Why photos look different when you travel
The first glimpse of our newest destination lay ahead of us, just a small sheet of plastic window between our noses and the vast expanse of South East Asia’s biggest country. We were hurtling through the skies at ‘one tea with milk and a coffee please’ speeds in our little Air Asia capsule eagerly awaiting our arrival in Myanmar. Dramatic cloud formations caused some turbulence, but despite our prime position at the front of the wing, there was surprisingly little to see. An all-encompassing pastel-ochre haze stretched as far as the eye could reach in between big fluffy white clouds, teasing our curiosity to breaking point.
On the bus from the airport we saw what was going on. One hour of dusty scorched and empty rice paddies rolled past our window, baring witness to the final stage of Asia’s cyclical life-supporting rice agriculture: the epic burn off. All around Asia farmers had been harvesting rice, then torching fields to break down nutrients in preparation for the next season’s rice sewing, creating the world’s biggest haze cloud. During our 3-week journey from Mandalay to Yangon we witnessed entire hillsides ablaze with slow, controlled fires, which were especially impressive at night and most awe inspiring at our homestay monastery near Kalaw. In the pitch black, silhouettes of the monks paced through the flaming, smoking fractures in the otherwise impenetrable rural darkness, patiently tending to the little streams of yellow-red fires.
There are many factors apart from your equipment and settings (ISO, Aperture, Shutterspeed, Sensor and Lenses – here’s a great tutorial) that play a part in the photography you create. The burn off colour hues and blood-red sunsets brought a distinct atmosphere to our trip through Myanmar, which would have been completely different story at another time of year. But what causes the red-tinge everywhere? Well, dear reader, welcome to the phenomena of lighting and colour. Anyone who’s seen Pink Floyd’s album cover to ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ in their dad’s (or own – good on ya!) record collection will know that daylight is white but made up of a whole colour spectrum. This straight rainbow emerging from the backside of a prism is actually only an 80th of the whole measurable light spectrum – depending on how you calculate, this is the most generous estimate. The spectrum includes all sorts of fancy things such as UV rays, microwaves, radio and X rays, which are invisible to humans – but not to bees. Clever bees. Weather, the atmosphere, water, big bulky buildings standing in between you and the sun all have an effect on how light and thus colour enters your lens and hits your sensor. And just like for next month’s successful rice planting session, the burnoff is a great place to start.
Natural or ambient light comes from the sun and is measured in energy. Bright white sunlight is measured with an energy level of around 5500 Kelvin, blue light at around 7500 kelvin, then yellow orange and red (3200, 2500 and 1500 k respectively). The higher the number, the shorter the wavelength and more powerful the light is. Just to give you an idea, lasers are artificially created to have very directional light waves amplified to hit a very small area and are energetic enough to melt metal and blow up James Bond’s crotch. It’s important at this stage to not confuse energetic value with physical temperature. The higher the Kelvin, the bluer and whiter the light gets, which is counter to our emotional perception of ‘warm’ colours like red and yellow being, well, full of energy and… warmer. Lasers aren’t hot themselves; they merely have the energy to displace molecules in James’ crotch (which get hot when they’re displaced).
Our burnoff did two things. Firstly, all the little particles in the air acted as a bit of a filter, which made the light coming from the sun a lot less directional and harsh. Imagine a nice, translucent curtain blocking some of the sunlight coming through your window and making your breakfast a lot more pleasant. This meant that Myanmar didn’t look like a stark, contrasty scene in the Nevada desert, but an evenly lit, vibrant summer’s afternoon. Shadow edges were less pronounced and there was a lot more detail in the highlights and darker areas, which would have been completely blown out (white) with pitch-black shadows in our Nevada example. The second thing the burn off did is really interesting. When white sunlight hits the atmosphere, around 15% of it bounces off, is absorbed by particles or changes course slightly but continues through to the ground. Blue light has a high energetic value and short wavelength (lots of ups and downs in a short space of time) and is scattered a lot more when it hits the atmosphere than other colours. That’s why, on a clear, sunny day, the sky looks blue. It’s all those little blue wavelengths being knocked about by oxygen and nitrogen particles, like a fishing net that only catches hyper fish but lets the relaxed ones through. Red light, that has a much longer wavelength, gets through the atmosphere a lot easier, and is also better at slipping past the burn off particles, meaning more of it gets to where we’re standing on the ground. Et voila, Myanmar has a red tinge.
This stuff is also happening every day, in your back garden, as the scattering of blue wavelengths is particularly prominent at sunset. During the day, the sun has a relatively straightforward layer of atmosphere to shoot its rays through, as we and the part of land we stand on are straight down through the atmosphere. But at sunset, the light travels from the sun at a low angle, and has a lot more atmosphere to go through before it reaches us. The same beam of light that leaves the sun and travels at a 90-degree angle through the atmosphere and hits Dragon in the face in Spain at midday needs to travel at a 45-degree angle through a cross section of atmosphere to hit Rat in the retina at 6pm in Kazakhstan. That’s a lot more gas molecules to get in the way of blue wavelengths, so Rat sees only leftover red where Dragon still sees blue, green, yellow, orange and red (=white).
Sunset and sunrise times are so prized by photographers and cinematographers that this part of day is referred to as the ‘golden hour’. Light is refracted, so everything looks really well lit and soft, the yellow-red tinge ads approachable warmth (psychological, not Kelvin) and romantic mood. Get this: during golden hour, the sun isn’t your only significant light source. And we’re not talking about big city lights. The fact is, there’s not just direct light coming from the sun, but indirect light coming from everything around you, most importantly the huge umbrella straight above your head – the sky. During daytime, the sun’s direct light dominates all other indirect light, but in the golden hour, the sun’s direct light takes a step back and lets the colours coming down from the sky have fun at the party too. For you photographers, the lighting ration between your key light (the sun) and your fill light (the indirect sunlight coming down from the sky) is low, meaning less contrast and richer colours resulting from a fuller dynamic range.
Whilst chasing golden hour is every photographer’s prerogative, bare in mind it means getting up really early and getting to bed pretty late. ‘Hour’ is also misleading, as the time it takes for the sun to rise or set varies dramatically depending on seasons and how close you are to the equator. Shooting significant footage at golden hour may be doable in Iceland, but you’ll get approximately 37 seconds in Kenya. On top of that, the closer to the equator you are the higher display of colour ranges you get. Wondered why your pics from India look so much more vibrant than the ones back home? This isn’t just the holiday cocktails talking. Scientifically, you’re onto something as the higher your latitude, the higher the Kelvin value of your dominant colour spectrum is. We’re desperately researching why this is, but no one seems to know. If you have pointers, shout. This means that if you take exactly the same red coat and photograph it in Sweden and Sri Lanka, it will look like it’s a richer tone of red in Sri Lanka, as opposed to a more blue-tinted red in Sweden.
All fascinating stuff. But what do we hear you say? When you went scuba diving that time, everything came out really blue ‘cause the red was filtered out first? Well, congratulations, you are 100% right. Show off that PADI certificate proudly to family, friends and random people in your close vicinity. Hold your horses though, as we have a surprise. Water acts differently to air. Yup, crazy stuff.
Whilst the blue wavelengths are scattered by gas molecules in the atmosphere, they are actually quite good at keeping on going through denser water. When blue scatters in the sky, it doesn’t disappear. It paints the whole sky blue by whizzing around from molecule to molecule like a tiny pod-race. In water it whizzes down into the depths for a lot longer than low energy red wavelengths. Red gets absorbed relatively soon after entering through the water’s surface and colliding with H20 molecules, making them vibrate and thus heating the upper layers of your kid’s paddling pool. So in the sky, blue light keeps whizzing around like the Stig, and red light meanders through the atmosphere. But in water, blue light ambitiously aims for the depths, and red light turns into heat close to the surface.
In all of these examples, the lighting conditions aren’t meant to be a hindrance. Different environments create different moods and you can get some stunningly atmospheric shots on cloudy, rainy days, in the shade, haze and blearing, direct sunlight. It’s a good idea though to capture as much colour information as possible, so you can chose later which bits to keep and which ones to tone down. When you’re scubadiving, consider a red filter that puts red back into the picture. Or take a torch. When you’re somewhere with a lot of glare, use a polarizer. And in general, take whatever conditions you find travelling as an opportunity to create unexpected moments caught for the world to enjoy.