Golden Hour is a worshipped time of the day by many passionate photographers.
With some basic knowledge and practice, everyone can create stunning images during Golden Hour.
Here, you will learn how to forecast Golden Hour, shoot during it, which compositions work the best, and how do you edit the photos to make the most out of them.
What is Golden Hour?
The time of the day around sunrise and sunset is referred to as Golden Hour. Unless you live on the equator, the exact time varies depending on the season and your location on the globe, but it’s sufficient to know that when the sun is low on the horizon, it produces orange and red tones.
To be more precise, there are several light phases we can distinguish that depend on the elevations (position) of the sun: Golden Hour, Blue Hour, Twilight, daytimes, and nighttime.
For photographers, sunrise and sunset are a lot more complex than only a transition from day to night and vice versa.
Let’s get geeky: Why is the light orange during 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.
Why do we shoot during Golden Hour?
During Golden Hour, the sun is low and creates nice, warm “golden” light without hard shadows that you see in the middle of the day.
The light is warm and glowing
Because the light travels through a thicker layer of the atmosphere, the blue light gets filtered out, resulting in a more orange-ish and warm colour. This warm colour bathes everything in a seemingly golden glow – hence the name.
This is advantageous for portraits, landscapes and cityscapes.
The red and yellow colours also add to the warmth and positive emotions. For the same reason, the Orange and Teal look has become extremely popular.
Longer and softer shadows
When the sun is low on the horizon, it creates beautiful long shadows that add depth and dimension to your images.
The atmosphere the light travels trough acts as a diffuser, which softens the sunlight and lowering contrast. What is more, the diffused light bounces of the ground and clouds making for even softer shadows.
The loss of light intensity makes it easier to properly expose your photos.
When is Golden Hour?
Theoretically speaking, there are two Golden Hours every day, one around sunrise and another around sunset, yet they don’t always offer the perfect light.
On cloudy days, or at least when the sunrise or sunset is cloudy, Golden Hour is skipped.
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
There are also a couple of tools you can use to predict the timing of Golden Hour.
In Google search, type “Sunrise today” or “Sunset today“. Google will return the exact time of the event based on your location and date.
Take the hour Google outputs, subtract at least 60 minutes, and Voila!
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 I’m planning an over-sea trip to Iceland in September, and want to shoot sunrise on 14 September in Reykjavik, I’d type:
“sunrise 14 September in Reykjavik“.
It’s that simple.
Just be vary of the Local Timezones (the acronym in the brackets).
Golden Hour Calculators
There is a lot of great online tools and apps for determining Golden Hour.
This is a list of the best I found and tested (so we know they work properly):
How to shoot Golden Hour
No matter which niche of photography are you in, there are 2 ways to shoot Golden Hour – towards the sun, and away from the sun.
Both are acceptable techniques that can yield great photos, however, the process of shooting and required equipment are completely different.
Shooting Towards the Sun
This is the more difficult of the two, but it can also be more rewarding.
When you shoot towards the sun, the goal is to either use it as an additional (or the only) element in the composition or to create silhouettes. Sun-rays can definitely add a lot of interest to composition but are not easy to pull off.
You will need the following to create good images:
This is a bummer, but a good, expensive lens is the most important factor. Better lenses produce better-looking sun rays and fewer sun flares.
What is even worse, usually even the mid-price range lenses won’t cut it – at least in my experience. You need to aim for the best here.
Digital camera sensors have a much smaller dynamic range than our eyes, however, the better (expensive) camera, the better sensor it has.
I have good news. You don’t need the best camera if you bracket (HDR) your photos.
When you shoot towards the sun, there is a big difference in the brightness of the elements in your composition. Sun is very, very bright, your main object should be properly exposed, and there are shadows that are under-exposed.
Even the best cameras cannot tackle such dynamic ranges. This is where bracketing comes into play.
You should take at least 3 photos (the more, the better) and later merge them together.
There are 3 photo editors I recommend:
Graduated neutral density filter
Graduated neutral density filters help you achieve the same effect as HDR photos, however, the final result comes straight out of the camera.
If you’re planning to invest in one, consider buying a high-quality filter, otherwise, your photo quality will dramatically decrease.
I recommend Lee filters.
Shooting Away from the Sun
Shooting away from the sun (i.e. not including the sun in the composition) is a lot easier, however, you lose an interesting object to include in your photos.
You can make up for it by shooting at the 90-degree angle relative to the sun, capturing the relief of the landscape as the shadows make it pop.
There are a few pieces of the equipment that are nice to have when you’re shooting at the 90-degree angle from the sun:
Polarizing filters work the best when you shoot at the 90-degree angle from the sun because the light is the most polarized there since all of it is reflected.
Want to learn more about the use of polarizer? Read here
Lens hood or lens shade blocks the Sun or other light sources to prevent glare and lens flare.
Since you’ll be shooting perpendicular to the sun, there’s a good chance you’ll have problems with lens flare, especially if you use (low-quality) wide-angle lens.
How to edit Golden Hour photos
To edit photos taken during Golden Hour I recommend you use Luminar 4. It’s a fantastic software that also has a Golden Hour filter available. Simply open the software and move the slider until you’re satisfied with the result.
You can also check the two tutorials I wrote on how I edit my photos – one was taken during the evening Golden Hour, while the other during the morning Golden Hour.
In Episode #2, I show the difference between shooting Towards the sun vs Against the sun.
5 Tips for amazing Golden Hour photos
1. Arrive early
Although 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 come to your shooting spot at least half an hour before Golden Hour.
2. Be prepared
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 your 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 either a wide aperture to get a beautiful shallow depth of field. This will create a magical bokeh which is great for portraits. Or you shoot towards the sun with a narrow aperture to create stunning sun rays, which can make your image stand out on their own.
5. 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.
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.