One of the main things that all photographers strive for is to make their work stand out somehow. Obviously, there’s no shortage of photographers on the planet, so I wouldn’t think that anyone who calls herself or himself a photographer is so delusional as to think that they are the only one employing any given method or technique; it’s just that we all want our work to reflect our personality in some way. We want our work to have some kind of “magical” quality to it.
That’s not asking too much, is it?
Not at all. It might feel that way sometimes. You read tip after tip, article after article; you might even enroll in a photography class, seeking out that one elusive thing to really usher your work to a higher level.
But no matter how much good advice you receive concerning how to improve your panning technique, how to sharpen your photos in post processing, how to compose a group portrait, you must remember that photography is all about light. And the quality of light is the one thing that can make the difference between an “ok” photograph and a “stunning” photograph.
If it’s stunning photographs that you’re after, you’ll want to get familiar with something photographers refer to as “the golden hour.”
The Golden Hour Defined
In very informal terms, the golden hour is simply the first hour of light after sunrise, and the last hour of light before sunset. Of course, when exactly this occurs will depend on where you live and will vary with the seasons.
What Makes it Magical?
There’s a reason — several reasons, actually — why the golden hour is also known as the magic hour. During each golden hour (morning and evening), you will find that the sun is low in the sky; when a light source is larger and closer relative to the subject, soft, diffused light is produced. Soft light is preferable for virtually any subject, as it doesn’t create harsh shadows and tends to be very dynamic-range-friendly, meaning you won’t lose any details to extreme shadows or blown-out highlights. Shadows themselves, though, aren’t necessarily a bad thing; the long shadows created by the sun at these times of day can help add texture, depth, and ultimately, interest to your final product. And let’s not forget that warm, golden glow. You’re not afforded any of these benefits when shooting under an oppressive midday sun.
What Kind of Photography is it Good For?
The short answer: any kind. Landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, even macro and general still life photography. Pretty much everything seems to look better when subjected to the warmth of the golden hour. And you’re not limited to working exclusively outdoors. You can get some beautiful natural indoor lighting by letting in some of that magic through a large window.
Quick Tips for Shooting During the Golden Hour
- Shoot Fast. Don’t be in so much of a rush that you fail to use good technique, but remember that you’ve got a relatively small window in which to take advantage of this gorgeous light.
- Calculate Your Golden Hour. You can help maximize your golden hour efficiency by planning ahead. Know your destination, have an idea of what subjects you want to shoot, and calculate precisely when the golden hour occurs where you live. This handy golden hour calculator will do all the math for you.
- Use a Wide Aperture. If you don’t typically shoot wide open, the golden hour presents a great opportunity to do so. You will be awed by the beautiful “points-of-light” bokeh created during these times of day.
- Stay With It. Changes in lighting during the golden hour occur pretty fast; the landscape you shot when first arriving at your location will probably look significantly different 10 minutes later. So keep shooting for the whole hour and be sure to capture as many variations as possible.
- Adjust White Balance. Auto white balance isn’t your best choice when shooting during the golden hour. Set your white balance to “cloudy,” otherwise you risk neutralizing the wonderful golden glow.
Shooting during the golden hour can be inconvenient; you may have to sacrifice your cozy bed to shoot early, or unglue yourself from your regular spot on the sofa to shoot in the evening. But you will be dearly rewarded, as the impact of shooting at these magical times of day can be truly transformative. Get out there and try it for yourself. Prepare to be amazed.