The right light can make a single photo stop you in your tracks. Imagine a warm, natural glow that makes everyone and everything look their best. That’s the magic of golden hour photography.
What Is Golden Hour Photography?
The golden hour is roughly one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. If you want a more exact time, you can use a golden hour calculator app like the Photographer’s Emphameris or a free app like Helios Golden Hour (for iOS) and Blue Hour Calculator (for Android).
You can also use an online calculator like this one to find out when the golden hour starts at a specific location.
The golden hour’s soft, warm, directional light makes it easier to shoot than the harsh light of a midday sun. Both professional photographers and beginners prefer to shoot during the golden hour since it’s easier to work with.
Golden hour photography gets its characteristic look from the sun’s lower position in the sky. Compared to other times of day, golden hour light is:
- Soft: the transition from light to dark is gradual, creating soft light that’s universally flattering and particularly good for portraits.
- Warm: the low angle of the sun creates an orange glow, associated with calm and happiness.
- Directional: with the sun low in the sky, it’s easy to create back-lighting, side lighting or front lighting with just the sun and an inexpensive reflector or a modified fill flash.
Together, those three characteristics form the magic of the golden hour. All you have to do is adjust your shooting time. And perhaps wake up a little earlier!
Shooting During the Golden Hour
Golden hour is one of the easiest types of natural light to work with, but it can still go wrong. You can run out of time and have to shoot ISOs as the light wanes, or take portraits where the subject is squinting.
To avoid that, plan on arriving at least an hour before sunset. Depending on the weather conditions or if the weather is cloudy, give yourself even more time. Overcast days don’t provide quite the same magic, but the type of light is still soft and directional.
If you’re new to working with light, pay attention to the sun’s position. For portrait photography, arrange your shot so that the sun is to the side. If you are not shooting a portrait, the sun should be in front of your subject. Don’t use front lighting from the sun for portraits, or you’ll get a squint.
One of the best uses for the golden hour is back-lighting. Placing the sun behind your subject gives you that magical glow.
Golden Hour Camera Settings
To make the most of back-lighting, you will need to shoot in manual mode to adjust exposure, or in a semi-manual mode such as aperture priority with spot metering.
Spot metering tells the camera to expose for wherever the focal point is, instead of considering the entire scene. Without spot metering, you’ll most likely end up with a dark subject or even a silhouette.
On most DSLRs, there’s a physical shortcut for the metering mode and on many models, you can also adjust metering mode inside the menu.
Another great way to shoot with golden hour backlight is to use a reflector to bounce some of the light back on the subject, creating a more even exposure. A low-powered flash with a diffuser also does the trick.
If I can’t juggle the reflector in the right spot, I use a hot shoe flash on-camera, but on a low setting with a diffuser. An orange gel is also helpful – the color helps the flash blend in with the ambient, or existing, light.
Golden hour photography settings vary based on the exact light and the subject. For portraits, I shoot with a low aperture, around f/1.8 to f/2.8. If I’m shooting a couple or a group, I use a narrower aperture to keep all the faces in focus.
I often use aperture priority mode and increase the ISO as the sun goes down. For landscapes, particularly if you use a tripod, you can keep the ISO low and lengthen the shutter speed as the sunlight wanes.
Another potential pitfall to look out for are lens flares. Adjust your position, use a lens hood or find a way to incorporate them artistically into the shot.
Back-lighting can sometimes be tough for budget lenses, so check your focus to make sure you got it tack sharp before leaving the scene.
The light changes quickly during the golden hour, so you’ll want to watch your settings and and adjust as the light fades. You might have to increase your ISO, widen the aperture or lower the shutter speed as the amount of sunlight decreases.
Photography Magic During the Golden Hour
Golden hour creates soft, warm directional light that’s not only easy to work with but universally stunning. It doesn’t work for every scenario – if you want to create a more sombre mood, Blue Hour, or the hour after sunset or before sunrise, is a better fit.
If you want to try for that natural, magical glow in your photos, explore golden hour photography on your next shoot. Head out at sunrise or stay out later and see what happens!
Learning how to compose your images to take advantage of the Golden Hour? Take a look at some tips on using the Golden Ratio to compose your images with no complex maths involved.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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