We all have seen those magical photographs with “god rays”, the late afternoon image with clouds and streaks of sunlight painting the sky, or images of churches and large buildings with light beaming through the glass windows. The combination that allows capturing such images is always the same: Back-light and some type of reflective atmosphere, be it haze, smoke, dust or water.
Since we don’t have any control over the many factors required to produce the spectacle, capturing such a sky is a question of luck. There are signs however we can look for during the day, which might lead to the perfect conditions: Overcast or rainy days that open up to blue skies in the late afternoon, and light fog, smog, smoke, even bush-fires, are good indications for possible light-rays. As with most landscape photographs of such nature, the rest then lies with mother nature, and there are no guarantees. I know many photographers who travel to the same location several times until they find the “perfect conditions”. Some are less lucky, and will never capture it.
Capturing light-rays in buildings is easier to predict since we don’t wait for the perfect cloud etc. It is usually dust in the air, which produces the reflective particles that we see as “light-rays”. Assuming, the sun hits the windows unobstructed in the right angle, the perfect time to capture such images is when churches etc are partly in renovation since these building sites produce a higher amount of dust in the air.
In the studio, creating great atmospheric images is relatively easy to achieve. You can buy a little smoke machine for near to nothing these days, and already the smallest amount of smoke will produce great results. As a matter of fact, the less smoke you produce, the better the final image will be, as it wants to avoid any smoke in front of your subject. Smoke (or water) lit from the front produces just a dense wall with little depth, when lit from behind, however, it will create the desired depth and structure.
The images below illustrate the different steps of such a setup. The smoke machine is placed about 2 meters behind the subjects, to create a clear separation between foreground and background. In the first image, we only fired the main light from the front, it illuminates our subjects but doesn’t show much depth or structure of our smoke. The second image was shot with only the backlight (with a blue gel), rendering as a dark blue structure. In the final shot, we combine both lights and achieve well-lit subjects and an interesting structure and depth in our background.
In the images above: Australian National Amateur Boxing Champion Skye Nicolson (17) with her brother Tony.