To get the best photos, you need to shoot in the best light.
It’s no secret that photographers worship golden hour – the time of the day when the sun is low on the sky; either early in the morning or right before the sunset.
If you’ve ever wondered why your own photos didn’t look professional, even those taken from famous locations, there’s a good chance you were there simply at the wrong time of the day.
Golden hour isn’t the exclusive domain of landscape photography. Other genres such as street, wildlife, portrait, and even sports all benefit form this time of the day.
With some basic knowledge and practice, everyone can create stunning images during the golden hour and here’s what you need to know.
What is the golden hour?
In photography, the golden hour is the time of the day right after the sunrise and right before sunset, when the sun is low on the horizon, producing orange and soft light that is perfect for photography.
Although it’s called “hour”, the golden hour doesn’t last exactly one hour, although it’s a good idea that you arrive at your location before it starts and leave when it’s over.
But when is that?
When is the golden hour?
The time of golden hour changes throughout the year and unless you live directly on the equator, it depends on the season and your latitude.
There are several light phases we can distinguish that depend on the elevations (position) of the sun: Golden Hour, Blue Hour, Twilight, daytime, and nighttime.
There are two golden hours every day – one in the morning and one in the evening.
So when exactly is golden hour? In the morning, golden hour starts when the sun rises and ends roughly an hour later, conversely, in the evening, golden hour starts about an hour before sunset and end when the sun sets.
Why is the golden hour so special?
With the sun low on the horizon, the whole atmosphere changes. Light becomes warmer and takes on a more orange colour, hence, golden hour. Low-angle light produces long and soft shadows that bring out texture and add drama to photos taken at that time of the day.
There’s also a psychological reason behind golden hour. It only lasts a fraction of the day and the one in the morning us usually overslept, so the majority of population rarely experiences golden hour, making the photos taken during this time that much more endearing to them.
What’s more, all the famous destinations are the most visited during the day. By photographing them at less popular times, you won’t only capture them in light that is unknown to people, but you will also avoid crowds.
Related reading: Orange and Teal tutorial
Golden hour calculators
Generally speaking, you can predict Golden Hour simply by showing up at your shooting destination at least an hour before sunrise or sunset. This way you can watch the light change and capture the perfect moment.
It’s always important to plan your photos in order to get the best results. Read more about planning: How to Plan Landscape Photos
You can use golden hour calculators to better predict the exact time of golden hour.
Yes, Google can do that as well.
In Google search, type “Sunrise today” or “Sunset today“. Google will return the exact time of the either based on your location and the current date.
In case you’re planning a trip to a distant location, you can also check the time of Golden Hour there. Simply input your parameters in Google Search.
For example, if you’re planning an over-sea trip to Iceland in September, and want to shoot sunrise on 14 September in Reykjavik, you could type:
“sunrise 14 September in Reykjavik“.
It’s that simple.
Just be vary of the Local Timezones (the acronym in the brackets).
Specialized golden hour calculators
There are a lot of great online tools and apps for determining when is the golden hour.
Here are the best golden hour calculators:
Golden Hour Photography
No matter which niche of photography are you in, there are 2 ways to shoot Golden Hour – with and without the Sun.
Both are acceptable techniques that can yield great photos; however, the process of shooting and required equipment are completely different.
Golden Hour Photography: With the Sun
When you shoot towards the sun, the goal is to either use the Sun as an additional element in the composition or to create silhouettes.
Sunrays add a lot of interest to composition, but are difficult to successfully photograph. Overexpose the photo and they will take over the composition (see the image above) or underexpose the photo and they will look as a sloppy flare.
To complicate it even further, fixing sunrays with post-processing is very difficult and time-consuming, and often cannot be done at all.
To maximize your chance of success you should use better camera gear. Better and newer cameras house sensors with better dynamic range, that are suitable for such high-contrast situations. If you can’t afford a more expensive camera, taking several photos of different brightness and stacking them in post-processing help achieve the same effect. This is known as HDR.
High quality lenses are coated against flares, a common nuisance typical for cheaper lenses, and also produce beautiful sunrays.
To reduce the brightness of the sky and the Sun, while retaining properly exposed foreground, you can use graduated neutral density filters. Of course, you want to buy high-quality filters, otherwise you’re back to square one.
Finally, even with the best camera, photo editing is must to fix brightness, contrast, and tones. There are 3 photo editors I recommend:
Golden Hour Photography: Without the Sun
Not including the Sun in your photos is much easier to pull, because you don’t have to worry about the sunrays and sun flares.
With sun low on the sky you can try capturing the relief of the landscapes as the first sunrays hit mountain tops while valleys lay in fog.
Because you’ll be shooting at away from the sun, all the light will be reflected light. This calls for a polarizing filter, a tool that will give you control over which reflections are visible.
Although this might not sound like much at first, polarizing filters are a lot more powerful than you might think. They remove haze and unwanted reflections, resulting in richer colours and better visibility.
Another nifty accessory is lens hood or lens shade, which blocks the Sun or other light sources from hitting your lens’ front glass from the side and causing glare and lens flares.
How to edit golden hour photos
Golden hour photos can be edited in pretty much any photo editor as long as you follow the basic principles. Since Orange and Teal look is used to mimic the effect of the golden hour, you can refer to this tutorial on Orange and Teal in which I cover how to edit in various photo editors, including Lightroom, Lightroom Mobile, Luminar 4, ON1, Fotor, and even Android phone.
Generally, you want to lower the contrast, use split toning to add orange tones into highlights and blue tones into shadows, and reduce clarity to achieve a more dreamy effect.
6 Tips for amazing Golden Hour photos
1. Arrive early at location
Although the golden hour lasts for a while, the optimal light might only be there for a couple of minutes. Unless you know the location very well, you will not be able to predict the light, so the only solution is to arrive at the destination early – at least half an hour before the golden hour.
2. Prepare your gear in advance
Before you leave home, make sure that you have everything you will need. Fresh batteries, a free memory card and a backup memory card, lens wipe, and of course, your camera and lens.
3. Shoot in manual mode
Even though the lighting conditions are favourable during Golden Hour, cameras often get the exposure wrong. Make sure to make a few test shots to find the perfect exposure level.
Warning: light quickly changes during this time of the day, so make sure you check exposure often. The closer it gets to the sunrise or sunset, the quicker the light changes, and you will need to adapt quickly.
4. Play around with aperture
You can use a wide aperture to get shallow depth of field that will create magical bokeh, which works extremely great for portraits. Alternatively, you can narrow down the aperture and try shooting towards the Sun with to create stunning sun rays that will really make your image stand out.
5. Pay attention to white balance
A vast majority of photographers never adjust their white balance. They set it to auto the day they buy the camera and roll with it for years. During Golden Hour this is a huge mistake because your camera won’t do a great job properly setting the colour temperature.
6. Dress according to the weather
Photography often includes standing still for long periods of time. Don’t underestimate the windchill factor in the winter. During the colder months, a pair of gloves can save your photography trip.
Let’s get geeky: Why is the light orange during the golden hour?
The colours of sky result from a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering. Molecules and small particles in the atmosphere (air) change the direction of light rays, causing them to scatter.
The light that first hits the atmosphere is always white (e.g. all wavelengths), however, some wavelengths (colours) get filtered out by the scattering effect before they hit the Earth and our eyes.
The short-wavelength light such as blue and violet are more scattered by the air molecules than other colours of the spectrum. Thus, blue and violet light reaches our eyes from all directions of the sky on a clear day, making the sky appear blue.
The same effect explains the colours of sunrise and sunset. When the sun is low on the horizon, sunlight passes through more air than during the day, when the sun is higher in the sky. More air means more molecules than the blue and violet light scatter on, and if the path is long enough, virtually all blue and violet light scatters out. This is why sunrises and sunsets are often yellow, orange, and red.
Sun is red when it’s on the horizon, when the path is the longest and gets progressively more orange and yellow, and finally almost white as it rises.
Did You Know?
Contrary to what is often taught in schools, the reason for orange sunsets and blue mid-day skies, and rainbows, on the other hand, is not the same.
The colours of the sky are the consequence of the effect called Rayleigh scattering, while the rainbows are created by light refraction, also known as the Snell’s law.
Golden Hour truly is an amazing time of the day and has become a cliche of landscape photography. If you want to be different from the rest of landscape photographers who ship this orange time of the day, you can experiment shooting during the Blue Hour, as I do, or even during the day. There really are no rules.
You’re ready to start shooting the golden hour. Enjoy!
Matic is a photographer and avid teacher of photography from Slovenia. In 2020, he founded Photutorial.com, website/blog dedicated to teaching photography, writing honest and helpful reviews, and inspiring photographers.