There’s a secret that most photographers know, and that you should know too if you want to start taking great photos. It’s the secret of “The Golden Hour.”
What is the Golden Hour?
Put simply, it’s that time of day when everything just looks great. During the Golden Hour, you can do no wrong with a camera. People, places and things all look beautiful at this time. Waiting until the Golden Hour can make the difference between a bland photo and a spectacular photo.
When does the Golden Hour occur?
The Golden Hour is not necessarily an hour long. It depends on a lot of things, including where in the world you are, and what time of year it is. It usually begins about an hour or two so before sunset, and lasts until the sun meets the horizon. The sky must be clear or mostly clear for you to experience the Golden Hour. If the sky is cloudy or overcast, you won’t see a Golden Hour. Around here (Southern Ontario, Canada), the Golden Hour is longest and most beautiful in the summer months, from about June until September. After that, it becomes shorter and less effective until the winter months, when we hardly get one at all! So, if you’re living in a similar latitude, take as much advantage of the Golden Hour as you can during the summer. If you’re lucky enough to live near the equator, you will get decent Golden Hour light all year round. If you live in the Arctic or Antarctic, well, you’re going to have to find another way to make your photos great.
Why is the Golden Hour such a great time to shoot?
During mid-day, the sun’s rays penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere perpendicularly, and all of the light gets through. The result is a very harsh form of light that casts sharp and unflattering shadows. Think on-camera flash on a massive scale. Yuck. As the sun descends towards the horizon, its light cuts through the atmosphere at a much flatter angle. This makes the atmosphere work like a giant prism that filters out the blue and ultra-violet end of the spectrum. Cameras hate ultra-violet light, which is why we often put UV filters in front of our lenses. And, because blue has been filtered out, the remaining light takes on a warm and orange glow, reminiscent of romance, adventure, and generally exciting times!
How do I best take advantage of the Golden Hour?
If you’re just making snapshots, the Golden Hour is going to do most of the hard work for you. The light is just better at this time of day, so your photos will look better.
If you want to plan your shot a little more, position yourself so that the sun is coming from behind your subject, towards you. This “backlights” your subject and can produce some really nice rim-lighting effects and interesting shadows. Add to this a couple of human factors–your subject will feel more comfortable not squinting into the sun, and also will enjoy the warmth on their back–and you’re already a long way towards creating emotionally charged portraits. You may have to adjust your camera a bit to compensate for all the extra light it sees by looking into the sun. If you’re using your camera in an automatic or semi-automatic (aperture or shutter-priority modes) look for an EV+/- adjustment, and dial it up to +1 or +2 to ensure that you get some detail in the foreground of your image. If you’re shooting manually, you can just decrease your shutter speed by a couple of stops to get the same effect. Pros will quite often use a reflector or a bit of fill light from an off-camera strobe to gently light the front of the subject.
You can also underexpose your Golden Hour shots, to really pull out the colors of the sunset sky and create dramatic silhouettes of your subjects. Use that same EV+/- adjustment to set a -1 or -2 exposure value. Similarly, you can raise your shutter speed by a couple of stops. The bonus of this is that you can freeze whatever action is happening in front of that golden sunset!
The Eiffel Tower photo above was a bit of a cheat. I actually took that one quite early in the morning, at the “other” Golden Hour. It begins just after sunrise, and goes for an hour or so. It’s quite a bit more difficult to use, though, since you have to get up pretty early to catch it. I left my hotel at 5am to get to that spot in time to take that photo. However, it was the only time I could be assured that the world’s most famous tower would be deserted!
I hope that what you’ll take away from this post is that when you shoot is just as important as what you shoot. Getting consistently great photos takes commitment, skill and discipline, but shooting during the Golden Hour can make the process a whole lot easier. Have fun out there, chasing the gold.