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The Secrets of Golden Hour Photography

Today we have a guest post by Max Therry.  He’s an architect with an art school background who is now devoting more of his life to photography.  Check out his work over at Photo Geeky.

The golden hour is not only one of the most beautiful times of the day, it’s the absolute best time to shoot landscapes, travel photography, and just about any scene you’re capturing outside. It’s the time when the light is soft and warm, and the shadows are long and dramatic, yet not harsh. The light during this magical time will transform any outdoor image from a lack-luster scene to one of magic.


Photo credit: Rene Pi

What Is the Golden Hour?

The golden hour takes place roughly during the hour right after sunrise and just before sunset, when the rays of the sun are passing through the earth’s atmosphere. Of course, not all golden hours are the same in length. The closer you are to the equator, the shorter your golden hour will be. The reverse is also true—the father away you are from the equator, the longer your golden light will last. This is important if you’re serious about your landscape photography, as this means that you may have some seriously early mornings and late nights to get those primo shots, depending on where you’re shooting.


Photo credit: Charnchai Saeheng

What’s So Special About It?

The quality of light. There’s just no equivalent, either natural or artificial. In fact, there are many professional photographers that won’t shoot during any other time of the day. During longer days, they actually tap naps during the middle of the day so as to be fresh for late evenings. Of course, you don’t need to drop all other times of day, but shooting during the golden hour will improve just about any day time photo, whether it be a landscape, street scene, or portrait.


Photo credit: Janis Strukis

Tips for Getting the Best Shots During the Golden Hour

Be Set Up and Ready to Go

Golden hour light comes very suddenly and changes quickly. That means you have to be ready well before it begins. To really nail both the location and timing, you’ll need to know the sunrise/sunset times and get there well in advance to set up, find the best composition, etc.

Landing the Exposure

Auto exposure isn’t your best friend when capturing golden hour photos, especially if you’re including the sky in your photo. Left to itself, your camera will automatically expose for the foreground, causing the sky to over-bright and washed out. And while the effect isn’t strong during the golden hour as at brighter times of the day, you’re still likely to end up with an overexposed sky. Here’s what you can do to balance this out.

  1. Take Multiple Exposures

Also known as bracketing, taking multiple exposures will allow you to capture all the detail your eye sees (which is far more than your camera can see in one exposure). Usually this means, having at least photos—one normally exposed, one overexposed, and one underexposed. The underexposed one is likely to have the sky perfect, while the overexposed and/or normally exposed image will have the foreground detail. When combined together, you get the best of all worlds.

To use this method, you’ll need a camera with a bracketing or HDR multiple-exposure mode (most cameras these days), a tripod, and an editing program that can combine the exposures. Once you’ve composed your shot and locked down your tripod, then hit the shutter button. Your camera should take the photos one after the other. From there, you can either choose the best shot or combine them together (HDR).There are a number of editing programs that will combine your HDR photos for you, like Photomatix, Aurora HDR or Photoshop.

  1. Use a graduated neutral density filter

If you find that your skies are almost always too bright, it might be worth your time to invest in a graduated neutral density filter. Graduated neutral density filters have a gradient from dark to light on them that darken the sky while leaving the foreground normally exposed. It’s by far the simplest way to bring out the rich colors of the golden hour while keeping all the detail of the foreground. A density of .6-to-clear with a 2-stop differential will usually yield the perfect bright-sky-to-dark foreground compensation you’re looking for.

Of course, if you shoot in RAW, you can always fix any exposure problems in post-processing. Still, the more you can get right in camera, the less time you’ll have in front of a computer.


Photo credit: Teryani Riggs

Be Ready for Quickly Changing Light

During the golden hour, the light changes with each second. That means that whatever settings you were using a moment before may be obsolete the next. To stay properly exposed, you’ll need to be constantly adjusting. This could mean bumping up your ISO, opening up the aperture, and/or changing ND filters. If you don’t adjust, you’re likely to have images that are all over the exposure spectrum. Not sure how to tell? Keep an eye on your histogram, or if worst comes to worst, use chimping (checking your screen after each photo to see how it came out).

Also, don’t just shoot a couple of photos and call it good, now matter how extraordinary the light seemed at that moment. Do your best to stay for the full hour—that extraordinary moment might repeat itself ten times over.

Other tips:

  • Set your white balance to shade. This will bring out the golden tones and deepen the colors of the sky.
  • Keep a low ISO. If you know your camera’s native ISO, that will be best. If you don’t know it, start on at 100 and go from there.
  • If you’re shooting the sunset or sunrise in particular, don’t use a UV filter or polarizer. It will cut down the contrast and richness of the colors.
  • When shooting portraits, have them face the light. The light will be gentle enough so they won’t have to squint and will bring a golden luster to their skin.


Photo credit: Shaun Derby

Shooting during the golden hour is likely to be the biggest factor in improving the quality of your outdoor photography, even if it does mean getting up absurdly early when you’d rather be curled up in bed. Still, the shots you can get will be well worth the sacrifice, especially if you’re on the road. Try it out and see how much your photos improve.


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