Golden Hour Photography, The Moab Introduction
Let Mother Nature Provide Photographic Lighting
Almost three years ago, Brian, a private photographic instruction client, hired me to teach him photography in Moab, Utah—a fantastic location. It was my first trip to that area, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I brought a couple of Hensel Porty Premium, 1200-watt-second, portable battery power packs, flash heads, ringflash and even monolights, along with my sturdy California Sunbounce Pro and Mini reflectors.
The qualities of the golden hour light in the Moab combined with the rock formations add for outstanding photography possibilities.
This was new to Brian too, so he rented a portable generator and brought lots of extra photography gear of his own. It started as two photographers and a model on a trip that began like a photo expedition as we scouted locations first, though we stopped and took some photos along the way. By the end of the first day, we realized, the best light came from using the California Sunbounce reflectors during the day and the “Golden Hour” of the Utah clear skies during the evening.
Nothing wrong with the Hensel lighting equipment, in fact we use the heck out of it for our exotic photography workshops in the U.S. Virgin Islands, it’s just we realized the beauty of that hour before sunset in the Moab is unbelievable. While portable, studio flash photography is another method of overpowering the Sun with flash, personally, I’d concentrate on the beauty of the golden hour when working in the Moab. Save the creative, outdoor flash techniques for the tropical paradises like Maui or the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Boy how things have evolved since Brian introduced me to the light qualities of the Moab. I loved it so much, later that year, Brian and I did it again, this time with three models and we split the costs so I could get some of my own photography done. It was an exciting trip as I used my Leica M8 digital rangefinder camera along with my Canon 5D and various lenses. A photographer’s dream shoot, only slightly spoiled by the long days and short nights, as the Moab requires some careful traveling across rough terrain at times. Then almost two years later, this past June, I decided I would conduct my first photography workshop there with a small group of photographers and five models.
Note: The next Moab Photography Workshop, limited to five photographers and five models is Sept. 26-30, 2013. (info here) As mentioned on the Lens Diaries™ welcome page, my photography workshops will become extremely limited in 2013. The May Moab photography workshop with models is already sold-out!
While there are many interesting features such as “arches and red rock cliffs amidst a green ribbon of vegetation,” after those two previous trips to the Moab with Brian, the third trip was easier in that I was able to hit a few specific spots I’d discovered in my previous visits and discovered some new ones thanks to an attendee familiar with parts of the Moab. This “stick with what you know” attitude is due to the time constraints when working with models and prime sunlight hours while allowing time to grab dinner before bedtime combined with logistics to and from the shooting lands and the quaint city of Moab itself.
What I did learn on this third trip, the Moab hasn’t changed one bit and it probably hasn’t changed in the thousands of years past as there is no real pollution to affect the quality of the light found in what is known as the Canyon Lands, public property managed by the Bureau of Land Management. These public access lands managed by the Federal government encompass 1.8 million plus acres of gorgeous architecture created by nature itself over millions of years. The beauty of photography in the Moab during the golden hour, the results are practically predictable.
Playboy Playmate Holley Dorrough captured during the golden hour in the Moab during my second photography trip exploration.
One of my theories on this predictability is that perhaps the micro-fine particle dust that lingers in the air is composed of red- and yellow-toned microscopic fragments from the micro-subtle erosion of these beautiful rock formations. I think these particles act as micro-reflectors during the golden hour as the Sun is at an oblique angle to the Earth and it’s transmitted lower color temperature light skims across the horizon bouncing off these super-micro-shards adding brilliance to the light.
It’s a known fact in photography lighting physics that the smaller the light source, the more specular the light, specular being higher in contrast. So when you think of these trillions of micro-dust particles, think of trillions of super-micro-mini reflectors floating within the soft light of the golden hour. It’s a theory and I’m sticking too it as I know what I’ve seen and a seasoned traveler with almost 40 countries under my belt, I can tell you, Moab light is very unique during the golden hour.
So while I could write a lot of technical information about the photos, let’s keep it simple and understand it’s the Moab light quality that adds the extra oomph to these featured photos. The first photo of Elite Agency model Jenni and the last photo featuring “KT” were created with my Leica M8 Digital Rangefinder fitted with a Leica ELMARIT-M 21mm F/2.8 ASPH lens (effective focal length 28mm). The second photo of Playboy Playmate Holley Dorrough was captured with my Canon 5D (not the Mark II, I later would acquire one) and the Canon 70-200mm F/2.8L IS USM lens with the effective focal length at 200mm, full zoom. All photos were taken during my second trip to the Moab (more second trip photos here, Moab Light)
The light in the Moab strikes model “KT” perfectly from the side, providing for a pseudo silhouette effect.
Cameras and lenses aside, as anyone can capture the golden hour anywhere the Sun shines, where photographers tend to go wrong, they’ll set their cameras on automatic white balance, which does nothing but wipe out the warm beauty the golden hour offers to your photos. White balance in a digital camera, like video cameras, is the method cameras use to bring a known white standard, 100 IRE, back to its natural white tone under any given light source. Since the quality of the light the golden hour produces is more warm-toned than typical daylight and skylight, if a digital camera is set on automatic white balance (AWB) it will add cooler tones (blue and cyan) to cancel out the yellow and the reds so 100IRE white will remain white. However, in golden light photography, we’re not so interested in white, we’re more interested in warmth.
While automatic white balance is great for light conditions under strange light sources, it’s pointless if you’re trying to capture the beauty of the golden hour—this is why professional photographers will shoot the golden hour in a manual white balance mode, not automatic. During the golden hour and under most daylight and studio strobe conditions I tend to set my camera at 6000K (K for Kelvin used to measure color temperature).
By setting my camera at 6000K, I’m basically recalibrating my digital camera to believe the light source is slightly cooler than normal photography daylight balance, so the digital camera white balance algorithms add warmth to the image to offset this extra coolness, similar to the film days of using a saturated warm film, like the discontinued Kodak E100 SW (saturated warm) transparency film. Thus, if my light source is noon to 3 p.m. daylight or a studio strobe, where the color temperature is approximately 5000-5500K, my digital camera only knows what I’ve preset, the 6000K, so it corrects for 6000K, essentially adding about an extra 500K of warmth as 6000K is a cooler color temperature than 5500K light. In the days of film, if a photographer didn’t have a saturated warm film, they would warm the photo by using an 81A filter. In digital photography we’re basically tricking the camera to add this bump of warmth.
From The Rosco Filter Facts Handbook
Natural Daylight is generally defined as a combination of sunlight and skylight on a clear day. At noon, during the summer, it is usually in the 5400K-6500K range, with 5500K being standardized as the “photographic daylight.” But natural daylight can vary considerably depending on the geographic latitude, time of year, time of day, as well as local atmospheric conditions.
As a general rule, early morning and late afternoon daylight will have a greater amber content and a lower color temperature, in the 4000K- 4500K range. Overcast skies will yield greater blue content and a higher color temperature, in the 7000K- 9000K range. Sunrise or sunset will be very amber, in the 2000K- 2500K range.
Ironically, I apply this extra bump of warmth even during the Moab golden hour for an even warmer, glamour glow. While the extra bump of warmth is my shooting style, I certainly wouldn’t use it for shooting commercial products and I’ll emphasize, this is my shooting style for glamour and editorial fashion photography, not a rule of general photography.
Not every location is like the Moab when it comes to the brilliant, unique quality of warmth associated with its golden hour. By bumping my white balance settings for an extra 500K of warmth in my digital camera it helps me recreate the Moab light quality while in the Moab itself, it merely enhances the light quality to an even more warmer tone. Bottom line, don’t have your camera on automatic white balance during the golden hour, whether you’re in the Moab or not, as you’ll lose the impact the golden hour can add to your images—shoot in manual white balance mode. Do the same for sunsets, otherwise you’ll wind up with images that have a boring, clear light look verses a beautiful warm tone. There is no light like the golden hour and there is no golden hour like that found in the Moab—it took me one photography trip to the Moab to find out and three photography trips to the Moab to verify it without a doubt.
For more photos from the Moab, Moab trip two is located here: Moab Light, My Pro Site by livebooks.com and in this article, Moab Moments, on LensDiaries.com.