Differences Between Morning Light And Afternoon Light in Photography

Just as there are differences between early and late morning light, so are there differences between morning and afternoon light.  The most obvious difference is the direction of the light source as the sun rises and as it sets.  This has nothing to do with the quality of the light, but may affect the composition of a photograph using shadow for dramatic effect, as a shadow falling in a particular direction can give a more pleasing picture than the same shot with shadows coming from the opposite direction.

Apart from the sun’s direction, differences can be substantial, and can be tested simply by taking a photo in the morning, recording the time, then taking the same shot in the afternoon (or periodically throughout the day for a full record).  Colours are warmer in early morning or late afternoon light due to the low angle of the sun, and these are the best times to take landscape photos.  Distinct elements such as shadow and texture are added to the scene, enriching your photograph and raising it above the average in quality.

Our eyes have a greater range for the nuances of light than does a camera, which is why a scene you think would be a great shot with shadow or bright highlights can be disappointing when it lacks the impact that you saw as you set up the shot.  To get a grasp of this, you need to look really closely at the effect of light at different times of the day.  You will find that the light just after sunrise or later in the day gives a warm effect, while a cool effect occurs on overcast days, before sunrise or after sunset.  Distinct dark shadows are a feature of bright, sunny days.

Once you have tested the effect of changing light on a particular scene, you will have observed how the angle of the sun (amongst other changing conditions such as season and climate) greatly alters how the scene looks.  If you have taken a series of shots of the same scene at different times of the day and in different conditions you will have a better understanding of what to expect when you take photographs under certain conditions.  Poor understanding of light can give you a lesser result than you could have achieved, or even ruin your photos.  To improve your competence as a photographer it is essential that you be able to use the prevailing light conditions, and through your knowledge of the capabilities of your camera and your own eye for an appealing composition take some magic shots.

When the sun is low you can choose how to position your shot – with the light behind you (front lit), from the side to add drama or with the sun facing you (backlit) which gives you yet more illumination options – rim lit, transillumination (light shining through objects such as flower petals) or silhouettes.  Later in the day you have more time to observe the play of light on the landscape and select your shots than you do at sunrise.  (Convenience may not be a consideration to the really dedicated photographer but for many of us it certainly is).

The differences between morning and afternoon light are due to atmospheric conditions, and may not be that great, particularly on days when the temperature has not changed much throughout the day and weather conditions have been calm.  The overnight drop in temperature and rise in dampness settles conditions, leaving the light fresher and clearer in the morning.  At the other end of the day the molecular structure of air is still affected by the day’s temperature, and it may contain a higher percentage of contaminants such as smog or dust which could give different photographic effects.

'Colour temperature' is a term originally used to describe the changing colours of a black object subject to high heat.  The Kelvin scale records the colours as they relate to particular temperatures and is used in photography as a measure of controlled lighting.  Natural lighting has a colour temperature but because it is not controlled, the colour temperature of a particular scene can be difficult to gauge.  Photographers using digital cameras have the benefit of ‘Auto White Balance’ but can change the ‘white balance’ to provide some creative images using the light conditions as a dramatic point rather than just to illuminate the scene.  Try shooting a morning or afternoon scene in ‘Auto’, then play around with the setting to see what impact you can achieve.