A Comprehensive Guide to Golden Hour Photography
It doesn’t matter what kind of photography your are into, it doesn’t matter if you are just starting out or you are a veteran photographer, it doesn’t matter what kind of camera or lens you are using: you should know what is the golden hour, when it happens and how to take advantage of it. It’s one of the fundamental stuff to know when talking about photography; you may have heard the common saying “photography is all about light”, and to have a deep knowledge of the golden hour will help you a lot in mastering the art of photography and capturing great pictures.
In this article we’ll find out together what is the golden hour, how to properly control the light at that time of the day and how you can take advantage of the golden hour light in each photography genre.
1. What is Golden Hour Photography
We can define as golden hour photography all those photos taken right after the sun has risen in the morning and before the sun is about to go below the horizon in the evening: this is what everyone generally means when talking about “golden hour photography”.
We’ll see later in a specific chapter what are the right times of the day to catch the golden light, depending on your location and the time of the year. Just as an introduction, consider that the golden light (the moments that I mentioned a few strings above) can last as little as 30 minutes and as much as 6 or 7 hours, so we’ll need to narrow down a few variables to better understand when it’s the right time to go out.
2. What Makes the Golden Hour Magical?
Okay, now that we got a small introduction about what is the golden hour, it’s time to understand why is so important in photography. Rationally speaking, what makes the golden hour so photogenic?
- Soft Light: one of the main reasons why the golden hour is so popular between photographers is because the light become softer at that time. That means that you won’t find yourself anymore to shoot with the harsh mid-day light and its strong contrasts, but with a soft and delicate light.
- Warm Light: one more important reason because photographers prefer to be out during the golden hour is the warmness of the light. While during the day the sunlight tend to be white-ish, at golden hours a warmer light will be all over your subjects, and will create a completely different (and generally better) atmosphere.
- Directional Light: during golden hours the sun will be low on the horizon, and that means that you can change a lot in your photos just by deciding in which direction to shoot. Do you want the sun in your picture, to have a strong light point? Or do you want some side light coming into your frame to light up your subject(s)? While with the harsh daylight you won’t have many choices, at the golden hours you can play a lot more with the sunlight.
- Light creates Long Shadows: if the sun is low on the horizon during the golden hours, that can only means one thing: long, big shadows to use in your photos to have more contrasts and to give more importance to your subject(s) hit by the warm sunlight!
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3. When is the Golden Hour?
So, in one of the chapters above I briefly stated that the moment of the day defined as the “golden hour” is when the sun has just risen and when it is about to set. Unfortunately though, in real life it is a little bit more complicated than that; why? Because the sun will rise and set at different times throughout the year and those times will change depending on the location you find yourself at that specific moment. There isn’t a universal “sunrise time” or “sunset time”; each day of the year is slightly different, and at different locations correspond different golden hour times.
3.1 Golden Hour Differences Throughout the Seasons
As I was just saying, golden hour times are subject to variations throughout the year; why?
In the easiest possible words, because of the Earth rotation: from March to September the northern hemisphere is oriented towards the sun and so it gets more light, while from September to March the southern hemisphere is the one that is more exposed to the sun and will get more light.
On 22th of December (winter solstice) you’ll get the shortest day in the northern hemisphere and the longest day in the southern one; on 20th of June (summer solstice) you’ll get the longest day in the northern hemisphere and the shortest in the southern one. I think you got the idea, right?
And what about the location? The answer is the latitude: at the Equator, the days will have 12 hours of light and 12 of darkness. The more you move from the Equator (towards north or south), the more you’ll be further away or closer to the sun, and the more golden hour times will be affected: if you are above the Arctic Circle (or in Antarctica, let’s say) in winter, you’ll barely see any daylight, while in summer you’ll have the midnight sun. If you live in any of the temperate zones, the changes in golden hour times will be less visible, because you’ll be closer to the Equator: in winter you may get days with 9 hours of daylight, while in summer you may arrive to 14 or 15 hours of daylight.
3.2 How to Check at What Time the Golden Hours Starts
So, now that you know the differences in golden hour times throughout the year, depending on your location and why there are these differences, it’s time to find a solution that will make your life easy and that will allow you to find out when the golden hour is starting at your place quickly and easily.
Luckily for you there are quite a few options to do that!
Online: there are many available websites where you can easily check at what time the golden hour is starting, such as Golden Hour Calculator or The Photographer’s Ephemeris. All you have to do is visit these website, put it your location or coordinates, select the date you want to know the golden hours and magically they will tell you everything you need, from golden hour times to sunset, twilight times and much more!
Apps: nowadays you can be sure of one thing: there’s an app for everything! And of course, there are also a few apps that will help you plan your photography sessions at golden hours. Apps such as Photopills, Sun Surveyor or even The Photographer’s Ephemeris (yes, the same website as above, they also have an app!); all these apps are available both for iOs and Android, and they work pretty much as for the websites. All you have to do is insert a place and a date, the rest will be done by the app!
4. How to Use the Golden Hour in Photography
Till this moment all I’ve done is to give you a lot of nice informations about the golden hour, but very few (close to none) tips and tricks about how to exploit this particular time of the day in each different photography genre; why should you get out really early (or really late) to take photos? Why can’t you just use filters or some particular techniques and shot with the harsh daylight? Let’s be serious: in practice, is it worth to go shooting during golden hours?
Now it’s the time to find out and give an answer to all these questions, so for each different photography genre I’ll tell you a few benefits you get from shooting at golden hours.
4.1 Portrait Photography
Have you ever tried to take the same exact shot around noon and later in the evening, at the golden hour? If you haven’t, you should try. That’s the easiest way to understand why being out during the golden hour is fundamental for a portrait photographer.
Let’s start with the fact that, as I already told you above, the light is softer and warmer during golden hours, so you won’t have strong contrasts between lights and shadows but the whole image will look much more balanced.
You can also control the light on your subject a lot better at the golden hour compared to shooting in the harsh midday light: since during the day the sun is high above the horizon and (obviously) the sunlight is coming from above, you’ll barely see any differences when repositioning your model. This won’t happen during the golden hours: since the light is directional and the sun is low on the horizon, you can decide if you want your subject to be hit by the last light of the day, or if you want it against the sun and play with some creative flares in the shot.
Oh, you didn’t know? If you place the sun at the edges of your frame, you’ll get some flares all around the shot; with a little bit of practice you’ll be able to control these flares and have them right in the areas of the frame where you want them to create some beautiful atmospheres!
4.2 Wildlife Photography
Practicing wildlife photography during the golden hours will be.. Tricky, to say the least. Wildlife photography is already a difficult genre if you do it in the midday light, so you should prepare to do a lot of practice for shooting wildlife at the golden hours.
Why? Well, here are just some of the challenges you have to face:
Raising the ISOs: the light is fading during the golden hours, and you’ll have little light to work with at those times of the day. Be prepared to use really high ISOs, and have a camera that allow that.
Keeping your shutter speed fast enough: you don’t want a long serie of blurred or moving shots when shooting your subject, so be sure to use fast enough exposure times to capture whatever animal you are shooting steadily.
The exposure will change a lot depending on your subject position: your subject may be moving fast, but you’ll have to change the settings of your camera faster if you don’t want overexposed (or underexposed) shots.
Planning: you don’t have to take anything for granted. The chances of having your subject right where you want it to be at the best time of the day is not an easy thing to achieve. You’ll have to meticolously plan your photography sessions if you are aiming to get some great wildlife photos at golden hours.
I made this brief list not to discourage you, but just to make you aware of the things you should take into consideration when thinking about wildlife photography at golden hours.
Now, on the other side, if you manage to get some nice shots during that time of the day, the results will be incredible to say the least. As for portrait photography, you’ll get the chance to shot your subject both hit by the last light of the day and in the sun direction (like in the shot above) and get some beautiful rim light effects on the edges of your subject. Remember always to keep the face (or the eyes at least) of the animal in light, unless you are aiming for some particular effect.
4.3 Landscape Photography
In landscape photography, being out during the golden hours can dramatically change the level of your photos. It can be exhausting sometimes to wake up really early in the morning or stay out till late in the evening, but you’ll be rewarded, trust me.
One of the first things that I had to put in my mind when I decided to take landscape photography more seriously is that I had to always be out during the golden hours of the day (possibly even earlier or later!) if I wanted to really improve my photography level.
So, by now you are probably wondering why being out at those times of the day is so important; as for the other photography genres that I wrote about, you’ll get a softer, warmer light compared to the midday one, and you won’t have strong contrasts but way more pleasant warm tones all over the landscape. Then, if your lens is pointing in the sun direction, you may even get a beautiful sun star in your photos!
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Going out to shot in a city during the middle of the day or early in morning/late in the evening are two completely different experiences: towns are super busy during most of the day, while they are generally really quiet during the golden hours. So, being out at those times will allow you not to have plenty of people in your shots, apart from enjoying the place a lot more.
Okay, but aside from not having many people roaming in your photos, what are the other upsides of shooting cityscapes at golden hours?
- Silhouettes: what’s more beautiful than a panoramic view of a city, with the golden light hitting the buildings? Not many things, honestly. So, one of the ways to capture this beauty is to find a spot where you have a great view of the city and wait for the best light to come!
- Illuminating Architecture: the difference in terms of luminosity between the buildings already in the shadows and the sky enlightened by the last light of the day will be huge, so you’ll get the chance to play a lot with buildings silhouettes just by exposing
for the highlights. The geometries and patterns that you’ll find can be quite amazing to shot!
5. Location Scouting and Planning
Whatever photography genre you like to practice, there is one common denominator to them all: the planning and scouting of the location where you’ll shoot. This part of the shot, which is often not given the right importance, is fundamental if you want to return home with some nice shots.
Luck is always a variable to take into consideration when going out to shoot, but with a careful planning and scouting you can reduce the influence of luck in getting the shot you want.
So, what should you do before going out?
- Check the weather forecast: obviously, the first thing to do is check the weather forecasts! The golden hour is called like this because of the golden light, but if the sky is cloudy you won’t get any golden light and you went out for nothing. In some genres (landscape photography for example) an overcast sky might result in some incredible light conditions at sunset/sunrise, if the clouds get some colors, so sometimes it’s worth to go out even if the forecasts are not very promising.
- Visit the location before, if you can: I totally understand that sometimes it’s quite hard to scout the location before to actually go there to shoot (for example while being on a trip, or visiting a city), but if have the time, make sure to do it. Knowing exactly where the sun will rise (or set), what will be in light and what in the shadows or where you subject should stand for the perfect shot are all things that it’s really hard to know before, even with the most careful planning. The apps that I wrote about a few chapters above here will help you to do that, but scouting the location before will give you an advantage that no app can give you!
- Study your subject: if you are a wildlife photographer, make sure you know your subject’s behaviours before going out, if you are a portrait photographer you should find a location that fit perfectly with your model and the kind of shots you are aiming for, if you are a landscape photographer, the location itself will probably be your subject and read again the previous point of this list. I think you got the drill: knowing the forecasts and the location is really important, but don’t forget that your subject is important too!
6. How to Shoot during the Golden Hour
In the last big chapter of this article we’ll cover the best tips you need to know to get incredible shots during the golden hours; from what kind of camera equipment you should use to the best camera settings, from how to compose the photo to the bracketing technique, discover everything by keep reading down here!
6.1 Camera Equipment
It goes without saying that the equipment you should have with you when shooting at the golden hours can highly vary depending on which photography genre you are practicing at that moment.
- Portrait photography: generally when doing portraits it’s nice to have very bright lenses (for example 50mm f/1.8 or f/1.4, 85mm f/1.8 or f/1.4, 35mm f/1.8 or f/1.4, etc.) to get some nice bokeh effect in front or behind your subject; in both ways, when shooting at golden hours, you’ll get a warm soft tones all over the frame and that’s what will really make your shot stand out!
- Wildlife photography: if you are doing wildlife photography you probably want to have with you a telephoto lens that can possibly reach at least 300mm: it would be even better if it could reach 500mm or 600mm. One more thing that could be helpful would be a camera that has great high-ISO capabilities, good fps (frames per second) ratio and great autofocus, since you’ll shoot in low light conditions and complex scenes where focusing can be hard.
- Landscape photography: when practicing landscape photography a wide-angle lens (anything from 14mm to 35mm) is generally the way to go, so be sure to have at least a lens in that focal range in your backpack. It should also have a good resistance to lens flares if you want to have the sun in your frame, so that you won’t have many flares in the shot.
- City and architecture photography: as for landscape photography, my recommendation for this type of photos would be a wide angle lens, possibly with little distortion so that buildings will be as straight as possible even at the edges of the photo. A camera that has a great dynamic range to handle high contrasts situations would be recommended too!
No matter what photography genre you are into, I highly suggest to always go out at golden hours with a tripod; remember that you’ll be shooting in low light and high contrasts conditions, so a tripod can reveal incredibly useful sometimes. You could even need to do a bracket to get the full dynamic range of the shot (we’ll talk about this technique later, don’t worry), and a tripod is fundamental in that case.
6.2 Golden Hour Camera Settings
Again, the settings you should use can highly vary depending on what you are shooting at that given moment.
- Portraits: if the bokeh effect and some artistic lens flares are what you are aiming for, be sure to have your aperture wide open and fast enough shutter speed so that you won’t have blurry shots. Regulate the ISOs accordingly, and keep them as low as possible not to have noisy shots!
- Wildlife: again, I’d recommend to use wide apertures and really fast shutter speeds. Your subject could be moving fast, so you really need to keep your exposure times as short as you can. You’ll probably need to raise the ISOs, but remember that a noisy shot is acceptable, a blurry shot is not.
- Landscapes/Cityscapes: I’ll put these two together since the settings you should use are pretty much the same for both of them; if you are looking for the sunstar, a really close aperture is what you need to have (generally I recommend to step down till f/22 just for the sunstar shot), at least around f/11. With a tripod, you shouldn’t care about the exposure times and just be sure you are not clipping the highlights; if you are shooting handheld, keep your shutter speed fast enough not to have blurry shots.
6.3 Composition Tips
As I wrote at the start of the article, the light during the golden hours is directional: that means that the sun is low on the horizon and depending where you are positioning your subject (and your camera) the shot could dramatically change. No matter what kind of shots you are aiming to do, you generally have three options when shooting at the golden hours:
- Shooting in the sun direction: that means that you’ll have a strong point of interest that will capture for sure your viewer’s attention, but at the same time you subject could be in the shadow. Be sure to handle the scene nicely, otherwise you’ll end up just with a bunch of sun shots!
- Shooting with the sunlight coming into the frame from the side: with this option you won’t have to deal with the strong contrast generated by the sun, but the whole scene will be much more balanced and your subject will be hit by the sidelight nicely. If you manage to be at the right angle, you could get some sort of nice “glow” at the edge of the frame.
- Shooting in the opposite direction of the sun: when choosing to go this way, you’ll have pretty much everything in your frame enlightened by the last (or first) light of the day. Again, unless you have some parts of the shot already in the shadows which can create a strong contrast, it’ll be much easier to handle than shooting directly into the sun!
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This widely used technique consists in shooting more images with different exposures, so that you’ll have the full dynamic range of the scene. It can become useful when you have some strong highlights and some dark shadows in the frame at the same time, and you can’t expose well with a single shot.
Generally you take two (or more) photos with different settings to get the full dynamic range. At the end you should have some bright shots exposed for the shadows, where you can see all the details even in the darkest parts of the frame but the highlights are blown out and some other dark shots exposed for the highlights, used to recover all the details in the brightest parts of the frame.
With Adobe Lightroom you can automatically merge together the shots with the HDR function, while with Adobe Photoshop you can work with masks and merge them manually.
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