Blasphemy!, Heresy!, Sacrilege!, Photography Style (Weekly Photo Challenge: The Golden Hour)

Standard

Good Evening:

The Golden Hour is overrated.

There. I said it.

Adams, Lange, Weston, Weegee, Cartier-Bresson, all ye gods of photography, casteth down thy rage upon me, and smiteth me all you want. Invite Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlowe to the smiting party too, because I probably just committed grievous offenses against Elizabethan English as well. I’ve outraged a few gods of cinematography, too; to this day, the best landscape photography textbook I’ve ever seen was not a book, it was the movie Days of Heaven, shot almost entirely during The Magic Hour by Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler and one of the most beautiful films ever.

923 Market Street, San Francisco, California

923 Market Street, San Francisco, California

The Golden Hour (in the film industry we call it The Magic Hour) wreaks havoc with both light and shadow and makes photography in San Francisco very difficult. By a remarkable coincidence, quite recently I decided to visit the area of the Powell Street cable car turnaround on Market Street with the specific intention of taking pictures during The Magic Hour. It’s really hard. I suspect that the quality of light in various regions of the American West differs from the norm. When my family visited Dad’s relatives in Idaho during The Age of Film Cameras, the 100, 200 or 400 film that Dad used in his SLR cameras always produced slightly over-exposed, somewhat washed-out results, and he was an excellent photographer with his own dark room in the basement. The same film and cameras used on the American East Coast consistently produced great results in comparison. He suspected that the manufacturers of the film he used (based in the East) made their products to work best in the light they saw every day.

Two-Foot Diameter Pipes at Construction Site, San Francisco, California

Two-Foot Diameter Pipes at Construction Site, San Francisco, California

Look how over-exposed the lighter parts become. The next shot is the only one not from the Powell & Market shoot. I took this from the 9th floor of the observation tower of the De Young Museum, a view of the northwest corner of San Francisco and the Marin Headlands.

Marin Headlands as Seen from the De Young Museum

Marin Headlands as Seen from the De Young Museum

I have not retouched this picture at all, and I used the Landscape Mode on my Nikon S9100. Look how The “Magic” Hour has washed out all of the colors–the photograph has become almost a black & white shot. I present another example of the problematic problems The Tragic Hour presents in my home town.

DSCN4718Again, the brighter areas become much too bright when you take pictures. The annoying part is that in real life, the bright areas are in fact almost that bright, so I can’t tone down those areas without making them unnatural and not true to the scene–even though they would look natural and correct to the viewer!

Construction Equipment at Stockton & Market Streets, San Francisco, California

Construction Equipment at Stockton & Market Streets, San Francisco, California

Same thing here, although the fact that the bright areas lie at the bottom of the shot makes them a bit less problematic. And yet again, I face the dilemma of “improving” the shot vs. preserving the “true nature” of the scene. Dang, photography does seem to get tougher the more you know about the subject.

A couple of shots did turn out OK, all involving people when the sunlight hit them at the right moment.

Homeless Man Watching the Pigeons He's Feeding, Powell & Market, San Francisco

Homeless Man Watching the Pigeons He’s Feeding, Powell & Market, San Francisco

Dancer Working for Spare Change, with One Partner Playing the Music, and the Other Partner on the Lookout, Cable Car Turnaround, Powell & Market, San Francisco, California

Dancer Working for Spare Change, with One Partner Playing the Music, and the Other Partner on the Lookout, Cable Car Turnaround, Powell & Market, San Francisco, California

Seems appropriate that the one decent photograph occurred by accident. I was walking up some stairs from the BART station when I accidentally snapped a shot. When looking at the picture on my computer, I saw an off-kilter picture of the stairs–plus a small dark speck in the upper right corner. After cropping about 90% of the picture, I ended up with this.

Cigarette Break at the End of a Rough Day, San Francisco, California

Cigarette Break at the End of a Rough Day, San Francisco, California

The top of her head had been cut off in the original shot, so I couldn’t do anything about that, but other than that, look at the result. This woman clearly had an absolutely miserable day, and the unusual “scalping” at the top only emphasizes how oppressed, crushed and stepped on she felt at that moment. I did minimize both the shadow and the brightness to bring out more detail. The composition of the picture, because of, not in spite of, the tilt almost looks like a deliberate artistic choice. My only almost satisfactory shot–and it only exists because of an accident. Make no mistake, no one will call this a great work of art, but it does capture the truth of the woman and her situation.

Yeah, The Magic Hour is overrated. At least in San Francisco.

Vonn Scott Bair

Advertisements

9 responses »

  1. This is an awesome perspective on the ‘golden hour’! Everything you say is so true, I always get frustrated that what I see in front of me is impossible to translate to photograph. I generally end up editing it to make the shot more appealing, but like you say, it then becomes something potentially overworked and unnatural. Great post!

    • Jayde-Ashe: Thank you for the kind words, and I agree with you about the frustration. A better nickname for The Magic Hour might consist of something like “This-Is-Where-We-Separate-The-Pros-From-The-Amatuers-Hour.” It may yet force me to start taking classes; photography, like golf, is the purchase that keeps on purchasing. Vonn Scott Bair

  2. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! A great post and I love your analysis of each and every photo. Agree the last one is pretty edgy and if you hadn’t told me it was by accident I would never have known. I have a few golden hour images of your city as my contribution, though these were taken down by the bay. http://wp.me/pL2aa-ip

    (Hopefully you have unspammed me so this will post!)
    Jude xx

    • Heyjude: As I’ve written before, who needs skill, learning, experience, judgment and taste when I can just get lucky? A new-to-me photographer named Garry Winogrand frequently created great B&W photos composed like my last one. Rather makes me wonder how many of his were also accidents. Don’t know how you ended up on a spam list; I sure didn’t put you there. Vonn Scott Bair

  3. Pingback: SOMA (South of Market): Weekly Photo Challenge, The Golden Hour | The San Francisco Scene--Seen!

    • Tom: True. I recently saw a major exhibition of Garry Winogrand’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I have a funny feeling some of his best shots were also happy accidents. At the very least, I learned a lot about the virtues of an accidental tilt, blurring, and not capturing all of a subject. Vonn Scott Bair

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s