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Learning to See Light: Exploring Blue Hour

We often think about pushing flash into the post-sunset sky. But just behind us, there is a cool mix of light happening from the east as night encroaches. Paying attention to that mix can serve you well when you are learning to create interesting light on your own.

As photographers, we are always translating the way our eye sees light into the way a camera sees it. Cameras are more sensitive to both contrast and color than we are, which is something that probably hurts us more often than helps.

Noonday sun looks fine to the eye, looks like crap to the camera. That kelvin-mashup of light sources in an interior? Interesting to us, death to the sensor.

Cameras see color and contrast in a tighter range than we see it. So as compared to our eye, the camera essentially dials up the contrast and the saturation knobs.

During blue hour (when light is flat with muted colors) amping color and contrast is exactly what we would want our camera to do. It's a marriage made in heaven. Which is why blue hour photos tend to look so mysterious, vibrant and beautiful.

And it is not just the blue light at work, either. Take the photo above, shot on a rainy spring evening at our local soft serve. There is a mix of blue hour light, fluorescent, tungsten, brake lights — pretty much the whole nine yards are going on in that frame.

I'd wager there's not a daylight-balanced light source in the entire frame. That interplay is beautiful, and it is real. It is the way we see a natural mix of light sources in a rainy evening scene.

If you were going to light that scene, would you be creatively willing to make all of those colors with gels? You could easily do it. You'd want to shoot on tungsten to get the blue, put double CTOs on what would the "tungsten" sources, and a CTO plus a window green on the sources you would want to designate as fluorescents.

Photographers who understand color (much better than I do, but I am trying to learn) understand that there is almost never a "white" light in the wild. Noonday sun in Washington DC is actually the Kelvin standard daylight. But beyond that, it's all over the map.

I tend to be happiest with my light when I throw together a mashup of different color sources, as in the c.2008 puppeteer photo just above. This was one of the first times I had experimented with throwing what I saw as a "dissonant" light almost randomly into the frame—it was 1/2CTO+green. (More on that image here.)

Fast forward to 2012. At Gulf Photo Plus this year I was pretending to teach but in reality was sneaking into Greg Heisler's class as often as possible. (Oh, and screw teaching at GPP. I am gonna take Heisler's class there one day…)

He understands light and color better than anyone, IMO. Not just observationally, but in being able to seemingly effortlessly recreate it. And while I was sitting in on one of his classes, he mentioned something that has stuck with me ever since:

He rarely uses an un-gelled light source.

Think about that, as opposed to the way you light. If you are like me, the default is white (or near it) and you are looking for a reason to gel. Heisler, on the other hand, is looking for the rare reason not to gel. (I.e.—true example—"This was shot in a studio, but it was lit to look like a street scene at noon.")

So for most of his images, which to me are at once beautiful, magical and real, he shoots with a motley crew of colored lights. Mostly in the CTO/CTB/PlusGreen family. And again, almost nothing is white.

He even said he usually likes to throw a little green (1/2 strength, say) on his fill light "to dirty up the light."

Green fill? Talk about counter-intuitive. To me, at least.

But this kind of intuition is exactly the muscle I am trying to strengthen, with both observation and experimentation. In the example of green fill, Heisler noted that fill light just tended to look too magenta to him, owing to the way skin reacts to fill light that has been pushed into the shadows.

From a color theory, this makes perfect sense. But I would not have been able to visually articulate the magenta cast in the fill, and thus, neither the green solution. But he sees the nuance of color in a way that is obvious to him and magical to me.

So, mixed in with my flash-lit assignments, I have been taking a moment to photograph people immersed in real and interesting available light.

I photographed a dancer recently and wanted to use the shoot as an opportunity to experiment in a couple of ways. Both would require a very small, opaque black background. So I made a headshot flat. Nothing fancy, just a piece of masonite that was sanded, primed and painted.

I actually made the flat for a very specific (flash) lighting experiment, which will be a later post. But a second experiment on the same shoot would end up showing me more about light and color than I have learned (outside of Heisler's class) in quite a while.

That experiment was a simple as taking the black flat outside after sunset and using it as a backdrop for a head shot. I had not even planned for it to be during blue hour (I'm not that smart) but our shoot ran long and this was the last item on the agenda.

As such, we were pushing it when it came to exposure. It was slow handhold range, ISO 1600, wide open, yada-yada.

Here is the picture. Frontally lit by post sunset afterglow, with my assistant Ross holding up a black board behind him. It was hard to see the color variation when I was shooting. Remember, our eye sees it as very subtle because we adjust autoimatically. It is not until I saw how my camera interpreted it that I realized that this was where I wanted to be with my created light, too.

He's lit by post-sunset light. The blue hour light is fast encroaching behind him. Because the black background is small, it is allowing in all of that enveloping blue side/back light to make the rims much cooler. And that blue is wrapping around his face from behind, defining with light and color his head outline and jawline.

As soon as I pulled this picture up on the monitor, I absolutely loved the light in the photo. And then it struck me why. Because it looks like the kind of light Heisler might create.

Sadly, it has come to this: as much as I have studied the guy's light and color and genius, the closest I have ever gotten to understanding it is to stick a black board behind someone in the evening and make an available light snapshot.


I have a lot to learn. But I am excited in that I feel like I am beginning to see and understand the spectrum of available light a little better.

Which, along with the knowledge that Heisler gels damn-near everything, should give me reason to start taking some chances I would not have otherwise taken.


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