It only happens twice a day, once in the hour immediately after dawn and again in the hour preceding sunset. The light diffuses, becomes stretched out as the sun dips over the curve of the horizon, bathing everything in an incandescent glow. What is this magic time? It’s called the Golden Hour.

goldenhour Sunset Over Austin Texas, July 2012 

The term golden hour is merely an approximation, however, because sometimes it’s much longer or much shorter than an hour, depending on time of the year and location. Yet, it’s the time of day most photographers wait patiently for, because the results are extraordinary.

During the day, the sun’s rays are more direct, causing overexposure and harsh shadows, but during the golden hour, there are few shadows, and sunlight is evenly spread out, giving off a warm, glowing effect. Blue tones are replaced by yellows and oranges, as the sun is refracted through denser air. It’s science working to the photographer’s advantage.

Why you should use it

Lighting dramatically changes the mood of an image, and the warm light that occurs during the golden hour is soft and flattering. You can use it for cityscapes, landscapes, and nature photography, but it’s most often used for portrait photography, and some photographers refuse to schedule outdoor sessions at any other time.

golden hour photography laurel

Golden hour photography shooting tips

1. Think long exposure

Remember, by shooting during the golden hour you are creating a mood. Long exposures will grant you a slight blur effect and will make your images softer and dreamlike. Also, the amount of light available is less at this time than at other hours of the day, so using a long exposure will allow you to take brighter images and effectively capture the details and colors readily available.

2. Get there early

You won’t know exactly how long this magic light is going to be present. By arriving early to the location and setting up well ahead of time, you won’t miss a moment of it.

3. Use continuous shooting

During the golden hour, light is changing rapidly. Set up your shots well, but take two or three of everything. You’ll be surprised how the subtleties of light will enhance an image, and by taking more frames, you have a higher chance of producing better images.

4. Get out of the city

While cityscapes at the golden hour are often striking in color and clarity, there are some places where this won’t work. This sort of magnificent diffused light needs clean air and open space, so, if possible, plan your shoot in an area that is wide open and the light has a better chance of spreading evenly. If you are shooting in a city, get to a higher altitude or change your vantage point. You’ll be able to produce something more impressive than you would by staying at street level.

5. Backlight your subjects

Because the light is softer, shooting during this time of day allows you to backlight your subjects successfully without having to worry about drowning them in harsh tones or creating unwanted shadows. It’s also one of the best time to create silhouettes. 

How to calculate the golden hour

There are a number of ways to do this. The simplest way would be to use this handy golden hour calculator. You can also find a sunset/sunrise table for your area, and schedule your session within the hour just after sunrise or before sunset. You’ll probably have to experiment with this a bit, depending on where you’re located and the time of year.

You don’t have to restrict all of your outdoor shooting to the golden hour, but using it will help you create more beautiful portraits and stunning images of subjects encompassed by the warm glow of the sunlight.

About The Author

Joey Phoenix

Joey is a Boston-based freelance writer and photographer passionate about cultural development and fascinated by people. Her website is: http://joeyphoenix.com

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