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Shooting During the Golden Hour: Tips for Creating Breathtaking Photos

Updated on July 17, 2016
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Rose is a full-time freelance writer who frequently writes about education, special education, DIY projects, food, Milwaukee, and more.

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The golden hour, or sunrise and sunset, offers stunning possibilities for virtually any type of photography. During the first hour of light just after the sun rises and during the last hour of light before the sun sets, the light takes on a magic quality with soft, diffused hues. With an extensive range of colors and limited harsh shadows, it's easy to flatter your subject, bathing it in a golden warm glow.

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What is the golden hour?

The golden hour is a term used for the first hour of the day just after sunrise and the final hour of the day before sunset. It gets its name from the soft golden light that is present during those hours of the day. Ever since the camera was invented, photographers have made a point to shoot for both personal and professional purposes during the golden hour. It's also a popular time for video filming due to the optimal light quality.

Hard light vs. soft light. Consider the quality of light in both of these photos and how the one on the bottom is less harsh.
Hard light vs. soft light. Consider the quality of light in both of these photos and how the one on the bottom is less harsh. | Source

Hard light vs. soft light and why the golden hour is so special

People rave about golden hour because it offers such soft, diffused light. But what does soft light really mean? During the day when the sun is overhead, it casts a bright light and creates harsh shadows, which is referred to as hard light. During the first and last hours of the day, the sun is at a low angle and closer relative to its subject, which creates a different, softer light quality and longer shadows, which is referred to as soft light. When you shoot with soft light, the long shadows bring depth, texture, and interest to your subject without losing detail in harsh shadows or blown out highlights. It's all but impossible to create photos with this type of depth and texture in mid-day sunlight.

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What types of photography are ideal for golden hour light?

Golden hour light is an asset for virtually any type of photography. Most people are drawn to golden hour shooting for landscapes and portraits, but it works well for cityscapes, macro photography, and still life photography, too, thanks to the warmth of the golden hour. Golden hour photography is optimal in both exterior and interior settings. You can maximize the light inside by placing your subject next to a large window.

Tips for shooting during the golden hour

Calculate golden hour and create a plan before heading out with your camera.

Golden hour doesn't last very long. Without a set plan, you may end of wasting a lot of time fiddling with camera settings or gear. You don't want to shoot so hastily that you end up compromising your technique, but you also want to make the most of the time you have. Calculate the timing for golden hour on that particular day for your given location, get your gear ready, and know what subjects you want to shoot before heading out into the field. Make sure to check the weather conditions as well. If it's too cloudy, you won't get the soft, diffused light you desire.

Take advantage of the soft light to capture details against a blurred background.
Take advantage of the soft light to capture details against a blurred background. | Source

Attempt shooting with a wide aperture

Shooting with a wide aperture or "shooting wide open" lets as much light as possible into the camera, capturing small details against blurred or creamy backgrounds. Golden hour is ideal for creating bokeh or creamy, blurred light against a crisp subject. If you usually shoot with a smaller aperture, experiment with a wider aperture during the golden hour.

Adjust your white balance

Auto white balance isn't ever optimal, but it's a particularly poor choice during golden hour. Setting the white balance to "cloudy" makes the most of the natural glow. Otherwise you risk neutralizing the beautiful light, ruining the hard work you put into creating such a well balanced, well lit shot.

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Play around with multiple angles and positions

The light changes rapidly during golden hour, which means that subjects may look really different from one minute to the next. Experimenting with varying angles and positions for a single subject will give you a much wider range of photos. Don't forget to play around with front lighting versus back lighting as well. As you become comfortable shooting certain subjects in golden hour light, you may learn which angles or positions you prefer and can prioritize them over other types of shots.

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For portraiture, think about using backlighting or diffused sunlight.

If you shoot portraits regularly, most likely you already know golden hour is ideal for portraiture. If you're brand new to shooting portraits, it's never too late to start. Many photography resources discourage backlighting because it's a difficult technique. However, in the right lighting conditions with proper technique, backlighting is really beautiful. Don't forget to take advantage of the diffused light when shooting portraits as well to minimize harsh shadows and bring out the natural glow of the skin.

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Use spot metering to your advantage

Matrix metering takes several readings all over the subject. In comparison, spot metering takes a reading from one tiny area of the subject. Spot metering is more tricky but may produce better results. The key is to position the test spot over the right region of the subject. Spot metering during golden hour allows you to meter a scene for the shadows and then underexpose by a single stop to create a balance between the shadows and highlights. You may still need to do further post-production work, but you'll have a much better balanced photo with more detail right from the start.

The low light level during golden hour offers neat possibilities for capturing silhouettes.
The low light level during golden hour offers neat possibilities for capturing silhouettes. | Source

Take lots of pictures

Currently memory is really affordable. The amount of memory you have shouldn't ever limit the number of photos you take. Due the nature of the light during golden hour, it's possible to take lots of different photos of the same subject. If you're experimenting with your camera settings, taking lots of photos also allows you to learn what does and doesn't work so well during golden hour.

Do you enjoy shooting long exposures? The light level during golden hour is ideal for longer exposures.
Do you enjoy shooting long exposures? The light level during golden hour is ideal for longer exposures. | Source

David McKay offers fantastic advice for exploring light and creativity through photography.

Do you have any tips for shooting during golden hour? Feel free to leave them in the comments!

© 2016 Rose Clearfield

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    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 10 months ago from USA

      Great advice for fellow photographers and wannabes.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 7 months ago from South Africa

      Excellent tips for taking pictures during the golden hours! Thank you, randomcreative!

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