In Part 1 of the Daily Cycle of Sunlight, we looked at the mechanics of how the sun’s position affects the color and quality of sunlight throughout the day. [If you’ve not yet read that article, click here. I’ll wait.]

Now its time to take a look at how the light changes as the sun moves across the sky and beyond the horizon. It is easy to see how the color of the light changes as the sun moves. Also take a look at how the shadows soften as the sun moves towards and then below the horizon.

The following is excerpted from Chapter 3: Using the Light Around You of my upcoming book Light and Lighting (to be published in the fall by Peachpit Press, details here).

White Balance and Various Types of Sunlight

We are going to compare the four images below. They were shot in: late afternoon sun (Figure 1), during the golden hour shortly before sunset (Figure 2), during the blue hour about 55 minutes after sunset (Figure 3), and in near dark 80 minutes after sunset (Figure 4). To keep the shot consistent from frame to frame, I locked my camera down on a sturdy tripod. If you look at the exposure details, you will see how I changed the shutter speed and ISO to accommodate the dimming light.

The biggest tip I can share about shooting during the “special hours” is to not use Auto White Balance because AWB will try to neutralize the warm or cool colorcast. Instead, set your camera’s white balance to match the light source you are using—Daylight. Then your golden hour shots and blue hour shots will be captured with the tint that you expect.

Midday Sun

This late afternoon shot, made 40 minutes before sunset, is typical of midday sunlight. The whites are neutral and the shadows have a strong contrast.

Figure 1: Direct sunlight, 40 minutes before sunset.

Exposure details: Canon 5D Mark III,  17-40mm lens at 19mm, ISO 100, 1/500 sec., f/8.

Golden Hour

This golden hour shot, made 10 minutes before sunset, shows the warm glow that happens when the sun is near the horizon. To make capture this beautiful light, I slowed by shutter two stops, from 1/500 sec. to 1/125 sec.

Figure 2: ten minutes before sunset

Exposure details: Canon 5D Mark III,  17-40mm lens at 19mm, ISO 100, 1/125 sec., f/8.

Blue Hour / Twilight

After the sun drops below the horizon, there is still a significant amount of light that can be captured. To make this blue hour shot nearly an hour after sunset, I used a long shutter speed and dialed the ISO up. The combined change was 15.33 stops from the golden hour shot. Note how the light takes on a soft, blue quality.

Figure 3: 55 minutes after sunset

Exposure details: Canon 5D Mark III,  17-40mm lens at 19mm, ISO 1600, 20 sec., f/8.

Deep Twilight

With the latest generation of digital cameras, it is possible to get great shots in near darkness. Let me put it another way — I now believe that the Canon 5D Mark III can shoot in the dark. Even though I could hardly see the chapel 80 minutes after sunset, ISO 12800 enabled me to capture enough light to make this beautiful shot. To make sure that the stars were pinpoints rather than streaks, I switched to a faster shutter speed and opened up the aperture. The noise in the capture was not a crisis, but I did use Noiseware by Imagenomic to reduce it a bit.

Figure 4: 80 minutes after sunset

Exposure details: Canon 5D Mark III,  17-40mm lens at 19mm, ISO 12800, 6 sec., f/4.


5 Responses to The Daily Cycle of Sunlight: Part 2

  1. Hi Syl,

    Great shots of Judge Clark’s chapel. I have been there on numerous occasions and your images captured how pastoral the chapel is at the top of the hill.

    At some point, I will make it to one of your classes.

    (from Templeton)….

  2. Mike Dooley says:

    Hi Syl,

    Great series of articles, the photos really show the change in light dramatically! I can’t wait for the new book to come out!


  3. Iram says:

    Can’t wait for your next book.

  4. Ernie says:


    Great use of pictures to demo a concept. I try to take the same approach with my Tuesday Photo Tips blog posts.

    I fully agree with your comments re: the current SOA and the photo opportunities we now have.

  5. Freeware program called The Photographers Ephemeris

    It give time for sunrise sunset moon shape at locations you are at. also the angle of them. might be helpfull in your planing of them and there effect on you shoot..

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