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.
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.
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.
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.
Again, 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!
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.
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.
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