The challenge of photographing a physical object, whether a person or an entire city skyline, is essentially the same: to make a three-dimensional object look three-dimensional when translated to the flat world of print or screen.
To accomplish this, the photographer has at his or her disposal a limited number of tools. Sometimes called design elements, these include line, form, color, texture and space. Of these, form and texture are the elements most useful to add dimensionality to a photograph.
in a photograph, both form and texture are the result of the light source being positioned somewhere between near the camera (flat, featureless light) to 90° away from the camera (hatchet lighting.) For many subjects, the optimal angle to reveal form may be about 45° either side of camera.
In the studio, the photographer simply places a light source wherever she chooses, to achieve the desired result. There, myriad options exist for modifying the light, such as diffusers or reflectors, to name only two.
In the great outdoors, however, especially at the scale of buildings and skylines, the photographer’s options are drastically reduced. In fact, the number of lighting options approaches one, the sun. In a previous article I alluded to the biggest problem with the sun as a light source: its maddening tendency to constantly change, not to mention the effects of clouds and weather. This is, in fact, why the motion picture industry is centered in southern California. Los Angeles has more sunny days than any other region, which translates directly into shooting days, which indirectly translates into profit. But I digress.
The landscape photographer and the architectural photographer joke about “Rent-a-Sky,” that mythical organization that, for a fee, can arrange whatever weather conditions or cloud cover he or she might desire. But the fact of the matter is that the photographer can do worse than to call the Silent Unity prayer room in a vain attempt to control the weather.
What can be controlled boils down to two factors: where the photographer places the camera and the time of day he chooses to shoot. Observing the effect the sun has on the subject over the span of a day will reveal many possible looks, but for maximizing dimensionality in the scene, generally, the most valuable light will occur either side of sunrise or sunset by about 90 minutes. As in the special case of magic hour photography, shooting continuously through the few minutes either side of actual sunrise or sunset should reveal a plethora of looks as the quality of the light transitions from soft (light source is the large area of the sky illuminated indirectly by the sun below the horizon, casting soft shadows) to hard (light source becomes the point source of the sun, itself, casting hard shadow, absent diffusion from clouds.)
Specific to the Kansas City skyline, it takes little effort to photograph through a sunset time, but the rewards may be great for the photographer who composes an appropriate piece of the skyline (or a single building), chooses a camera location with the position of the sun at daybreak in mind and makes the effort to meet the sun. As the traditional photographer’s maxim goes, “F8 and be there.”