Photographers often strive to capture the warmest light possible, especially true if their preferred genre is landscape photography. This often means reaching a location before dawn and waiting for the golden hues of light as a direct consequence of the first rays of the rising sun. This action is often reversed as we catch the last light of the day before the sun dips behind the horizon. Additionally, the thought of venturing out in poor weather is often alien to most as the quest for perfect light continues. However it is all too easy to overlook some of the most atmospheric light that is often available for us to capture. Whilst warm is most definitely beautiful, cool can also be fun and photogenically very rewarding. You shouldn’t be afraid of taking shots when the light is less than attractive but you should actually embrace it and keep your colours cool.
The simplest way to exploit the blue hues of light is to venture out well before sunrise or shortly after sunset. Even on a gray day when there is a distinct lack of sun, there will be a period before dawn or after dusk when your image will be bathed in a blanket of cool light. The physics behind this are simple. Film users will be fully aware that film is designed to provide perfect colour reproduction when used at midday on a bright, sunny day. This is the reason why the golden hues of first light will often appear far warmer in a transparency than you actually remember. Digital cameras are slightly different as they offer a number of different white balance settings that merely replicate the use of warm-up (e.g. Wratten 81a, 81b & 81c) or cool-down (e.g. Wratten 80a, 80b & 80c) filters. To make the most of the blue hues available every day, I suggest that you ditch the use of these filters and digital users should turn off auto white balance and instead set their camera to sunny, daylight balance. Now the fun can begin!
A distinct advantage to keeping your images cool is that often the light will be very uniform, making the use of graduated filters to balance your exposure far simpler. Your main concern is to keep the sky balanced with the foreground, using an ND-grad of suitable strength to achieve your desired result. Once in place, determining an exposure is relatively easy as the light levels will be balanced so it is just a case of taking an exposure reading of your foreground interest or similar. Be warned though that when shooting the blue hues of pre-dawn or dusk that the time required for an exposure can run into several seconds so a steady tripod is an essential piece of equipment. As ever bracket the exposures of your shot – I tend to find that slight under-exposure will produce the most pleasing results.
Simple compositions tend to work the best as the lack of contrast can distract from a complicated arrangement. Keep it minimal and look for appealing foreground interest to keep the viewer hooked in the picture. Working with blue light is all about letting the subject shine, without the distraction of warm light to draw the viewers’ eye away from the shot.
Grey sky days can actually provide some great opportunities for photography, and even a sudden downpour should not discourage the photographer looking to exploit the lack of sunshine. Film users can be adventurous and try loading a tungsten light balanced film which will result in a distinct blue hue, or can simply fit a cool-down filter, whilst digital users can either switch their white balance to tungsten or, if shooting in a raw format, simply adjust the white balance to a cooler setting at the processing stage. If long exposures are your forte, the Lee Big Stopper filter is ideal for these kinds of shots due to its inherent slight blue cast. Landscapes including water can look particularly atmospheric using this technique and, as any regular visitor to our upland areas will vouch, can sometimes actually be a far more faithful representation of an area that a brightly lit, midday shot. There is no need to worry about the harsh light and apart from you and your gear getting a little bit wet (an umbrella is essential when working in the rain) you have the advantage of having time to compose your shot without the light disappearing behind an oncoming blanket of cloud!
You may be pleased to read that you do not necessarily head out at the crack of dawn or during an onslaught of poor British weather to capture images with a cool feel. Blue-sky days can also provide good opportunities for exploiting the blue hue; the key is to look in the shadows. Ideally you will be looking for a subject that is completely in the shade and as such this technique is obviously more suitable for abstract and detail shots. If are lucky enough to live near the coast or a shallow slow flowing river, why not try to find a pocket of water that reflects the blue sky above? Pay attention to you composition and make sure that the lighting is uniform i.e. completely in the shade. Waterfalls and cascades can also make superb subjects, as they are often located in woodland that makes the finding of a shady spot quite easy. Again try adjusting your white balance of you camera or use a cool-down filter to accentuate the cool tones. Running water can look particularly atmospheric with a slight blue cast.
Whilst the majority of these techniques are more suited towards landscape and generally scenic shots, city dwellers can also exploit the cool hues of day by photographing the city where they live after the sun has set. The key is to balance the artificial lights of the city with the blue tones of dusk. I normally try to compose my shot just before dusk and then I simply wait, capturing a sequence of images until the exposure of the natural and artificially light sources are perfectly matched.
Above all, the key to successfully keeping the colour balance of your images cool is to not be afraid to experiment. At first you may find that the majority of your shots will not work but once you continue to explore different compositions and various exposures you will hopefully start to find that everything falls into place – And you will start to capture images that are simply not available in the harsh light of day. Just remember to keep your cool!