How to take Amazing Portraits in the Golden Hour


If you are a part of the photography community in any way, whether as a hobbyist, a newbie photographer or even a professional photographer, you’ve heard of it: The Golden Hour. What exactly is the Golden Hour and why do photographers love it so much? It’s the time of day when the sunlight softens and allows for beautiful warm colors to filter through your surroundings. You can find this stunning light anywhere but not at any time of the day.

portrait of a boy
portrait of a boy

The Golden Hour is the first hour of light after sunrise and the last hour of light before sunset. To find exact times, you can search online to find sunrise and sunset times for the town you live in, but what I do is just pay attention to the light outside. As a natural light photographer, my eye is generally drawn outdoors often throughout the day, but more so in the early evening around sunset. You can see the shift in light, how it filters through the trees in a different, more beautiful way, and the light starts to take on a golden hue.

So it’s a beautiful time of day, but why do photographers love it so much? It’s the perfect time for shooting portraits. The sun is low in the sky which means the light is soft, diffused, and won’t cast any harsh shadows on your subjects or make them squint in their photos. The warm hues are also very flattering to skin tones. If you’re a bokeh lover like I am, you will soon fall in love with shooting at this time of day because the bokeh is to-die-for! It also allows for beautiful backlighting, golden haze, and stunning sun flares to come into your images.

Now you know what the Golden Hour is and when to seek it, now you’re probably wondering how to take pictures in this amazing light? The best scenario would be for you to scope out the location ahead of time, during the golden hour, so you can see for yourself the best areas to use for the type of images you want. Then you won’t waste any precious time on the day of the shoot and you’ll know exactly where to go for the best use of light. If you aren’t able to go to the location ahead of time, then the first thing you need to do is figure out where you want to place your subjects in relation to your light source, the sun. I prefer to put the sun behind people because I like backlighting, but you could also face them towards the sun.

Next, you need to figure out your ideal settings. To get the most out of the Golden Hour light, you should:

  • Shoot wide open somewhere between f/1.8 and f/2.2. You will want to shoot this way to capture the amazing bokeh that will be plentiful this time of day.
  • Keep your ISO low because you will have plenty of light coming in. If you don’t like sun flare, be sure to put on a lens hood because you can expect a lot of flare and haze this time of day so the hood will help keep that out if you don’t like that look.
  • Experiment a little and remember to keep shooting. The light, clouds, shadows, and colors change rapidly and drastically so keep moving around and take all the shots you can during this small window of time.

I encourage you to get out there and experience the golden hour for yourself and see how the world becomes a little more magical.

For more on the Golden Hour and creating portraits with Backlighting, check out this LightStalking article.

About Author

Joanna Smith is a portrait photographer in the Chicago area specializing in children, family, and maternity portraits. Find her at her website and blog.

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