What is Golden Hour and How to Photograph It

What is Golden Hour and How to Photograph It

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 some 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. This may mean setting up your camera in the dark, first thing in the morning, or starting a shoot in the afternoon before the sun is ideal. You won’t have enough time to travel to a bunch of different locations.

golden hour chart

2. 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, where it’s extremely easy to adjust white balance in post, it’s a good idea to choose a manual setting for your white balance so that you have a better idea of what the scene is meant to look like when reviewing. A good starting point for beginners is setting it to “shade” or “cloudy” to get those gorgeous golden hues.

3. Use a Wide Aperture for Portraits

Most people agree that 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.

If you’re new to photography, put your camera into Aperture Priority mode. This is a setting that allows you to choose your aperture and the camera will automatically determine the best shutter speed for you (and ISO if your camera is in Auto ISO mode). If you’re unhappy with the results but don’t want to change too many things at once, use the Exposure Adjustment dial to tweak.

Closeups of DSLR dials

Where these settings are will vary from camera to camera.

4. Use Spot Metering

All cameras have a way of metering the amount of light around you to help you determine the settings needed for a good exposure (unless the camera is particularly old, then hand-held meters were used). Modern digital cameras have different kinds of metering modes built in, each with a slightly different way to read the light.

Meter inside viewfinder

The meter inside your camera’s viewfinder will be either along the side or across the bottom.

But the exposure these modes think is correct might not be the exposure you are looking for and some are better at certain kinds of scenes than others. Here they are in brief:

• Matrix or evaluative metering divides the frame into zones which are then analyzed individually for light and dark tones. It reads the information in each of the zones, looks at the point at which you focus, and marks it as more important than all the other zones.

• Center-weighted metering evaluates the light in the middle of the frame and its surroundings and ignores the corners. It also ignores your focus point.

• Spot or partial metering evaluates only the light around your focus point and ignores everything else.

Back of a DSLR camera

Setting location will will vary from camera to camera.

What’s special about spot metering is that you can meter only for the thing you care about – your subject. This may mean overexposing your environment – but during golden hour, that can result in very pretty portraits. Learn more about the benefits of spot metering in Learning To Leave The Matrix – A Tip On DSLR Light Metering.

Golden Hour Photography Lighting Types

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.

Three girls in golden hour

Putting the golden hour sun behind you and facing your subject is an easy way to get lovely, even lighting. To better predict and control the light in your images, check out Easy Lighting Laws to Boost Shooting Performance.

2. Backlighting

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.

Man's profile with sun setting behind him.

Take advantage of backlighting to unlock eye-catching images. Backlighting can create an atmospheric and artistic quality. Learn more in Tips for Shooting Backlit Portraits.

3. Rim/Edge Lighting

Rim (or edge) lighting is similar to backlighting, but when the background is dark you’ll achieve a faint glow or bright outline 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.

Woman with edge lighting from the sun

You can also achieve rim lighting in the studio. Learn more in 8 Portrait Lighting Setups Every Photographer Should Know.

4. Flare

A flare is achieved when sunlight hits the front of your lens. 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. Flares get dramatic when partially obscured. Reposition yourself so that your subject is partially blocking the sun. Most of all, have fun with it!

Lake fisherman with lens flare

Lens flare, simply speaking, is when bright light enters the camera lens, hits the sensor and flares outwards. Inside a lens, there are elements that work together to bend and focus the light onto your camera sensor. These elements almost always have an anti-reflective coating, but it’s not perfect, which can be used to your advantage. Learn more in What is Lens Flare? When and When Not to Use It.

5. Silhouette

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.

In Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile, the guanacos are backlit by the sun.

In this photo by Jay Goodrich, the guanacos are backlit by the sun creating silhouettes. Read more about his landscape and wildlife photography techniques in Camera Settings for Amazing Sunrise and Sunset Landscapes.

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.

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Alex Huff's photography and lighting tutorials can be found on 500px and her blog. See her lighting tutorials here. She is a Marketing Associate Manager at BorrowLenses.com. She learned about lighting and teaching while modeling for photographers such as Joe McNally and has since gone on to teach lighting workshops of her own in San Francisco. Before focusing on studio portraiture, she shot motorsports for X-Games, World Rally Cross, and Formula Drift. See her chiaroscuro-style painterly portraits on her website.

6 Comments

  1. Really golden hours are reliable to take photograph and it shows that writer is a photography expert and loves photography. Excellent execution of blog.

    Reply
  2. Hello sir, I liked your article very much. I want to become a professional photographer but my parents are not supporting me. They want me to pursue my career in Engineering but I love to click pictures. What should I do now? Please give me some ideas. Thank you in advance.

    Reply
    • I had the same dilemma 45 years ago. I took the safe career path my parents suggested and kept photography as a hobby. Now I’m retired and a full time photographer. Through all of the years having a career outside of photography kept the dream alive, I never had to compromise my art to make money. I love abstract photography but it’s not the best way to make a living. It’s up to you to decide what your dream career is, but you aren’t limited to one. You can have it all!

      Reply
  3. This is a very inspiring article and beautiful photos. Very useful content for the beginner.

    Reply
  4. Thank you for the great informatin. There is one question and it may sound stupid. If it’s a cloudy / gray day will there still be a golden hour? I know when it’s cloudy the colors are beautiful.

    Reply

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