What is Golden Hour in Photography?

Written by Matic Broz Updated on October 22, 2021

What is Golden Hour in Photography?

Light is an essential element in photography. Getting it just right is a must for brilliant photos.

And the best way to achieve it is the golden hour. Although beautiful, it comes with a couple of tricks.

Here’s everything you need to know.

What is golden hour?

In photography, the golden hour is the time of the day right after sunrise and right before sunset. Then, 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 precisely one hour. Generally, it’s a good idea that you arrive at your location before it starts and leaves when it’s over.

But when is that?

When is golden hour?

There are two golden hours every day; one in the morning and one in the evening. But the time of golden hour changes throughout the year. In the morning, the golden hour starts when the Sun rises and ends roughly an hour later. Conversely, the golden hour begins about an hour before sunset in the evening and ends at sunset.

The exact time of the golden hour changes through the year. Unless you live directly on the equator, it depends on the season and your latitude.

Golden Light Scheme
Golden Hour Scheme (Source: LightArtAcademy)

Why is the golden hour so important?

It’s no secret that every photographer yearns for the golden hour light. Besides being outright beautiful, it’s also easy to photograph. As some already know, getting the exposure right is easy during this time of the day. This is due to four main reasons:

The light is warm.

With the sun low on the horizon, the whole atmosphere changes. Light is warmer due to yellows, oranges, and reds. Hence the name “golden hour”. The atmosphere layer the light passes through is thicker when the Sun is low. So it filters out the blue light. It leaves you with a warm colour palette that we associate with warmth, happiness, and love.

The light is directional.

Low-angle and one-direction light produces long and soft shadows. It brings out textures, allowing for creative effects. This kind of light is ideal for silhouettes, lens flares, rim lighting, and sunburst. Shooting during the golden hour is a surefire way to add drama to photos.

The light is soft.

Light produces harsh shadows and high contrast during the midday. It also washes out skin tones and other colours. The golden hour is the opposite; the light is typically softer. Skin tones and landscape hues get a beautiful golden glow that’s difficult to replicate. Also, low contrast and soft shadows make nailing the exposure a lot easier.

People rarely see it.

There’s also a psychological reason behind the golden hour. Since it only lasts a fraction of the day, it feels more special. Also, we often miss the golden hours, especially in the morning. Therefore, the photos you take during this time of the day are the most interesting to the audience.

What’s more, all the famous destinations are the most visited during the day. If you photograph them at golden hour, you won’t only capture them in light that is unknown to people but also avoid crowds.

Best golden hour calculators

Generally speaking, the golden hour happens around sunrise and sunset. So, you’ll find golden hour by shooting at that time. But if you don’t know when the sunrise and sunset are, use these tools:

Google Search

Open Google Search and type “Sunrise today” or “Sunset today“. Google will return the exact time based on your location and the current date.

But there’s more. You can check the golden hour timing on any date and anywhere. 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“.

Google Golden hour calculator
sunrise 14 September in Reykjavik“, according to Google Search

Just be vary of the Local Timezones (the acronym in the brackets).

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:

Two types of golden hour photos

Regardless of which in photography niche you are, there are 2 ways to shoot Golden Hour – with and without the Sun. Both techniques can yield great photos. However, the process of shooting and the equipment you need is entirely different.

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.

By shooting into the Sun, you can add sunrays or and sun flares. While they work well in some compositions, they are almost impossible to remove during post-processing. So include them only if you’re sure you want them. Or, to be on the safe side, take a photo with and without sunrays.

Shooting towards the Sun, even during the golden hour, is difficult. Unless you create silhouettes, the required dynamic range is high. Therefore, shooting in HDR or with a high-quality camera is a good idea. Also, low-quality lenses often create unattractive sun flares.

Golden hour with sun

Without the Sun

Taking a photo without the Sun is easy. You don’t have to pay that much attention to the exposure. So you can focus on improving the composition. Because you shoot away from the Sun, all the light is reflected.

In this case, a polarising filter can enhance your photos by giving your more control over the reflections. In landscape photography, polarising filters are a great way to achieve more vivid colours. I recommend using Marumi, Hoya, and Lee filters.

Another nifty accessory is a lens hood or lens shade. These block the Sun from hitting your lens from the side, thus causing lens flares.

For example, with the Sun low, you capture the relief of the landscapes. Long and soft shadows emphasise the textures and 3-dimensionality.

Golden Hour without sun

How to edit golden hour photos – 4 tips for best results

Golden hour photos can be edited in pretty much any photo editor as long as you follow the basic principles. Since the orange & teal look mimics the golden hour, you can use the same principle to edit your photos.

How you edit the golden hour photos depends on your personal style. But here are some ideas:

Decrease contrast.

Typically, beginners overdo photo editing by over-increasing the contrast. While high contrast works well in some photos, decreasing it is best.

TIP. Edit photo twice; once by increasing and once by decreasing the contrast. Compare them and choose the better one.

Darken highlights, lighten shadows.

Unless you like a washed-out look, doing so creates an HDR-looking photo. By darkening highlights and lightening the shadows, you bring out more colour and texture. But overdoing it results in flat photos. Remember, good images convey depth. And you need shadows for that. It’s easy to do in Lightroom.

Orange highlights, blue shadows.

We associate orange with warmth and blue with cold. Naturally, highlights are already orange, and shadows are blue and green. To emphasise the effect, you can add even more colour. Lightroom has a great tool called “Color Grading“.

Use golden hour filter.

The golden hour filter mimics the actual golden hour. It automatically adds orange accents to highlights and even people’s hair. While I was not too fond of it in Luminar 4, it’s excellent in Luminar AI.

6 Tips for amazing golden hour photos

  • Arrive early at location
  • Prepare your gear in advance
  • Shoot in manual mode
  • Play around with aperture
  • Pay attention to white balance
  • Dress according to the weather

Arrive early at location

Although the golden hour lasts for a while, the optimal light might be brief. Unless you know the location well, you will not be able to predict the light. So the only solution is to arrive at the destination early to get ready. I recommend at least half an hour before the golden hour.

Prepare your gear in advance

Before you leave home, make sure that you have everything you will need. Bring fresh batteries, an empty memory card, a backup memory card, a lens wipe, and your camera and lenses.

Shoot in manual mode

Even though the lighting conditions are favourable during the golden hour, cameras can get the exposure wrong. Make sure to make a few test shots to find the optimal settings.

TIP. Light changes quickly during the golden hour, so check exposure repeatedly to ensure it’s on point. The closer you get to the sunrise or sunset, the quicker the light changes.

Play around with aperture

You can use a wide aperture to get a shallow depth of field that will create magical bokeh, which works exceptionally well for portraits. Alternatively, you can narrow down the aperture and try shooting towards the Sun. That creates stunning sun rays that can make or break your image.

Pay attention to white balance

A vast majority of photographers never adjusts the white balance. They set it to auto the day they buy the camera and roll with it for years. During the golden hour, this is a huge mistake. Your camera won’t do a great job setting the colour temperature in low-lit conditions.

Dress according to the weather

Photographing often means standing still for a long time. Don’t underestimate the wind chill factor in the winter. During the colder months, a pair of gloves and warm clothes can save your photography trip.

Let’s get geeky: Why is the light orange during the golden hour?

The colours of the 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 hitting the Earth and our eyes.

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, 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 Snell’s law.

Frequently asked questions about golden hour

What time is golden hour?

The golden hour lasts for about an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset. The exact time depends on your location on Earth.

How to take a golden hour photo?

Arrive at the location at least half an hour early. Be prepared for when the golden hour starts as the light changes rapidly.

Conclusion

The golden hour is a fantastic time of the day. It is a kind of a cliche in landscape photography. If you want to be different from the rest of the landscape photographers who love this orange time of the day, you can experiment by shooting during the blue hour. There are no rules.

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