You may have heard about golden hour photography, but what exactly is this magical moment in time?
Ask any photographer what time of day produces the best light for a photograph and you’ll almost always get the same answer – golden hour!
Let’s explore what exactly golden hour photography is, when golden hour occurs, and how you can take full advantage of it to create stunning photographs.
What is Golden Hour?
Golden hour is the short window of time right after sunrise and again right before sunset, when the air is filled with a flattering golden hue that’s perfect for photographing everything from landscapes to portraits.
The sun is low in the sky during these hours and more diffuse (and redder) than normal thanks to having to be filtered for a greater distance through the atmosphere. At golden hour, you won’t get the kind of harsh shadows you see at high noon.
Since the sun is so low on the horizon, the light is directional, creating long, and soft shadows giving dimension to your photographs. You can use that soft dimensional light to achieve creative effects that aren’t possible at any other time of day.
When is Golden Hour?
Golden hour varies depending on where you are, what time of year it is, and what the weather is like. You can use an online golden hour calculator to determine the exact time, but the easiest way to determine the golden hour is to just check for your local sunrise and sunset times. A general rule of thumb is that golden hour is about an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.
Luckily, golden hour happens every day twice a day! Keep in mind, 60 minutes is not a lot of time. Here are five tips to help you make the most of shooting during golden hour:
1. Plan Ahead
Since you’ve only got a short time to shoot, know your location ahead of time, get there early, and set up before golden hour starts. That may mean setting up your camera in the dark, first thing in the morning, but it’ll be worth it when you snap an epic golden hour sunrise shot.
2. Keep Shooting
Golden hour begins pretty suddenly, and once it starts, the light will be constantly changing. Keep snapping that shutter for the entire hour, as the light will change dramatically during that time.
3. Set Your White Balance
If your camera is set to Auto White Balance (AWB), it will compensate for all the beautiful warm tones you’re there specifically for. If left on AWB, your images may end up far more blue than you want them. Even when shooting in RAW, it’s a good idea to choose a manual setting for your White Balance. A good starting point is setting it to “shade” or “cloudy” to preserve those gorgeous golden hues.
4. Use a Tripod
A landscape captured during the golden hour has a wonderful warmth to it that’s not possible to photograph at any other time. Since you’re likely trying to get as much of your scene in focus as possible, you’ll be using a large depth of field (smaller aperture opening).
Since there is less light during golden hour and shadows are less pronounced, use a tripod so you can slow down your shutter speed to collect more information while keeping your image sharp.
5. Use a Wide Aperture for Portraits
Warm golden hour light is the most flattering natural light for portrait photography. The diffused light at golden hour gives the skin a soft look and your subject can face the sun without squinting, so they’re bathed in beautiful light.
Shoot your subject with a small (shallow) depth of field by choosing a larger aperture opening of f/5.6 or wider to increase that dreamy effect. You’ll create lovely bokeh while keeping the focus on your beautifully-lit subject.
Golden Hour Photography Lighting Types
Your camera’s aperture, ISO, and shutter speed settings will vary, depending on where and what you’re shooting. Start by setting your aperture to get your desired depth of field. Set your shutter speed to avoid camera shake or blur. Lastly, set your ISO to get the proper exposure.
Use golden hour to your creative advantage and master these five key lighting styles and elements:
1. Front Lighting
Front lighting is exactly what the name implies. During golden hour, have your subject face the sun. They’ll be front lit with warm, flattering, and even light. You can’t do that at high noon! This smooth lighting is great for landscapes, too. Just shoot your scene with the sun at your back.
The opposite of front lighting is backlighting. Have your subject pose with their back to the sun and they’ll be surrounded by a warm glow. You may need to increase your exposure to keep your subject from becoming too dark (even at the risk of overexposing your backlighting). Or you may need to fill your subject with a Speedlight or reflector. Backlit images tend to have a dreamy, hazy appearance.
3. Rim Lighting
Rim lighting is similar to backlighting, but when the background is dark you’ll achieve a faint glow around your subject. Use rim lighting to separate your subject from the background. It may be a person’s hair or the edges of a flower, gently lit by the sun.
A flare is achieved when sunlight hits the front of your lens. Typically, you’ll want to avoid flare. But, when captured during golden hour, a sun flare can add visual interest and depth to your photograph.
Play around with different angles to achieve different flares. Reposition yourself so that your subject is partially blocking the sun. Most of all, have fun with it!
The golden hour is an ideal time to photograph a silhouette because the sun is so low in the sky. Try shooting an object or person in front of the bright light of the sun to create a silhouette.
Gorgeous, warm golden hour light is ideal for all types of photography, from portrait to landscape. It’s so idyllic, in fact, that some professional photographers will only book appointments during golden hour!
Mastering the creative techniques you’ve learned in this article and applying them to your golden hour photography will help take your photos from good to great.
Front Lighting CC image courtesy of Thomas Leth-Olsen on Flickr
Rim Lighting CC image courtesy of Lucy Maude Ellis on Flickr
Flare Lighting CC image courtesy of Nubrig on Flickr
Silhouette Lighting CC image courtesy of Edward Zulawski on Flickr