Everything You Need to Know about Photographing the Golden Hours
Golden hour. That infamous magic “hour” in the day where the light takes on a special golden hue and all of your photos are magically transformed. The light is softer, the tones are warm, and lens flares are possible. It’s undoubtedly the chosen time of day for most photographers to shoot. But what exactly is golden hour photography? And how can we really make the most of the golden hour to capture stunning photos?
What is Golden Hour Photography?
Often referred to as the ‘magic hour’ by photographers. Golden hour usually starts at about an hour before sunset or an hour after sunrise. It is the last hour of warm light in the day. Or the first light from the sun in the morning. However, the exact duration varies depending on things like weather and location.
Golden hour occurs almost anywhere in the world. But the weather can play a big role in how and what those golden hours will look like.
After the sun has set and golden hour fades. Then blue hour begins. The blue hour is roughly the first hour after the sun has set. Or before the sun has risen. When it’s not quite dark, but the sky glows with a blue light.
This is also a great time to take photos. However, they will have a very different feel to your golden hour photos.
Why Shoot at Golden Hour?
The difference that golden hour can make to your photos is enormous. Here are just a few reasons why photographers choose to go with golden hour photography.
Directional & Diffused Light
One of the biggest benefits of golden hour photography is the gentle natural light that washes over your subjects. The direction of the light coming from the sun’s low angle means you get soft, longer shadows, side lighting, and less harsh contrast.
The long shadows are great for adding depth and drama to your landscape images. And can certainly help you get creative with silhouettes and portrait photography.
Warm Tones During Golden Hour
Direct, harsh sunlight can often wash out natural skin tones. However, the color temperature and warm tones of golden hour flatter every skin tone. And simply give a warm, happy feel to your images.
Lens Flares, Backlighting, and Creative Effects
Golden hour photography allows you the rare opportunity to capture a lens or sun flare in your photos. These can add a great bit of extra magic to an image. A lens or sun flare will often occur when pointing your camera lens at the setting sun. A flare is the reflection of the sun in the internal lens elements. These will sometimes show up in the final images.
Backlighting is quite literally the opposite of front lighting when you use the light source to light the back of your subject—creating a silhouette or magical rim light.
What to Shoot at Golden Hour?
Golden hour photography provides you with many opportunities. In which you may shoot whatever you need or want to. However, there are three main categories that are the most popular for golden hour shoots.
Shooting portraits during the golden hour is a very popular time slot for professional photographers. This is because there are less harsh shadows that can affect the subject’s face. Golden hour photos have a soft light that flatters all skin tones and creates less harsh contrast around the features of the face.
It’s the best natural light for portraits if you are wanting a warm glow or a soft, romantic feel to your images.
Sunset and sunrise are fantastic times to capture amazing landscape photos and improve your skills. Bright overhead sun during the day can create dark, harsh shadows. However, the low light at golden hour spreads a flattering light over the landscape.
Product and Still Life Photography
Although it’s not common, the natural light from the golden hour can greatly benefit product photography. Think about the way the sunlight hits the product you are shooting and how you can use this to your advantage.
Related article: DIY Product Photography Lighting
For example, this image taken during sunset plays on the branding of the bottle and the position of the sun to make an image with a warm summer feel. A refreshing drink for a summer day.
Tips for Golden Hour Photography
To be honest, it’s almost hard to go wrong when shooting photos at the golden hour. It is the perfect time of day for professionals and beginners alike to get out in the sun and practice their techniques. But there are a few tips that will help you get the best out of your images.
Think About the Weather & Plan Ahead
You only have a short window of opportunity to capture beautiful photos in the golden hour light. So a little planning can go a long way. Make sure you look up your local sunrise and sunset times. And give yourself plenty of time to get there and scout locations before the golden hour starts. Usually, around an hour before sunset is a safe bet to get prepared and start shooting.
Weather conditions can make a big difference to the quality of golden hour. And even whether you can shoot or not. A heavily cloudy day may impact your ability to shoot golden hour photography as the clouds block the golden sunlight.
Ideally, you should plan ahead. But stay flexible and roll with whatever mother nature gives you at golden hour. You may come home with images even better than you had planned for.
Use an Online Golden Hour Calculator
An online calculator is a great way for you to work out the exact time of golden hour in your location. Working out the timing beforehand will give you a better idea of when to arrive and even where to shoot. Apps and websites like The Photographer’s Ephemeris, Helios Golden Hour (for iOS), and Blue Hour Calculator (for Android) will help you get a more exact time.
Don’t Rush Home Once the Sun has Set
If you stay long enough after the sun has set, you might even start to shoot in the blue hour. Blue hour light adds a very different tone to your photos, giving your portfolio a great bit of variety.
Get to Know Your Manual Settings
The golden hour light can change very fast. So it’s best to have a good understanding of manual mode.
For example, knowing exactly what shutter speed and aperture you want to use will help you get sharp, in-focus photos. Or photos that are out of focus in the places you want them to look a little blurry.
Digital cameras can often get confused when you are pointing them at direct sunlight on auto mode. So it’s often better to use manual settings so that you can obtain control and get a good exposure.
Using auto white balance is great most of the time. However, at the golden hour, it can serve as more of a hindrance than a help as it tries to combat the warm tones of the sunset. White balance in the camera measures the temperature of the light and calibrates the colors in your image. You should adjust your white balance to accurately represent the true temperature of the scene you are trying to capture. You may wish to use a light meter to measure the color and intensity of the light or a calibration card.
As the sun slowly wanes, you may also need to continue to increase your ISO to combat the darkening sky.
Shoot With a Wide Aperture for Magical Golden Hour Photography
Golden hour is the perfect time to play around with creating a shallow depth of field. Shooting with a wide aperture allows you to create a bokeh effect. When shooting individual portraits or product photography, try shooting at an aperture of f/1.8 or f/2.8 for isolating a subject.
Use Different Angles and Play with Backlighting
There are so many ways you can use the light in the golden hours to your advantage, simply by moving your camera around.
For example, shooting at a low angle is a great way to get silhouettes in your golden hour photos. Think about the sun’s position and how you can use it to create interesting images.
Rim lighting is another fun way to use the sun’s position to your advantage. The rim light is when a subject is lit from behind, and a rim of light highlights its edges. This bright light coming from behind creates a beautiful halo effect.
Usually, it’s best not to use direct front lighting from the sun when shooting portrait photography. As this can cause the subject to squint. However, if you angle the model’s head right, this can also give your subject a beautiful glow.
Use a Fill Light or Reflector
If you are taking photos of a backlit subject, the front of your subject is likely to be quite dark. You may wish to consider using a fill or front light. Or something to bounce the light back onto the face or front of the subject. Just make sure the light is not too harsh or cool. You should try to keep the brightness and tones in line with your surrounding by using a diffuser and a low setting.
Shoot Your Golden Hour Photography in RAW
As always, the advice for anyone wanting to improve their photos is to shoot in RAW. Shooting in RAW allows you to retain more details in your images than in JPEG. When shooting golden hour photos, you can better bring out any deep shadows in your image. It also makes color and temperature calibration much easier in post.
Post Processing Your Golden Hour Photography
You may find that due to the beautiful light you have used that your photos need very little post-processing at all. Sometimes all that’s needed is a small adjustment to the white balance to reflect the true color of the sun. Or perhaps you may want to adjust the warmth and color of your subjects and edit the HSL panel. For easy editing, you may also want to try using summer presets!
Best Gear for Golden Hour Photography
If you’re ready to get out and start shooting at golden hour. There are a few items you should consider adding to your gear bag before you run into the sunlight.
1. Lens Hood
A lens hood is necessary for most outdoor photography and is especially useful in the golden hour. A hood can help protect your camera lens from being hit with direct sunlight at certain angles. This is an especially useful piece of equipment if you want to avoid any flares.
2. Light Meter
A light meter will help you accurately calibrate the light temperature and intensity so that you can adjust your settings to perfectly fit the environment.
3. Fill Light or Reflector
A fill light or reflector is a great way to fill light in the front of backlight subjects. This means you can get a stunning, evenly lit image with golden tones across the whole image.
Collapsable reflectors are an easy, lightweight, and cheap option that every photographer should have in their gear bag. The downside is that you will often need an assistant to hold it in the right place.
4. A Crystal or Prism
Though not a necessity to your gear bag. These photography accessories are a great way to add a new and creative sparkle to your golden hour images. Crystals and prisms can help you create sun flares or give your photos a kaleidoscope look. They play off your main light source to reflect light, creating beautiful bokeh patterns and colors.
Conclusion – Golden Hour Photography is Magic for a Reason
There are almost endless reasons why so many photographers love shooting golden hour photography.
Whether it’s the long shadows, warm sunset tones, or sunrise silhouettes, the variety and options that golden hour provides mean that photographers get both quantity and quality images.