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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?
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Originally published July 30, 2013
Updated November 6, 2018
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.
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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.
1. The Light is Soft:
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.
2. The light is Warm:
Since the sun is at a lower angle slightly above the horizon, the light passes through the atmosphere scattering off the other colours. So, let’s not forget that warm, golden glow as it gives you a striking colour palette to record – some warm yellows, oranges, and reds. Images taken during this time tend to look happy, warm and cheerful.
3. The light is directional:
Since the light falls on the subjects from a side, it is directional and creates beautiful effects on the scene you are photographing. So you can creatively use this light to illuminate your subjects from the front, side or back, creating magical images.
4. The light Creates Long Shadows:
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.
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.
A key thing to remember is that golden hour photographs often look amazing on your wall. If you're going down the path of printing then take a look at what we regard as the best photo printer for getting amazing prints.
Quick Tips for Shooting During the Golden Hour
1. 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. Depending on where you live, the golden hour window can vary – for example, it can be longer as you move away from the equator.
2. 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 or any of the tools mentioned below will do all the math for you.
3. 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 the day. But, if you are shooting architecture and landscape, you may need to narrow down the aperture to get all the parts of the scene in focus.
4. Stay With the Light:
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.
5. Adjust White Balance:
Auto white balance isn’t your best choice when shooting during the golden hour. Set your white balance to “Shade” or “Cloudy,” otherwise you risk neutralizing the wonderful golden glow. AWB may make the colours cold in your image, so if you are going to be setting up your white balance manually, choose between 3000 and 4000 Kelvin so that you get the warm colours in your image. Always shoot raw so that you can change the white balance later while post processing if you did not get it right in your camera.
Camera Settings for Shooting during Golden Hour:
While shooting during the golden hour, you need to be careful with your camera settings as the ones you normally use would rather not help and may either overexpose or underexpose your scene. Here are some settings that need to be considered for golden hour photography.
- Always shoot in manual mode to make the best use of the camera settings so that you get the best images.
- When shooting backlit portraits, it is best to use spot metering, so that the camera knows to expose for the area where the focus point is. Without this, your camera will read exposure based on the entire scene and underexpose your subject.
- In some cases, using the above setting can sometimes lead to a loss of details in the background. In these situations, use a golden reflector to bounce some light back to the subject’s face or use flash with a diffuser to fill in some light in the darker areas of your subject.
- When using a flash, if you are looking for more natural fill lights, go for the yellow or orange coloured gels to match the light in the surrounding scenes. Bear in mind, the settings always depend on the situation, the amount of light and the direction of light.
- If you are shooting portraits, you can shoot at wide apertures and increase the iso as the sun goes down to compensate for the exposure.
- When shooting landscapes, use aperture values between f/7 and f/16. Make sure you use the value at which images are sharp for your particular lens – your lens’ sweet spot. Since as always recommended, you will have your camera on a tripod for landscape images, you can use lower iso and slower shutter speeds as the sun goes down and the light intensity decreases.
- If you are shooting landscapes or cityscapes during the golden hour when the sun is low in the sky and if you feel that there are regions that may be too under or overexposed, bracket shots (3 or 5 depending on the dynamic range in the frame) and combine them while post-processing. This should help you create images with the whole frame correctly exposed.
How Can You Use the Golden Light Creatively?
1. Side Lighting:
During the golden hour, the sunlight hits the subject from one side, meaning it can be creatively used to make dramatic images that have well-defined textures and depth that the side lighting creates. Since the light is soft, the shadows that define these textures are not harsh.
Golden hour is the best time to create backlit photographs as the light falling from behind lets the photographer create artistic images. For example, when photographing nature, leaves, flowers, grass, dry vegetation, dew drops, they seem to glow and create a magical feel. Portraits will have a soft beautiful glow.
3. Rim Lighting:
This is also backlighting, where you have the sun right behind the subject positioned in a way that it creates a halo around your subject – you will need to have a dark background for the rim lighting to be evident in your images. For example, it is the best time to create images that glow, meaning, the translucent areas of the subject are illuminated with a golden glow whereas the opaque regions appear darker. When photographing portraits, you get a golden glow on the hair and translucent areas of the clothing.
4. Lens Flare:
Flares are created when light directly hits your lens and this is something that photographers will want to avoid in their images. During the golden hour, lens flares can be used to create visual interest in your photograph with the beautiful rainbow colours they can display.
Golden hour is the best time to create silhouettes when you can have your subject really dark against an illuminated golden hued background. Since there is a huge contrast in light between the subject and the background, the golden hour is a time when you can create dramatic silhouettes, but make sure you set your exposure so that the brightest part of the scene you are photographing has the right exposure – otherwise the colours will be washed out. Set the exposure for background and focus on the subject.
Golden hour is the best time to capture sunbursts as these can add to the already creative golden hour images you are capturing. Sunbursts go well with landscape shots, but you do not have to limit yourself to that. You will need to have a very narrow aperture between f/16 to f/22 and the sun needs to be covered a bit by an object – something like a mountain, rock or any other subject in the frame.
Note for safety: Be careful when pointing your camera at the sun because the lens concentrates the sunlight onto your camera and can cause damage to your camera and eyes.
7. Shoot Architecture:
Golden hour is the best time to illuminate the buildings or structures with a side light so that the shadows add depth to the structures. It is also one of the best times when you can capture reflections of anything, especially in glass structures.
Some of the Tools for Golden Hour Photography:
- The Photographer’s Ephemeris – This app helps outdoor photographers to plan their outdoor shoots in natural light by letting them see how the light will fall on land during any time of the day and on any location on earth. They have a web version and is also available as an app for both iOS and Android.
- Goldenhour.com – This website tells you when the golden hour will start for your location. You can also check for the golden hour for future dates and different locations.
- PhotoPills – This app is available for iOS and Android. Using the “Sun” pills, you can check to see when the golden hour starts and ends. You can check this for future dates and different locations.
- Helios – Magic Hour Calculator for iOS – This app lets you know the best time to get out and shoot by determining the golden hour for you and notifying you. It has the sun path diagram, light meter, calendar and can be used anywhere in the world.
- Blue Hour Solar Photography Calculator for Android – This app although has the name blue hour, lets you calculate the golden hour so you can plan your photo shoots around this time. It also has a weather forecast option, which is a very good thing.
- Magic Hour for iOS – this app makes it easy for photographers to plan their schedule by alerting them when the golden hour is and how much time you have left once it begins. The app uses your location and provides weather forecast as well.
- Golden Hour for Android – This app is a great one for anyone looking to photograph during sunset and sunrise as it shows sunset and sunrise times plus the duration of the events.
- Sun Surveyor for iOS – This app helps photographers scout the best locations and plan effectively to get a perfect shot.
- Sun Seeker for Android – This app provides a 3D view of the solar path, sunrise and sunset times so that you know the direction of sunlight in a particular location.
What are the Advantages of Shooting During the Golden Hour?
- First and foremost, golden hour is the time for beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Every sunset and sunrise is different and it is a time when one can capture glorious moments be it portraits, landscapes or macros.
- Golden light is one of the easiest to work with where you can avoid darker shadows and blown out highlights.
- If you are shooting the golden hour in the morning, it is a time when most of the people are indoors, so you get to be away from the crowd and get cleaner images of the areas you are looking to shoot without much people or anything around.
- Longer shadows during the golden hour are another advantage as they can help create compelling and dramatic photographs. Examples are the sand dunes where you can create drama where one side of the sand is illuminated and the other side is dark.
- Some stunning aerial images can be created during the golden hour where you can play with the light and with some creativity create stunning images with long shadows that can actually create an illusion.
- Early morning mist is another scene that you can capture during the golden hour when the sun rays streaming through the mist can lead to beautiful dreamy photographs.
Things to Take Care of When Shooting during the Golden Hour:
- Location scouting is of foremost importance depending on where you live. For example, if you live along an east coast, shooting in the morning during the sunrise will yield better images than when you shoot during the sunset. But if you are in a location where you are able to get a glimpse of the setting sun, then it should not be a problem.
- During the Golden hour, the shadows can be quite long. So when you are shooting a scene or even portraits, make sure that unwanted shadows do not fall into the frame and ruin your shot. In these situations, move around to adjust how shadows fall.
- Make sure that you arrive at the location early enough to make the most of the golden hour as the sun will quickly disappear down the horizon.
- When shooting portraits, make sure the sun is to one side or towards the back of your subject to get a glorious glow. Most of the time front lighting works well during the golden hour, adding colour to the skin tones and your subjects do not squint their eyes much as they would otherwise do when looking at a bright sun.
- For all other scenes, place the sun in front of your subject, unless you are shooting silhouettes.
- Shoot as many photos as you can as you will see that the colours and the scene in front of you will be changing each minute with the movement of the sun.
- Watch out for the clouds as these tend to form close to the horizon in the morning and during the evening reducing your golden hour as the sun goes behind the clouds.
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.
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