National Wildlife Refuge System

The Magic of Light

By Gabby Salazar
Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, NC
Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, NC
Credit: Gabby Salazar

One of the keys to making good images is to understand lighting. Photographers take pictures at all times of day, but there are two special times that produce magical light. I like to call it "butter light" because of the golden color that it casts on the landscape.

You may see this light just after dawn as you are riding the bus to school or a few hours before sunset. This month, pick a spot near your house — perhaps a national wildlife refuge — and take a day to visit that spot at different times. Go outside at sunrise, right around lunchtime, in the afternoon and just before sunset. Take a picture of the same area each time. Look at these pictures to see the difference in the color of the landscape throughout the day. Examine shadows to see how they change.


  • Get up early to take pictures of your backyard, local park or national wildlife refuge right after dawn. The light is best and wildlife will be more active.
  • When you find a subject, move around to photograph it in different light – with the light shining directly on it, shining from the side, and coming from behind.
  • If you are photographing the sunrise or sunset, go out one hour before sunrise or stay out one hour after sunset. Some of the most interesting colors and light shows occur before the sun comes up or right after it is out of view. This image of a lake was taken a few minutes before sunrise.
Gabby Salazar is founder and editor of the online magazine Nature's Best Photography Students, where young people pay submit photos for contests and online publication, blog with each other about nature photography and view student photo galleries.

Read all of Gabby Salazar's columns – especially written with young people in mind – and learn more about photography on his tips for kids page.
Last updated: November 30, 2009