Lighting & Composition

Capturing Light: Magic Hour – Magic Colors

Magic Hour is a term from the movie industry, and it refers specifically to the short period after sunset and before nightfall. It’s a fascinating time of day for light and color, both of which seem fugitive, shifting and sliding at a rate that is fast enough to affect shooting (over several minutes), yet too slow to perceive if you just watch. It’s also notoriously difficult to work with, not only because the light levels are low, but also because it’s missing the normal clues about time of day that we get from the sun—even behind a cloud, we’re generally aware of the sun’s presence and its progress from morning through afternoon. Nevertheless, for all the difficulties, the reward is a special and delicate light, suffused with some elegant and calm colors, as the main picture here shows.

The movies also provide one of the most famous examples of a work shot mainly in the Magic Hour—Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, made in 1978. The cost of crew, actors and equipment normally compel directors to shoot throughout the day, so to limit it to less than an hour each day was an unusual decision. Malick had worked out the look for the film with his first director of photography, Nestor Almendros, who said of the Magic Hour, “It is the moment when the sun sets, and after the sun sets and before it is night. The sky has light, but there is no actual sun. The light is very soft, and there is something magic about it.” But he added that the name is “a euphemism, because it’s not an hour but around 25 minutes at the most. It limited us to around twenty minutes a day, but it did pay on the screen.”

Sagaing, Myanmar, 1995

These old pagodas scattered across rice fields (below) look as if they should belong to some significant site. However, as I’ve come almost to expect from Myanmar over the years, its time-warp status (until very recently) has meant that across the country there are gentle surprises like this, and you need only to explore. The light and colors matched the idea, and I waited until a flock of birds appeared over the spires. This is Sinbyugyun, a small town a few hours by boat downriver from Bagan. The scene may be peaceful, but the shooting was not. A Burmese friend in Bagan had suggested and organized the trip, with his own boatman, but a little too optimistically. We were looked on with a kind of horror as we disembarked the previous afternoon and walked up the dusty main street, were promptly detained by the police and the crew of two invited to the jail. We didn’t have permits for this jaunt. We were put under a kind of house arrest in the community center, with an M.I. man (Military Intelligence) as a very sticky chaperone. I managed to sneak out before dawn for this walk in the fields, but it wasn’t long before the M.I. man (probably a local deputed to the task) came running after me. I kept exclaiming how beautiful it all was, which perplexed him.

Pagodas among rice fields, Sinbyugyun, Myanmar, 1997

A DIFFERENT COLOR GRADIENT - As the sun dips below the horizon, and until darkness, the sky color changes in subtle and different ways (lower half of cylinder) from the Golden Hour (upper half of cylinder). MAGIC HOUR SKIES - Four of many gradations of sky color after sunset. Pinks and mauves are common.

Magic Hour – Magic Colors

The reason why this special time of the day has its name is, as Nestor Almendros put it, “It gave some kind of magic look, a beauty and romanticism.” “Magical” because it is mysterious and very unpredictable. The combinations can be unusual, as these two pictures illustrate. In each case, on quite different assignments, I was there to shoot what I came for, rather than simply reacting to the light and looking for something to shoot. I already had my subjects. Nevertheless, the colors were an unexpected bonus. The maiko (apprentice geisha, distinguishable by, among other things, her platform geta shoes) was in Kyoto, in the traditional entertainment district of Gion. Neither they nor geishas are easy to find and photograph these days in a normal, candid way, as their numbers have declined, and the little trips between engagements at exclusive tea-houses, or o-chaya, are short and hurried, along quiet lanes. What makes the shot something of a favorite for me is the color, which has a bluish-purple-violet range, but isn’t across the entire image—it’s the maiko alone. I was facing west, and the sky in front of the camera was warm, while behind and above me it was blue-to-violet. The result was that most of the background, though dark, is fairly neutral. By contrast, the maiko is mainly lit by reflection from the bluish part of the sky, its color exactly visible in the traditionally thick white makeup on her face. at she happened to be wearing a purplish-violet combination was good fortune. These are subtle small points, but they add up.

Maiko, Gion, Kyoto, 1999 COLOR SCHEME - Here the colors are abstracted from the image, with the larger cylinder underneath representing the background. What makes this shot work is that all the hues ranged around violet are in the subject—the maiko—while the setting by contrast is more or less neutral.

A slightly foggy pre-dawn in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India was the setting for, of all things, a rat hunt. Field rats are responsible for looting an estimated quarter of India’s rice crop, and this Irula tribal group makes a living out of catching them. The work of finding nests and tunnels starts before dawn, and the slight morning mist had an almost watercolor effect of washing ground and sky colors together. As we’ll see on the following pages, there are good reasons why the colors from opposite sides of the sky blend so well, and here, with the yet-to-rise sun behind the camera, the light falling on the group and the brown rice stubble is warm, while the sky beyond is slightly cool, though filtered by the mist into a chromatic gray. The wide-angle lens, a 20mm, takes in a wide range of the scene, and so also a wide spectrum of its slightly strange colors.

Irula rat-catchers, Tamil Nadu, India, 1992 COLOR SCHEME - There is a delicate contrast of color between the lower and upper parts of the scene, punctuated by the color accents of the Irulas’ clothes.

Excerpt from Capturing Light: The Heart of Photography by Michael Freeman © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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1 Comment
   Kate said on February 12, 2014 at 2:53 pm

The cylinder diagram is the best illustration of the subject that I have seeen in years, and suddenly has me thinking about the Magic Hour as I haven’t done before! I am going to shoot in that light this evening… Thanks!

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