Golden Hour: When Sunlight is Warm and Photos are Magical

If you’ve been outside during a beautiful sunrise or sunset, chances are you’ve heard the term “golden hour.” It’s one of the best times to do many types of photography and a beautiful time to be outdoors. This guide will help you understand golden hour, when it happens, and how to make the most of it through different types of photography.

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What is Golden Hour?

Golden hour, or magic hour, is the period of time after sunrise and before sunset when the sun is low enough in the sky to cast a soft, warm light. This contrasts with other times of the day when the sunlight is harsher and less colored. Sunlight appears gold, orange and red during this time, hence the name “golden” hour.

On a more technical level, the light is less harsh during the golden hour because the sun is low in the sky, which forces the light to pass through more of the atmosphere before reaching the Earth’s surface. Since a straight line is the shortest distance to get from point A to point B, sunlight passes through the least amount of atmosphere when the sun is directly overhead at a certain location. At sunrise and sunset, light has to pass through more of the atmosphere to reach the ground because the sun is tilted.

This results in a natural and predictable form of sunlight scattering, which improves lighting conditions for portraits, landscapes and many other types of photography. During periods other than golden hour, light is scattered less because it passes through the atmosphere less. This means the light is more intense, creating harsh highlights and shadows, as well as difficult conditions for subjects to keep their eyes peeled for a portrait. On the other hand, the angle of the sun at golden hour diffuses more light, creating a softer and warmer light.

When is golden hour?

If you just want to know generally when to look for golden hour, it’s about an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, when the sun is up but not intense. You can find the sunrise and sunset times for your location by simply looking them up on a search engine. It’s important to note that different locations will have different sunrise and sunset times, so keep that in mind if you’re traveling.

If you prefer to have all your information in one place, there are useful photography planning apps, such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (also a web app) that will tell you the sunrise and sunset times for each day, as well as the golden hours. hours that correspond to these.

PhotoPills (left) and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (right) are two useful apps for golden hour photography.

Most apps have a default golden time of 40 minutes after sunrise and before sunset. They will also help you find the position the sun will be in at those times, as well as lots of other useful information.
Keep in mind that it is difficult for apps to account for obstacles such as hills, trees, and mountains. The sun may set behind an obstacle sooner than the tool indicates the sun will actually set. To check, both apps above have augmented reality features that let you see where the sun and moon will be in your sky at a certain time.

Golden Hour Photography Tips

Once you’ve determined your location’s golden hour, you need to know how to make the most of it. Here are some tips for golden hour photography in many different photographic genres.

Use Sun Location and Angle. As the sun is low and less intense, it is easy to include it in your shot. For portrait photography, this may mean placing the sun behind your subject or to the side so that the subject is lit from behind. It can help hair pop with color. For landscape photography, this can mean making the sun your subject (just make sure you don’t look at the sun through your viewfinder, it can damage your eyes).

Try a silhouette. With the sun low in the sky, you can position a subject, be it a person or something else, facing the sun and darken your exposure. This will create a silhouette, with the subject dark against a bright golden sky.

Play with shadows. Golden hour creates playful long shadows. These can be fun to shoot alone or with a subject.

Use a reflector. In portraits, a reflector is a relatively inexpensive tool that is very useful during the golden hour. Since the sun is low in the sky, sunlight can easily be reflected back onto your subject, illuminating their face while keeping the light soft. This helps your scene light become more balanced. Another option to achieve this same effect is to use a flash with a diffuser so that the light is not too harsh.

Try to make a star out of the sun. A narrow aperture, such as f/16, will produce a starburst effect using your lens. Try different apertures to experiment with the intensity and be sure to expose the scene so you can see the burst detail. Sometimes it’s easier to partially block the sun with an object or subject so that the rays shine through.

Learn more about HDR. Some cameras cannot capture all the details of an image if there are parts that are too dark and too bright at the same time. While golden hour light isn’t harsh, high dynamic range photography can still be useful for capturing every detail in a scene. HDR photos are typically created by taking a few different exposures at different exposure values ​​and then combining the images so you can see detail in highlights as well as shadows. It’s not always desired, but it can create great images when done correctly.

Remember your timing. If you’re doing a portrait session, make sure you and your client arrive at your location early enough to take advantage of the golden hour. If you arrive too late, you will feel rushed to take as many pictures as possible while the light is still soft. Know when the sun will set and plan to have more time than necessary.

Check the weather. Golden hour requires the sun to shine. Otherwise, the light may still be soft, but is much less colorful when diffused by clouds. If you know you want to use golden hour effects during your shoot, make sure the sun won’t be hidden behind the clouds.

Tips for Editing Golden Hour Photography

Here are some general tips to keep in mind when editing your golden hour photos. Editing is ultimately up to your creative eye, but golden hour shots can be even more stunning with a few tweaks.

1. Don’t oversaturate. With the added warmth that comes with golden hour, it’s easy to oversaturate your image.

2. Give your image warm colors. Golden hour produces a naturally warm light, so your entire image will likely be warmer than images at different times. Although too much heat can make your image look unnatural, expect your image to be warmer than usual. You can make adjustments (if needed) to your white balance using a tool like Adobe Lightroom.

3. Golden hour highlights are naturally soft, so be careful not to lower them. The highlights in golden hour photos are usually important in creating a glow that cannot be replicated at other times of the day. If you’re going to lower them, do so to a minimum.

4. Use Graduated Filters and Other More Localized Adjustments. In golden hour landscape photography, the horizon is often much brighter and more colorful than the rest of the image. Graduated filters in software such as Lightroom can help evenly adjust certain parts of the image.

5. Adjust the contrast to your liking. Golden hour is useful because there are fewer harsh highlights and shadows than at other times of the day. This lets you capture the contrast where you want it and adjust it later while editing. You might want a high contrast photo, with something like a silhouette, or you might want something with less contrast, like a portrait that has soft, even colors and lighting.

Photo by Depositphotos.

Other lighting conditions and considerations

As you saw in PhotoPills, the blue hour marks the end of golden hour at sunset (and the end of blue hour marks the start of golden hour at sunrise). It can be just as interesting as the golden hour, where the light is mostly blue and purple before the sky darkens. Plus, if you’re already shooting golden hour, you might as well enjoy blue hour.

The blue hour can be balanced with the warm colors emitted by buildings to create a colorful cityscape image. It can also be a good time to practice long exposure photography as there is enough light to see details without being too bright.

Finally, the golden hour is useful and amazing, but it is not the only time when you can enjoy photography. Many types of photography can be done outside of golden hour when the sun isn’t too harsh. In some places around the world, the sun tilts for months at a time, so just about any time is suitable for golden hour effects. Clouds will also disperse light more evenly, and while it won’t be golden, a cloudy day is sometimes the best day for photography.

The golden hour has its benefits, such as soft, warm, and colorful light, but it’s not the only time photography can be done well.


Picture credits: All photographs, unless otherwise stated, are by Justin Hein.

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