Nine out of ten photographers recommend taking pictures during the earlier and later parts of the day. The tenth shoots only in the studio and couldn’t care less about natural light.
Unless your photography website is entirely dedicated to astrophotography, you should always plan your photo shoots based on the quality of light available. There is a general consensus that natural lighting photo shoots should take place early in the morning or in the evening, as sunshine is less harsh than through the day. But if you’re looking to shoot in the richest, most beautiful natural light, you’ll need to aim for the golden hour.
Also known as ‘magic hour,’ this time of the day is characterized by a soft light that bathes the Earth with a warm glow. It takes place at dusk and dawn, as the sun is either rising or setting. Due to its unique beauty, the golden hour is widely seen by photographers as the utmost best time to take pictures.
Want to know more about golden hour photography and how to make the most out of it? These ten tips will teach you everything you need to know to shoot outstanding pictures during the most magical time of the day.
Understand what the photography golden hour is
‘Golden hour’ is one of the most popular photography terms. But what is it, exactly? In short, it’s the brief period after sunrise and before sunset.
As the sun reaches the horizon, the rays of light need to travel through a wider layer of atmosphere to reach the Earth. The atmosphere acts as a giant diffuser, and two main things happen as a result of this increased distance: Blue light is filtered out, and the intensity of direct light is reduced. Thus the light that reaches us during this period of time is redder and softer.
This light is much more even than what we see the rest of the day, diluting the difference of luminance between a scene's light and shadows. Finding a balanced exposure without losing any detail becomes significantly easier during the golden hour, which is why it's widely considered the best time to take photos. This is also why it's commonly known as the ‘magic hour’.
The period of time during which these conditions occur depends on the elevation of the sun above or below the horizon line. The golden hour takes place while the sun is within the space ranging from 6° above the horizon to -4° below it.
Those last two degrees to perfect symmetry (when the sun moves from -4° to -6°) are known as the blue hour. This is the short time in which the golden hues of daylight merge into the darkness of night. Or the opposite, if you're brave enough to wake up for a sunrise mission.
As with any kind of photography, one must get some inspiration before getting out of the field. While you prepare for your golden hour photo shoot, dedicate some time to browsing social media and checking out your favorite photographers’ portfolios. This will offer you a glimpse into everything the magic hour has to offer.
Landscape and portrait are the two most popular genres in golden hour photography. However, any type of imagery can benefit from the beautiful light conditions brought by the first and last rays of sunshine of the day. Don't limit your inspiration search to the type of pictures you want to shoot.
Browse everything from product and food photography to street and pet photography. At the end of the day, it's not about copying others’ work but learning from their skills and applying them to your photos.
Find the right time
Planning your golden hour photo shoot starts with deciding on the exact time it will take place. You can find what time the sun will rise and shine on pretty much any weather website and app, as well as newspapers if you want to keep it traditional.
Notice that every other day this time shifts by a minute. Albeit sixty seconds doesn't seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but it shows just how important it is to always check the time before you set off.
Knowing the exact time the sun will reach the horizon, you might be tempted to simply account for thirty minutes before and after and call it a day. But it's not that easy. The ‘hour’ part of the golden hour doesn't strictly mean sixty minutes. The length of this magic time will depend on many factors including your location, season, and weather.
One of the most popular photography apps to track when the golden hour will take place at your location is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This platform, also available online, shows the exact period you'll be able to shoot golden hour photography based on the elevation angle of the sun and how much light remains in the sky.
Check the weather
‘Bad lighting’ is considered one of the biggest photography myths and a very common excuse among beginners and unmotivated photographers. However, when it comes to golden hour photography there’s actually some truth to it.
Cloudy skies can significantly shorten the golden hour, or keeping it from making an appearance all together. In order to avoid frustration, and maybe even a wet camera, make sure to check the weather forecast in advance and keep an eye on the sky to see how the clouds behave throughout the day.
Get there early
If you want to make the most of the golden hour, you have no choice but to get to your location significantly before the time arrives. Because the magic hour itself doesn’t last too long, you’ll need to have your equipment ready to go before it starts. This might mean setting up your camera during nighttime, but it will definitely be worth it once you capture that epic shot you were aiming for.
Ideally, you should mentally prepare the compositions you’ll be photographing as the sun will move far too fast for you to come up with outstanding shots on the go. Think about the trajectory of the sun and how it will move across the scene. There are numerous mobile apps, such as the previously mentioned The Photographer’s Ephemeris, that allow you to check this information beforehand. The better prepared you are, the higher the chance you’ll go home with outstanding images.
Use the right white balance
White balance might just be the most commonly ignored of all camera settings. Sure, most cameras do a good-enough job at automatically detecting the scene’s color temperature and balancing it properly. And even if they don’t, shooting in RAW allows you to fix it in post-processing with minimal information loss. However, the fact that the best time of the day for photography is named for the temperature of its light should be a pretty clear clue of just how important this setting actually is.
During the magic hour, the sunlight temperature sits around 3,500 kelvin. This gives it the characteristic warm, golden color that surrounds it. When shooting during this time of day, set your camera’s white balance manually or select the presets ‘shade’ or ‘cloudy.’ This will ensure your camera doesn’t try to neutralize the scene’s yellow hue by pushing blue tones.
Shoot with a wide aperture
During golden hour, sunlight appears diffused, giving scenes and subjects a soft look. In order to take full advantage of this smooth aura, most photographers choose to shoot with a shallow depth of field. Wider apertures maximize the dreamy look of golden hour photography, with the warm tones making for an incredibly beautiful backdrop.
Much like all good things in life, golden hour goes up slowly comes down fast. While waiting for the time to arrive might feel eternal, once it finally starts you’ll need to be ready to make the most out of every second. As the sun reaches the horizon, light experiences dramatic changes that last only a few minutes.
On the bright side, this means you have the chance to photograph an ever-evolving scene and put your skills to the test. However, it also means that you’ll need to be completely focused on the task at hand to avoid missing any details.
The best way to make the most out of any photographic opportunity is to have fun. The golden hour offers the perfect playground for photographers to experiment with different types of lighting and achieve results that cannot be captured under any other conditions.
These are some of the creative photography ideas you should try on your next magic hour photo shoot:
Shooting during golden hour offers a rare occasion to integrate the sun in your compositions. During the rest of the day, the sun shines so bright it usually appears as a bright spot with no detail whatsoever. But as it starts to hide behind the horizon, the sun’s radiance starts to be mitigated and we’re able to admire its golden glory.
Capturing the sun in your golden hour photography will add a dramatic touch to your images and take your sunrise and sunset photos to the next level.
During golden hour, the sky becomes a vibrant canvas painted with all the colors of the wind. This phenomenon on its own can be an incredible added value to any photo. The only thing better than a colorful sky? Having two of them.
You can use any still, reflective surface as a mirror to double the powerful visuals of a golden hour sky. Ideally, this reflection will be large enough for a perfectly symmetrical image. As one of the most important photography composition rules, symmetry can make any scene incredibly appealing to viewers.
Flare occurs when a bright light that is not in the camera’s field of view hits the lens. As a result, the light is scattered and starbursts and circles appear on the image. The vast majority of the time, this effect is something you’ll most likely want to avoid. However, in golden hour photography the sun is at the ideal height for flare to make a wonderful addition to your pictures, strengthening your composition’s dynamism and sense of depth.
The easiest way to achieve this effect is to position your subject partially covering the sun. Different lenses result in significantly different flares, widening the range of potential outcomes and allowing for significant experimentation opportunities.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of the magic hour is the fact that it’s dark enough to shoot with slow shutter speeds, but also light enough to be able to capture the details of the scene. To make the most out of this, don’t forget to bring a tripod on your golden hour photography adventures.
This camera accessory will allow you to shoot beautiful images that perfectly capture the calm atmosphere surrounding this time of the day.
As the sun nears the horizon, shadows become longer and changes in textures and surfaces become more distinct. This results in a sense of depth that, paired with the inherent warmth of golden hour photography, offers the perfect opportunity to shoot beautiful landscape photos.
To capture all the details of your scene, you’ll need to use small apertures and will most likely need a tripod. You’ll want to compose your image in a way in which the sun illuminates the landscape from one of the sides, and step down your aperture to f/8 or f/16.
As its name implies, front lighting means your subject is facing the sun or, at least, that their front is illuminated. This type of lighting is especially valuable for portrait photography, as the golden hour is one of the few times in which people can face the sun without squinting.
With also a quite straightforward name, backlighting means the light is coming from behind your subject. In golden hour photographer, this type of lighting surrounds your subject with a warm glow - giving the image a soft, dreamy appearance.
When the foreground of a backlit image is significantly dark, a faint glow appears around your subject. This halo is known as rim lighting, and is used to alienate the subject from the background. To achieve this result, start with backlighting and reposition yourself to find the sweet spot. Generally, shooting from a low angle will increase your success in reaching this result.
If you say you’ve never captured a silhouette at sunset, you’re lying. This is one of the most common shots in golden hour photography, and for a good reason: The results are simply stunning. Whether you’re photographing a person, a wild animal, or a forest, the contrast between a completely blacked-out subject and a vibrant background rarely goes unnoticed.
All you need to do to photograph a silhouette is placing your subject in front of a bright light and adjust the exposure in a way which leaves the foreground underexposed and empty of detail. For best results, you might want to use a free photo editing software to add some contrast in post-processing and completely separate the silhouette from the background.
Once the golden hour is over, it’s time to channel your inner Jack Shephard and start planning for your next photo shoot. Every sunrise and every sunset is completely different from the one before, offering you an endless number of opportunities to test your photography skills and find new approaches to golden hour photography.