or sunset, is the half hour before the sun rises in the morning and the half hour after it sets in the evening.
The Direction of the Light Matters
During most hours of the day, the light from the sun is saturated with pure, or nearly pure white light, which contains more colors toward the blue range of the spectrum than the light does during the magic hours.
The brighter light during most of the day also reveals sharp contrasts in colors but misses soft transitions in tones. The angle of the sun during the magic hours allows the atmosphere to act more like a prism.
Because our atmosphere is blue, more of the blue light is scattered and more of the warm colors come through. Shooting during the magic hours captures the warm, saturated colors that are added to the light at those times.
The Brightness of the Light Matters
During the day, when the sun is higher in the sky, the bright light not only emphasizes sharp contrasts in color while missing soft transitions of tone, but also emphasizes sharp contrasts in shadow, shape, and texture while missing the detail and softer transitions in the shape and texture of landscape objects as well.
Some suggest that if you shoot during the day, you should shoot in the shade or choose a day with a slightly cloudy sky. That will help reduce the brightness of the light and may help capture some of the detail that would be missed in full sunlight, but the light is even softer during the magic hours.
As the sun rises and sets, it is at a low angle on the horizon, so that the atmosphere softens the light as well as adding warmth to its colors. The softer light reveals more of the gradual transitions of shadows and the details of texture and shape.
The Position of the Sun Matters
When the sun is just slightly above the horizon, as it is in the half hour after it rises and before it sets, it casts its warm colors upon the landscape and reveals the subtle variations of shadow, tone, and texture in the objects the landscape contains.
On a cloudy or stormy day, however, when the sun is just slightly below the horizon, as it is just before it rises or just after it sets, it throws the landscape into dramatic silhouette while casting its warm colors and softened light onto the clouds, revealing the soft, subtle details and transitions of their shapes.
Just as the first magic hour aids photographers in capturing the most spectacular landscapes, so the second magic hour aids them in capturing the most dramatic sunrises, sunsets, and cloudscapes.
The position of the sun above or below the horizon during the two magic hours, the direction and softness of the light during those hours, and the effect of the atmosphere upon the light of the sun at those hours are the four reasons that professional landscape photographers shoot during the magic hours.