Golden Hour: When Sunlight is Warm and Photos are Magical

If you’ve been outside during a nice sunrise or sunset, chances are good 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 outside. This guide will help you understand golden hour, when it happens, and how to make the most of it through various types of photography.

Table of Contents

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 is opposed to other times in the day when sunlight is more harsh and less colorful. This is why the “golden hour” name refers to the time when sunlight appears golden, orange and red.

On a more technical level, light is less harsh during golden hour because the sun is low in the sky, which forces light to travel through more of the atmosphere before it reaches Earth’s surface. Since a straight line is the shortest distance to get from point A to point B, sunlight travels through the least amount of atmosphere when the sun is directly above a certain location. Because the sun rises at angles, the light must travel more through the atmosphere in order to reach ground level.

The result of this is a natural and predictable form of sunlight diffusion, which enhances the lighting conditions for portrait, landscape, and many other types of photography. During times other than golden hour, the light isn’t scattered as much because it passes through less of the atmosphere. This means that the light is more intense, creating harsh highlights and shadows, as well as difficult conditions for subjects to keep their eyes open for a portrait. On the other hand, the sun’s angle at golden hour scatters more of the light, creating a softer and warmer light.

When is Golden Hour?

If you just want to generally know when to look for golden hour, it’s about one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset, when the sun is up but not intense. You can find the sunrise and sunset times for your location by simply searching for them 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’d prefer to have all your info 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 each day’s sunrise and sunset times, as well as the golden hour times that correspond with those.

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

Most apps have golden hour defaulted to 40 minutes after sunrise and before sunset. These apps will help you determine the exact position of the sun during these times and provide a lot of useful information.
Apps have a hard time taking obstacles like hills, trees and mountains into consideration. It is possible that the sun might set behind an obstruction earlier than it says. Both of these apps offer augmented reality that allows you to view the location and time when the sun will set in the sky.

Tips for Photography During Golden Hour

Once you’ve figured out when golden hour is for your location, you’ll need to know how to make the most of it. These are some tips to help you capture golden hour photos in many genres of photography.

Make use of the sun’s location and angle. Since the sun is low and less intense, it’s easy to include it in your shot. For portrait photography, this might mean positioning the sun behind your subject or off to the side so that the subject is lit from behind. You can make your hair stand out with the color. This can be used for landscape photography. However, you should not view the sun through the scope of your camera. It could cause damage to your eyes.

Try a silhouette. Since the sun is low in the sky, you can position a subject, whether it is a person or something else, in front of the sun and darken your exposure. The silhouette will be created by placing the subject in front of a dark sky.

Play with shadows. Golden hour creates long, playful shadows. These can be fun to photograph on their own or with a subject.

Use a reflector. A reflector, which is relatively cheap and very handy during golden hour, is useful in portraits. Because the sun’s rays are low, the sunlight can reflect back on your subject. This helps to illuminate their faces while maintaining the softness of light. The scene will look more balanced. You can also use a flash that has a diffuser to create the same effect.

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

Learn about HDR. Some cameras can’t capture all of the details of an image if there are parts that are too dark and too bright at the same time. While golden hour light is not harsh, high dynamic range photography can still be useful to capture all of the details in a scene. HDR photographs are created using a variety of exposures and different exposure levels. The images then combine to show the details in both the highlights and shadows. Although this is not always possible, it can produce stunning photos if done correctly.

Remember your timing. If you’re doing a portrait session, make sure that you and your client arrive early enough to your location to take advantage of golden hour. If you’re too late, you will feel rushed to get as many shots as possible while the light is still soft. Plan to be there when the sun sets and allow yourself more time.

Check the weather. Golden hour requires the sun to be shining. Even if the sun is shining, it can be very soft but less vibrant when the clouds are present. You want the golden hour effects to be visible during your photo shoot. Make sure the sun is not obscured by clouds.

Tips for Editing Golden Hour Photography

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

1. Don’t oversaturate. It’s easy for your image to get too saturated with the warmth of golden hour.

2. Allow your picture to have warm colors. Golden hour produces naturally warm light, so your entire image will likely be warmer than images during different times. Although too much heat can look artificial, you should expect to see your photo warmer than normal. You can make adjustments (if they’re necessary) to your white balance using a tool like Adobe Lightroom.

3. Golden hour highlights are naturally soft, so be careful about lowering them. Golden hour highlights are important for creating an illusion that cannot be duplicated at other times. If you’re going to lower them, do it minimally.

4. Utilize graduated filters and other more localized adjustments. Golden hour landscape photography often shows the horizon as brighter or more vibrant than the rest. Graduated filters in a software such as Lightroom can help evenly adjust certain parts of the image.

5. Adjust contrast to taste. Because there is less harsh lighting and shadows during golden hour, it’s more useful. You can capture the contrast you desire and then adjust it during editing. You may want a high-contrast photo, with something like a silhouette, or you may want something with less contrast, like a portrait that has soft, even colors and lighting.

Photo from Depositphotos.

Other Lighting Conditions and Considerations

As you saw in PhotoPills, blue hour marks the end of golden hour during sunset (and the end of blue hour marks the start of golden hour during sunrise). This can be equally as interesting as golden hour, where the light is mostly blue and purple before the sky turns dark. You can also take advantage of the blue hour if you are already taking golden hour photos.

Blue hours can be mixed with warm colors from buildings to create a variety of cityscape images. Long-exposure photography can be done here as there’s enough light for details to be seen without the lighting being too harsh.

As a final note, golden hour is useful and stunning, but it isn’t the only time that you can enjoy photography. Photography can also be done when the sunlight isn’t too strong. In some places around the world, the sun is at an angle for months at a time, so just about any time is suitable for golden-hour-like 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.

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


Image credits: All photographs, unless otherwise noted, by Justin Hein.

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