The Best Light

October 17, 2013 ·

Alain Briot

— Part Four of Nine —

How to Find the Best Light for a Specific Photograph

Article and Photographs by: Alain Briot

Alain Briot is one of the most successful landscape photographers working
in the U.S. today. He was educated at the Ecole des Beaux Art in Paris,
has a Masters degree in Fine Art, and is currently working on his Phd.

1 — Que la lumiere soit et la lumiere fut

Light, from the earliest time recorded in history has played a great importance in human culture and existence. In Genesis, God creates light. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh was responsible for bringing the sun back every morning. What a responsibility! The Incas worshipped the sun and a solar eclipse was seen as a foreshadow of the apocalypse. They could not comprehend that the sun could be hidden from our sight in full daylight. The Anasazi, and most contemporary Pueblo Indians, developed a sophisticated understanding of the sun’s movements in the sky. They used this knowledge for agriculture and for religious ceremonies. Louis XVI, King of France, was called Le Roi Soleil, the Sun King, in reference to the all encompassing light which he supposedly shed on everyone and everything in his kingdom. Throughout history, various secret societies have been called luminaries and social revolutions have brought about enlightenment.

Light, time and over again, has been part of the most important aspects of our lives and has played a major role in our existence. Today still, our lives are ruled by light and darkness, as most of us rise at dawn and go to bed after dark. We work during the day and we rest during the night.

As landscape photographers we abide to the same schedule. We follow the sun in its migration while the earth rotates upon itself and circles around the sun according to, respectively, a one day and a one year path in the sky. Our days are organized around the 24 hours the earth takes to make a complete rotation around its axis. Our yearly calendar is based on the one year journey that the earth makes around the sun. The sun, and more importantly the light it sheds upon the earth, control our lives.


2 — Drawing with Light

Photography is all about light. The name itself implies it. Composed of two Greek words: photos — light — and graphos — drawing/writing, photography literally means “writing (or drawing) with light.” When photography first was invented it was called heliography, from helios, the sun. Heliography meant “writing (or drawing) with the sun.” It was believed that only sunlight could be used to create photographs because at that time films were not sensitive enough to be exposed with artificial light sources. Once more sensitive films were invented, after artificial light sources were used to create photographs, and after magnesium started to be used as “flash” light, the term heliography became inaccurate. It was then replaced by photography to encompass the different light sources which could be used to create photographs.

Scott McLeay, my first photography teacher, often said that if you walk into a closet, close the door behind you, set up your camera on a tripod and proceed to take a time exposure, you will not get a photograph no matter how long your exposure time is. You can expose for hours, days or months and get nothing on film or on your digital file.

The fact is: you need light to create a photographic image. You may not need much light, but you need some light. In a dark closet, even with a multi-hour exposure, you will not get a photograph because there is no light whatsoever. The first thing a photographer needs, besides a camera, film, and lens, is light. Photographs are images made with light. Without light there can be no photographs.


3 — Three Governing Rules Regarding Light

Three main rules govern both the appearance and the behavior of light for photographic purposes. These rules are essential knowledge for photographers. We will see, later on in this essay, how these rules translate to the actual creation of landscape photographs.

A — Quality of light:

The larger the light source, the softer the light. For the quality of the light to change, the surface of the light source must change first, either in terms of size, color, reflectance or a combination of 2 or 3 of these elements.

In practice, and for landscape photography, this means that direct light from the sun alone will be much harsher than light coming from the entire sky on an overcast day. This is because the sun, although a giant star, is actually a very small light source when seen from the earth. On the opposite, on an overcast day, the cloud-filled sky becomes a giant light reflector the size of the entire sky above us.

A small light source, such as the sun, produces a very harsh light with bright highlights and deep shadows. A large light source, such as the entire sky on a cloudy day, produces a very soft and even light with little or no shadows.

B — Reflected Light

If the light is reflected, the light will take the color of the reflector on which it bounces. This is best exemplified by the lighting situation in the canyon country of the Southwestern United States. In a canyon, the light reflected off one side of the canyon bounces onto the other side — the opposite wall — of this same canyon. While direct light is basically colorless, the light bouncing from one canyon wall to the other takes the color of the canyon wall off which it bounces. This bounced light is tinted red or orange and in turns adds this color to the other canyon wall. The result is that the wall lit by this bounced light is much warmer in color — much redder to the eye and much redder on film — than the wall lit by direct sunlight.

C – Intensity of Light

The intensity of the light on any given surface decreases in a manner inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the light source and the subject. Doubling the distance between the light source and the subject is equivalent to reducing the quantity of light reaching the subject by 1/4th of the original illumination. This rule is very important in a studio situation where artificial lights can be moved at will closer or further to the subject being photographed. In an outdoor, natural light situation, it is mostly academic since we cannot move the sun, the clouds, or the canyon walls 🙂 However, knowing this rule is important and this is why I am including it in this article.


4 – So How Does One Find the Best Light for Landscape Photographs?

What we need is not only light. It is quality light. Scott Mcleay often spoke not of light but of the quality of light. Light, is not enough. Quality light is what we seek. But which quality of light do we need as landscape photographers?

Ansel Adams said “God created light and he divided it into ten zones.” Adams’ tongue-in-cheek statement shows that it isn’t just light that we need. It is light of such nature as to fit our needs as photographers. Light with an artistic quality. Light that we can, if not control, then at least learn how to work with so that it is controllable through photographic means.

What quality of light is for each of us depends on what we want to photograph and what we are looking for. However, traditionally, and when photographing large vistas or the grand landscape, the best light is found at sunrise and at sunset. To take advantage of this light you must be at the location before sunrise and before sunset. The extra time is necessary for you to choose a location, set up your equipment and get ready to photograph. At sunrise a headlamp is a must to see what you are doing in the pre-dawn darkness.
Additionally, if you photograph sunrise at a given location for the first time, I recommend you visit this location the day before so that you can find a suitable composition. Finding a composition will be very difficult in the dark and you may waste the best light trying to find a composition as the sun rises. Clearly, you will be much better off knowing what you want to use as a foreground, for example, by scouting the location the day before during daytime.

When photographing sunset I recommend you explore the location during the afternoon, find a good composition, and then either wait or return to this location for sunset. Again, being there approximately an hour before sunset will maximize your chances of getting a good photograph as you will be able to see and photograph the landscape as the light is progressively changing and the sun getting lower in the sky. At both sunset and sunrise it can be very challenging to decide when is the best time to photograph since the light changes constantly during one hour after sunrise and before sunset. The best is to be there early and photograph continuously without being overly critical of your efforts and without trying to find out when the light is at its peak. Once back in your studio you can then study the results of your efforts and decide which image(s) you like best. Equipped with this knowledge you will be in a much better position to gauge the quality of the light when you next photograph at sunrise or at sunset.

Do not overlook the possibilities offered by pre-dawn and past-dusk light. Up to about 30 minutes before sunrise, and up to about 30 minutes past sunset, the landscape basks in soft colorful light which is extremely propitious to photography, both in black and white and in color. At those times shadows are nonexistent, greatly simplifying contrast problems, and the colors vividly saturated. Your eye may not notice these colors but film certainly will, especially if you use a high contrast, high color-saturation film such as Fuji Velvia. No need to worry about excess contrast except for the sky which will most likely be the brightest part of the scene at those times. If you need to lower the brightness of the sky simply use a graduated neutral density filter to lower its brightness by one or two stops, as needed.


5 — Why is Sunset and Sunrise Light the Best Light for the Grand Landscape?

In one word, sunset and sunrise light is the best because at those times the light is horizontal. Horizontal light is light which is parallel to the horizon, grazing the subject and giving it a strong three dimensional quality.

Because the sun is low in the sky at sunrise and sunset, just above the horizon in fact, sunlight has to go through all the layers of dust, atmospheric haze and pollution before it reaches the scene in front of you. During this process the intensity of the sunlight is greatly diminished and softened, because the layers of dust and haze filter the light of the sun. This filtering also removes both the green and blue part of the visible spectrum leaving mostly the red part visible. As a result, sunrise and sunset light is warm, tinted either pink, red or orange, depending on the particular situation on a specific day. The combination of diffused light and of the warm glow of sunrise and sunset, creates a light which is excellent for photography. Furthermore, light which is both soft and warm is extremely pleasing to the eye.

Also, human beings perceive light shining on the side of the subject — sidelight — as more aesthetically pleasing than light shining from above the subject — vertical light. This may have a lot to do with portraiture. When photographing (or painting) people, light coming from above the subject casts deep, unsightly shadows under the nose and under the eyes of the subject. When the face is lit from the side, one side is in the shade while the other side is in the light. This creates a pleasing three dimensional effect. The same remarks apply to landscape photography with equally pleasing results. As a general rule horizontal light — sidelight — is much more aesthetically pleasing than overhead or vertical light — light coming from above the subject.

Sunlight at noon and at sunrise

This drawing of Monument Valley shows the position of the sun both at noon and at sunrise. At noon the sun shines right above the monument, projects vertical rays of light, and casts short shadows below the monument (shadows are not drawn to avoid confusion as there would be two different sets of shadows).

At Sunrise the sun is at the horizon level, casts horizontal rays of light
and projects long shadows on the side of the monument. At sunrise the sun lights the monument from the side. At noon it lights the monument from above.


6 – Are There Other Types of Light Propitious to Landscape Photography Besides the Horizontal Light of Sunrise and Sunset?

Yes there are. Rest assured! While sunrise and sunset are great there are other opportunities to create pleasing photographs during the rest of the day. Below, I take a look at the different types of light encountered outdoors. For each type of light I describe the light, its quality, color, contrast and shadows. I also make film and digital correctionsrecommendations. Learning all we can learn about these different qualities of light can only further our photographic skills and our ability to create superior photographs.


7 — The different types of natural light

A — Reflected Light — also Called Bounced or Diffused Light:

Description: This type of light is created by having direct sunlight hit a surface and be reflected on an adjacent surface. For example, in the Canyon Country of the Southwestern United States, a canyon running north-south or so will be directly lit by the sun on one side while the other side is lit by reflected light. This reflected light bounced off the first side of the canyon onto the other side. Reflected light reduce contrast by bouncing light into the shadowed areas on the opposite side of the canyon. Reflected light will take the color of the object it is reflected on. In a canyon the light will take the red color of the canyon wall on which it bounced and give this color to the shadowed areas on the opposite side of the canyon. As a result the shadows will have a warm, red glow to them. The narrower the canyon, the more prominent this effect is. It reaches maximum intensity in the narrow confines of slot canyons where the light bounces from one side to another multiple times. The further the light bounces in a slot canyon the redder the light gets.

Quality: Soft and even. Canyon walls reduce contrast by bouncing light into the shadowed areas on the opposite side of the canyon.

Color: Tinted light. Intense colors tinted by the color of the surface on which the light is reflected. Your eyes may not see the exact colors but your film will.

Shadows: No shadows.

Contrast: Low contrast

Reflected Light

This drawing depicts a typical reflected light situation in a canyon setting. The sunlight hits the left-side rock formation and is reflected onto the right-side formation.

Other types of light are present in such a scene making it complex as far as light is concerned. We have shadows cast by the rock formations, directly lit areas, and backlit areas. The possibilities for different types of images in such a situation are numerous and worth investigating.


Antelope Wall of Light

Linhof Master Tecknica, Rodenstock 150mm, Provia

This photograph of Antelope Canyon in Arizona is all about light and form. Light makes the image in this instance. Notice there is no direct light in the photograph despite the presence of a highlight area at the top left corner. The different light levels, from bright to dark, are created solely by diffused light reaching deeper and deeper into the canyon. As the light gets lower into the canyon it gets both weaker and more colorful until, at the very bottom it turns into a deep reddish glow.


B — Overcast Light

Description: Found on cloudy days this light is both soft and bluish in color. It comes from the entire sky which acts as a diffuser for the sun light.

Quality: Soft, diffused light. The whole landscape is enveloped in shadows. Shadows, which are by nature bluish, are responsible for the blue cast found in overcast conditions. This cast is often unnoticeable to our eyes but clearly present on color film.

Colors: Tinted light (bluish cast).

Shadows: Soft to nonexistent

Contrast: Low

Recommended film or contrast adjustment: this is the perfect opportunity to use a high contrast and high color saturation film such as Velvia. If you shoot digitally add a contrast-enhancement curve (S-curve) to your file to compensate for the naturally low-contrast of digital sensors.


C — Open Shade:

Description: A subject is in open shade when it is located in a shaded area on a sunny day. It is called open shade because, when the photograph is exposed for the shadows, the shadowed areas “open up” and look soft and colorful. In effect exposing a photograph for the open shade area of a scene means overexposing areas lit by direct sunlight. A classical use of open shade in portrait photography consists of posing the subject in a shaded area, with a directly lit area behind the subject, while using fill-flash to soften the contrast between shadows and highlight. In landscape photography flash is rarely used because it often looks unnatural. Therefore, open shade landscape photographs rarely include areas lit by direct sunlight.

Quality: soft, diffused light

Colors: Tinted light with a blue cast tendency. Intense but may have a bluish cast.

Shadows: No shadows. Shadows are not present

Contrast: Low contrast

Recommended film or contrast adjustment: this is the perfect opportunity to use a high contrast and high color saturation film such as Velvia. If you shoot digitally add a contrast-enhancement curve to your file to compensate for the naturally low-contrast of digital sensors.

Gillepsie Dam Petroglyphs

Linhof Master Tecknica, Schneider 75mm, Provia

Open shade differs from overcast light in that the sun is out but not shining onto objects in the photograph. Open shade light is warmer than overcast light because bounced light is often reflected into the scene. It is soft and shadowless. One of the best lights for photography.


D — Backlight:

Description: A subject is backlit when the sun is located behind the object and the camera is pointed towards the sun. In a typical backlight situation the subject is in the shade with a rim of light surrounding it. The sun may or may not be visible depending on how you position yourself. You can either hide the sun behind the subject or have the sun visible, as a bright spot or a sunstar, in the photograph.

Quality: rim of light around the edges of the subject. Sun star if the sun is in the photograph and the aperture is closed to a small opening such as f16 on a 35mm camera.

Colors: The light is not tinted. Colors are weak since the direct sun shining through the scene, as well as the high contrast ratio, will combine to wash out the color.

Shadows: Shadows are present. They will be oriented towards the camera and will look as if they are moving towards the viewer.

Contrast: High contrast

Recommended film or contrast adjustment: moderate contrast film such as Fuji Provia or color negative film. If you shoot digitally avoid adding a contrast-enhancement curve to your file. The contrast crated by the digital sensor should be high enough.

Zion Snow, Sun & Trees

Hasselblad 503SW, Sonnar 150, Provia

Backlight creates a rim of light around nearby objects in the scene. In this instance it partly shines through the semitransparent snow creating a glowing effect. Taken a few minutes after sunrise, the warm glow of backlight in this photograph mixes with the bluish colors of the shadowed areas to create a complimentary mix of light and shade. Notice the near absence of color in the scene except for the blue color of shaded snow areas. Compare the color in this backlit photograph with the color in the sidelit photograph in the next example.


E — Direct Light

Description: Direct sunlight, from approximately one hour after sunrise and before sunset. Unfiltered by clouds and un-diffused by anything. This is light which is both intense and direct, unforgiving in many ways, revealing the most intricate aspects of the landscape, and casting strong shadows. Usually best avoided in color photography, it can lead to some interesting results in black and white where color is not a concern and strong contrast is acceptable. Nevertheless, do not discount it completely with color film as there are instances where it can work great.

Quality: Direct light is both harsh and intense. Glancing light. A polarizing filter is often necessary if you shoot at about a 90 degree angle to the sun.

Colors: The colors are not tinted. Direct sun washes out the colors in the scene. Expect low color saturation and washed out colors in the final print.

Shadows: Shadows are present. Strong cast-shadows- the darkest shadow, caused by the object’s blocking of light from the source.

Contrast: High contrast

Recommended film or contrast adjustment: Low contrast film such as Fuji Provia or Color negative film. If you shoot digitally avoid adding a contrast-enhancement curve to your file. The contrast created by the digital sensor should be high enough.


F — Morning and Evening Horizontal Light

Description: The soft, warm, horizontal light of sunrise and sunset. Horizontal because in the morning and in the evening the sun is just above the horizon casting rays of light parallel to the horizon. This is excellent light for photography, especially color photography, due to its combination of low contrast, warm tones and enveloping quality causing a strong three-dimensional quality to the objects in the scene. Objects lit directly by this light seem to glow, as if illuminated from within. Learn to use sunset and sunrise light and you will be forever amazed at the images you will create at the beginning and the end of the day.

Quality: Soft, enveloping light. Pleasing to the eye. Able to reveal many details of the landscape while retaining some of the mystery in the scene in front of us. A transitional light, at the verge of dusk and dawn, it marks the transition between light and day. Because it changes very rapidly I recommend you shoot continuously, perhaps exposing images every 5 to 10 minutes or so, and that you do not second guess yourself about when the light is at its peak. You can edit your images later on when you are back in your studio.

Colors: Tinted light with a warm overtone to it. The light at sunrise and sunset is tinted red, orange, pink, or other warm colors.

Shadows: Shadows are present. Mild at the break of dawn or just before the sun dips below the horizon at sunset, they grow progressively stronger and deeper as the sun rises in the sky.

Contrast: Low contrast when the sun is just above the horizon, growing increasingly higher as the sun moves higher in the sky.
Recommended film or contrast adjustment: High contrast and high color saturation film such as Fuji Velvia. If you shoot digitally you may want to add a contrast-enhancement curve to your file depending on the contrast of each photograph.

Canyon de Chelly Snow Sunrise

Fuji 617, Fujinon 300mm, Velvia

Created at daybreak on the morning after a snowstorm this photograph exhibits a variety of different types of light: sunrise light direct light, reflected light and shadow areas. Notice that snow in the shadowed areas is blue while snow in direct sunlight is pure white. Also notice that canyon walls in direct light glow and turn a warm orange tone, quite a different effect from the backlit scene of my previous example in Zion National Park. Light reflected off the canyon walls bounces across the canyon opening up the shadows and reducing the overall contrast of the scene. Finally, the snow also acts as a reflector further brightening this scene. Scenes with complex lighting situations such as this one are common when photographing the grand landscape.


8 — Photographic Skills Enhancement Exercises

A — Take Photographs Using the 6 Different Types of Light Described in This Article.

You can use different subjects for this exercise since it may be very difficult to get the same subject in all 5 different light qualities. However, if you can try to photograph the same subject in several different types of light. For example, find a subject which is partly lit directly by sunlight and partly in the shade. Photograph both areas and then compare the two photographs to see how colors, contrast and shadows differ.

The most important part of this exercise is to bring back photographs showing all the different types of light. Once back in your studio, you will be able to compare and contrast these 5 different images. Look at them carefully and describe (even write it down if you want) the characteristics of each light. What do you like or dislike about each light? Which light do you like best? Which one is your “favorite” or do you have a favorite? Which light would you like to continue working with if you were to create a new series of images with only one type of light? Which light do you like the least and would prefer not to work with again?

B — Photograph the Same Scene From Before Sunrise to After Sunset.

Go to a location of your choice, frame a specific composition, and photograph this same exact composition from before sunrise to after sunset. Ideally, do not move your tripod or your camera. However, if you must move it (so it doesn’t get stolen or so you can take a break for example) mark the tripod holes (literally) and memorize the framing, so that you can place it back in the exact same spot when you return. The goal of this exercise is to see how the same scene, and the same exact composition, changed and are transformed by the light alone throughout the day.

C — Build and Use a Nigrometer

What is a Nigrometer?

A nigrometer is a tool designed to allow you to see the actual color of objects in front of you. Basically, it is a dark tube, with a very small opening at each end, through which you look at specific areas of the landscape. Because you are looking at small, selected areas you are able to isolate them from surrounding areas. This allows you to see the actual color of these areas much more accurately than if you were looking at the whole scene in front of you.

How to I build one?

Simply take a cardboard tube, one and a half to two inches in diameter, and ten to twenty inches long, such as a poster tube or the core from a roll of kitchen paper towels. A sturdy tube is better as it will not crumple during use. Cut two additional circular pieces of cardboard, the same diameter as the tube, or use the plastic end caps of a poster tube. Punch a small hole, a quarter of an inch in diameter or so, in the center of each end cap. Install these end caps at both ends of your tube by either pushing the plastic caps into place or gluing the cardboard caps onto the tube. Your nigrometer is ready to use. If you want to be really fancy you can paint both the interior of the tube and the end caps black so they do not reflect light.

How do I use it?

Hold the nigrometer in front of your eye and point it towards the subject whose color you want to study. The best way to start is to find an area which is partly in the shade and partly in direct light. Look at the shaded area and at the lit area alternatively with the nigrometer. What you will notice is that colors in the shaded area are both deep and rich while colors in the directly lit area are weak and washed out. Follow the same process for other areas for which you want to determine their exact color.

The advantage of using a nigrometer is that it allows you to isolate a specific area from its surrounding and look only at the color of this area. Since you are looking at a small section of the scene your eyes are not “mixing up’ colors so to speak and are therefore able to perceive the actual color of any given object. Spend time studying various scenes with your nigrometer. You will learn a lot about the actual color of objects in front of you as well as how their color changes depending on different lighting conditions.

In a rush you can create an instantaneous nigrometer by closing your fist until only a small opening remains between your closed fingers and then look at objects through your hand. This approach is very handy once you have built knowledge of colors and light with an actual nigrometer and only want to check the color of a specific object in the field.

You may think that the actual colors of objects is fairly obvious. It can be if you have acquired the knowledge that a nigrometer will give you. If you haven’t I strongly urge you check the world out through a dark tube with a small opening at each end. You will be surprised at what you will see.

D — Read Light and Color in the Outdoors by M.G.J. Minnaert.

This book explains many naturally occurring visual phenomena and explains how and why they occur. It describes many natural phenomena involving light, including the color of the sky, clouds, mirages, halos, rainbows, the effects of ice in the atmosphere and much more. It encourages personal exploration of these phenomena. It will teach you how to identify natural lighting phenomena, where and when to look for them, what causes these phenomena, and why some are common while others are extremely rare.

Light and Color in the Outdoors, M.G.J. Minnaert


9 — Photographic Skills Enhancement Workshops

Do you want to practice Skill Enhancement Exercises under my guidance? Do you want to go beyond the contents of this article and start developing your own personal vision? Do you want to have your work reviewed by Natalie and I? If the answer is a resounding “Yes!” you need to join one of my exclusive workshops. We will not only take you to the most photogenic places in the world at the best possible time, we will also present you with one-on-one teaching, answers to your photographic questions, and direct help with my unique Photographic Skills Enhancement Exercises. Plus, as a workshop participant, you will receive unique handouts available only to workshop attendees. New workshops are announced on my web site at Check out my current listing and sign up today. Working with one-on-one with professionals in the field is the next step towards creating beautiful photographs that will stun other photographers!


10 — Conclusion

Our success as landscape photographers, regarding our ability to choose the best possible light for individual photographs, greatly depends on our experience. Nature is the best teacher and there is no alternative to study and experimentation to develop and refine the experience we need to make the correct light choices. In many ways, becoming a master photographer starts with becoming a master of light. In landscape photography this means becoming not only intimately familiar with the different types of natural light, but also being able to predict when and where we can expect to find specific types of light. It also means building up our experience working with each type of light so that, when conditions are optimal and time minimal, we can intuitively work towards a successful image without consciously thinking about the light. Such experience is the result of years and years of practice and one needs to realize there are few shortcuts to acquiring this experience. Similarly, there are few tools besides our own eyes to help us in this task. While it is certainly important to carry a spotmeter with you in order to analyze the contrast of the scene in front of you (more on this in my upcoming article on Exposure), nothing replaces our ability to see the scene in front of us in terms of quality of light, diffused or direct light, shadows and highlights, colors, and so on. In the end, we are left with what nature gave us with plus the knowledge and experience we gathered along the way on the path to creating ever better and ever more exciting images.

. . . a suivre . . . to be continued

Next article in this series: Film Choice

Alain Briot
Sonoran Desert, Arizona
November, 2003

Other Articles in this Series

© 2003 Alain Briot
Beaux Arts Photography

Alain is conducting a series of weekend workshops in the Phoenix AZ
area that are linked to his Esthetics Essays. You can find out more about these by clicking here.



Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, raw conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. Alain is the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available from Alain’s website as well as from most bookstores. You can find more information about Alain's work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to Alain’s Free Monthly Newsletter on his website. You will receive over 40 essays in PDF format, including chapters from Alain’s books, when you subscribe.

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