Golden hour, golden light hour, or magic hour, how many times have you heard of these terms in photography?
The Golden hour is the period of the day with arguably the most beautiful light. Landscape photographers know very well that during this hour the position of the sun produces a warm soft light that makes a scene more attractive and magical.
But it is used not only in landscape photography. I’ve been studying this beautiful phenomenon for quite some time and in this article, I’m going to walk you through a comprehensive explanation of all you need to know about the golden hour as a photographer.
Golden Hour, Understanding What it is
The golden hour happens after sunrise and before sunset.
Firstly, let me clarify the duration of this effect. It’s called the golden hour, but its duration is not necessarily going to be a full hour. In fact, the duration varies depending on your geographical position, the season of the year and weather conditions.
A cloudy day, for example, can hide the sun and the yellow/red light effect would be missed entirely.
So it’s correct to say that for a variable period of time after sunrise and before sunset, the sun, with its lower position and angle on the horizon produces a low-intensity warm light.
The reason why photographers love the golden hour is that these soft light conditions are perfect for photography.
As well explained in this article by Digital Trends the light is warm, diffused and directional.
- Warm because its temperature is in the yellow/red spectrum,
- Diffuses because due to the position of the sun, the light is diffused by the atmosphere in a way that creates a soft effect,
- Directional because the low angle of the sun on the horizon creates longer shadows and higher contrasts.
What is Today’s Golden Hour?
Here are the best free resources:
- The Photographer’s Ephemeris is the best around. It’s not only a tool to calculate the golden hour, but it tells you the direction of the sun so you can plan your shots. The web version gives you the time for sunrise and sunset, if you want the exact golden hour time you’ll need to download the iOS or Android app,
- Magic Our App gives you a nice countdown to the next magic hour and basic info on the weather forecast,
- Golden hour calculator is probably the easiest to find if you Google it. Though it’s a bit old, not updated and doesn’t work very well. I’ve included it in the list because I know you’ll stumble on it sooner or later.
How do you get a Golden Hour Photo?
Enough with the theory.
When it comes to shooting during the golden hour, if you want to get the most out of it there are a few steps you need to follow.
Plan Your Shots
First of all, you need to plan your sunrise or sunset shots. The light is going to change rapidly and missing the perfect shot is very easy.
For this reason, you have to know your location. The best thing to do would be scouting the day before to know where are the best angles. If you can’t you have to do a bit of research.
If you don’t know a place, use Google images, Instagram or 500px to see what other photographers have created and discover the best vantage points.
Don’t worry about copying, light and weather conditions, combined with different seasons during the year will always give you different photographs.
Make sure you take into account the weather conditions for that day and at what time is the golden hour using one of the tools above.
Doing a little bit of planning can make a huge difference in your final results.
Golden Hour Settings
You can find a complete article on the Best Camera Settings for Golden Hour Photography.
To give you a summary of the best settings:
Shutter Speed: depending on the type of photo you want to take and the photography style this might vary by a lot. The low light conditions will require a slow shutter speed to capture more light hence you might need a tripod. This will allow you to capture motion. Let’s say that for landscapes values from 1/125 of a second and longer exposures will do the trick.
With exposure bracketing, you take three or five photos of the same subject all with slightly different exposure.
This technique allows you to capture the maximum amount of light and color information in the highlights and shadows of your images. Remember that during the golden hour your you’ll get images with higher contrasts.
Let’s make an example of an exposure bracketing with three photos.
The base shot is exposed by you, then you can manually adjust the exposure by adding one stop and take a second photo. Lastly, a third shot will have two stops less than the second.
The number of stops you add or subtract to the base photo has to be the same but they are totally arbitrary. It could be a two stops exposure bracketing, or half a stop and so forth.
What matters the most is that you are taking three identical photos a one is slightly overexposed, another one underexposed compared to the first one correctly exposed.
To achieve this you can adjust the ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed or use the exposure compensation. You’ll probably need a tripod. Be careful though, changing the aperture will also change the depth of field.
Then you need to blend the images later in post-production, keeping the parts of the photo
You can also use Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB). Your camera will take care of the three (or five) images following your exposure compensation settings.
Some resources on Pixinfocus that will help you take better golden hour photos:
- How to Take Long Exposure Photos
- Lightroom Editing Tips for Golden Hour Photos
- Best Camera Settings for Golden Hour Photography
- Best Sunrise Photography Tips for Beginners
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Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.