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Golden Hour Photography

In the world of photography, especially when talking natural light, one of the many phrases you will hear get tossed around a lot is “the golden hour.”

Most photographers, when given the choice, prefer shooting just before sunset. This is the time of day when the sun is lower in the sky. Rather than being above you and your subject(s), the sun hits the Earth’s surface from an angle, which produces a much softer light that results in softer highlights. This type of light also produces less contrast, so you lower the risk of losing parts of your subject’s details due to strong shadows.

One big reason for the preference is the comparison to midday shooting in which you experience the sun high in the sky above you, as it can be tricky (although possible) to work with the harsh lighting of the sun, and harsh light can be extremely unflattering to your subjects. 

Another benefit to sunset photography is the natural warm glow produced. Photographers refer to this time of day as The Golden Hour. If you have the option of the time of day to shoot, go for the golden hour every chance you get. 

Why Shoot During the Golden Hour?

You can certainly get great images any time of day. However, shooting midday in the harsh sun can be rather challenging, especially if there is no overcast of clouds to diffuse the light. Not only that, the sun beaming down from directly above can be difficult on the eyes. This can cause your clients to unintentionally squint, especially young children. 

During the golden hour, the sun sits lower in the sky, hitting your subject(s) and the surroundings at an angle. The sun (light) is much less harsh at this time and the light is spread out more evenly. 

The light produced from the sun during the golden hour is much “warmer” color-wise. It is very flattering to your subject’s skin tone and shadows are much softer (and longer). 

Timing Matters

The golden hour takes place just an hour before the sun sets or an hour after sunrise.

Do your research and know what time the sun is scheduled to set in your local area. If the sun is supposed to set at 7 p.m., you will want to get to the location and allow yourself enough time to get set-up by 6 p.m. Keep in mind that if meeting clients for a session, have them arrive a little early. An hour can go very quickly and once the sun starts setting you have a small window of time to take advantage of that “golden” light.

Also keep in mind that this time could vary from day to day. So stay informed of the hours the sun is scheduled to set. Usually just a quick glance at the morning news can give you this information. The time of day will also vary from season to season. So don’t assume that just because 6 p.m. is the perfect time during summer that it will be during spring or fall. This time could change by a few hours depending on the season. 

Another thing to take note of is the weather and location. When the sky is overcast with clouds, the outdoor natural lighting is naturally diffused by the clouds.

Location matters!! If you are shooting in a heavily wooded or shaded area, you will have less light to work with. The golden hour lighting is soft as is, so shooting in certain situations like overcast skies or heavily shaded areas will give you even less light. An open area with generally clear skies works best when shooting outdoors just before sunset. 

Where To Place Your Subjects

There are several ways you can place your subjects to light them with the warm sun. 

The sun isn’t harsh during this time of day, so you can have your subject facing the sun (with the sun behind you) without having to worry about squinty eyes. 

You can also shoot with the sun behind your subject, with you shooting into the sun. This means you are basically using the sun as backlighting for your subject. You will lose some of the foreground details, such as eyes or other elements in front of the sun, because there is no light directly hitting your subject. This can make for some interesting creative shots. It’s all a matter of preference really. 

When shooting into the sun, your lens can create “sun-flare”, which is just rainbow-colored spots on your images. These can give a unique touch to your photos; however, you can avoid them by using a lens filter. You’ll have options when shooting during this hour as to where you and your subject need to placed.

If you want to use the sun as the backlighting for your subject, but also want to have the foreground details clearer and more exposed, you can use a reflector to bounce the light onto them. 

Just as you can use the setting sun as backlighting, you can also use it as side lighting. Rather than it being behind you or your subject, you can shoot with the sun hitting them from the side at an angle. This will result in parts of the subject being well lit and detailed, while other parts being softer and a bit darker. Again, it’s all about preference and the look you are going for. 

Sunset photography and shooting during the golden hour can really give you the perfect natural lighting needed to capture beautiful images. Research and know the exact time of day to show up, keep weather and location in mind, and experiment with different ways to use this warm soft lighting to your advantage. 

You may not always have a choice in the time of day to get your images or have photo sessions with clients, but if given the option, the golden hour is perfect. 

Camera Settings

You will need to adjust your settings so that you are allowing ample light to reach your sensor in order to get a well exposed photo. You may need to bump up your ISO and shoot with wider apertures and a tad slower shutter speed to get more light in your photos. These settings will vary depending on the situation. 

If you have time to go to the location a day or more ahead of time, do so. Experiment with the different settings to get an idea of where they need to be when the time comes. This will save you a little time before it’s time to actually take the shots or do the session. You only have an hour to work with, so the more prepared you are, the better. 

Your camera settings will vary according to location and time. In fact, as the sun sets (or rises) you may need to adjust your settings several times. As the sun goes down you will have less light to work every minute that passes. So your ISO may need to be increased a little at a time. Be ever mindful, so you don’t miss that perfectly sun-haloed shot to underexposure.

In Summary

The golden hour, when properly utilized, can result in absolutely stunning natural light images. If you prepare and time things just right, you will have a gorgeous warm soft light to work with that is flattering both to your subjects and surroundings. If you don’t have a lot of natural light experience, or if you are worried that you won’t know how to make the most out of such a small window of time, we highly recommend experimenting at your own pace with these techniques until you feel confident, prior to scheduling golden hour shoots with clients, so that not a single minute is wasted. Once you are more familiar with the rate at which you will need to adjust camera settings, and the sort of images you will get during this magic hour, we promise you’ll fall in love with the possibility and the unmatchable light!