The Evolution of Light

Photography, at its most basic level, is the art of light.  The very essence of a photograph is almost always determined by the type, quality, and direction of light illuminating the subject.  Sure, composition is critical and subject matter is obviously important.  But a stunning landscape can be rendered much less spectacular with the absence of quality, interesting light.  Conversely, the most mundane of subjects can make stunning photographs under the right conditions and light.  There are two things that I’ve learned about light on my short photographic journey:  it is ever-changing and don’t give up on it.  The latter is a tougher pill for me to swallow sometimes so the focus of this post will hone in on the dynamic nature of light.

This past December I decided to take a jaunt up to the West End Bridge for a sunrise session.  Sunrises can be hit or miss, especially from the West End, because if there is no cloud coverage the light can be kind of uniform and bland with just a slight band of color near the horizon.  Luckily for me, this December sunrise was an absolute stunner.

I arrived on the bridge a shade before 7 AM and I could tell the conditions were shaping up to be great.  The clouds were perfect, the reflections in the river were crisp and pristine, and the light…well the light was some of the best and certainly most dynamic light I’ve witnessed in Pittsburgh.  The seven proceeding photos were taken over 53 minutes and exhibit just how much the light can change and shape the mood, feel, and look of a scene.

Blue Hour Burgh Pittsburgh Skyline Reflection Blog

7:07 AM – It is the heart of the “blue hour” which is just after twilight. The sky is a bold blue with a little bit of warm light as the sun is still below the horizon.

Tree Pittsburgh Reflection Sunrise Morning Blog

7:17 AM – There is still a tint of blue in the sky, but a tighter image shows a bit more yellow and orange at the horizon while the blues are becoming a brilliant purple.

7:22 AM - The sun is inching closer to the horizon.  The underbelly of the clouds has now been illuminated in a beautiful combination of pinks, purples, and a little orange.

7:22 AM – The sun is inching closer to the horizon. The underbelly of the clouds has now been illuminated in a beautiful combination of pinks, purples, and a little orange.

7:26 AM - Just four minutes later the pinks close to the horizon are gone, but a subtle hint of pink remains in the wispy clouds.  What was pink is now a darker purple/blue and the horizon line has remained a pretty consistent orange.

7:26 AM – Just four minutes later the pinks close to the horizon are gone, but a subtle hint of pink remains in the wispy clouds. What was pink is now a darker purple/blue and the horizon line has remained a pretty consistent orange.

7:33 AM - The clouds are really starting to take shape.  The deep purples are now gone and the light on clouds is starting to warm up.  The sun is very close to the horizon now.

7:33 AM – The clouds are really starting to take shape. The deep purples are now gone and the light on the clouds is starting to warm up. The sun is very close to the horizon now.

7:46 AM - Thirteen minutes later and the sun has crested the horizon, just over the Fort Pitt Bridge.  The light is now very warm and you will notice the skyline shows less detail in the buildings  due shooting directly towards the light.

7:46 AM – Thirteen minutes later and the sun has crested the horizon, just over the Fort Pitt Bridge. The light is now very warm and you will notice the skyline shows less detail in the buildings due shooting directly towards the light.

8:00 AM - The final image.  The sun is well past the horizon now and everything is a very warm hue.  All the blues, pinks, reds, and purples are gone and we are left with a very contrasty scene of a silhouetted skyline against a golden sky.

8:00 AM – The final image. The sun is well past the horizon now and everything is a very warm hue. All the blues, pinks, reds, and purples are gone and we are left with a very contrasty scene of a silhouetted skyline against a golden sky.

As you can see, the skyline was the only constant.  The light changed at least 7 times, 5 of which were significant changes, within my hour of shooting.  The light was not only shaped by the position of the sun relative to the horizon, but also by the arrangement of the clouds.  Had there been no clouds, I would not have seen the pink, purple, and red light being reflected by the rising sun.  So next time you see a beautiful sunrise (or sunset), make sure you see it all the way through.  Who knows how much it will change over the course of just one hour!?

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One response to “The Evolution of Light”

  1. Tina Borraccini-Lawson says :

    Thank you for such great information! I have been thinking about taking up photography for a long time. I am not real fond of photoshop but love natural lighting! I am sure photoshop helps and can be fun but it almost seems like “cheating” in a way. Your pictures of Pittsburgh are awesome!

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