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Golden hour photography = magic hour photography

Unsurprisingly, my favourite time of day for outdoor photography is the golden hour (a.k.a the magic hour) at the end of the day. I’m a photographer, of course I’m going to love this time of day. So, that’s it, blog written, we can all carry on with other stuff now. Actually, no.

There’s a lot more to the magic of the golden hour. So, here’s a treasure trove of golden hour photography tips.

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When is the golden hour?

Well, firstly the golden hour happens twice a day, so there isn’t just one hour a day allocated to gorgeous light.

The golden hour occurs in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. Secondly, it is not necessarily one hour. The time and duration of the golden hour depends on where in the world you are.

I love golden hour photography before sunset, because the truth is that it’s a very rare thing for me to be out and about in the hour before sunrise. If I still lived in South Africa, no problem, but I live in the northern hemisphere and I really don’t like being cold first thing in the morning. So, when I think of the golden hour, I generally think of the end of the day.

Golden hour photography in different parts of the world

The duration of golden hour varies around the world.

The big advantage of living further away from the equator is looooong sunsets. Whilst Africa offers a spectacular showdown at the end of most days, it’s over in the blink of an eye in comparison to the UK. Here it takes hours for the sun to slowly slip below the horizon. All the while the colors change and offer up a huge scope of opportunities for gorgeous images.

Also, here in the UK the light is quite often just smudgy. Well, that’s how I think of it.

The light is often grey, pale and not particularly interesting, especially in winter. Except for in the golden hour when it comes alive. On the plus side, the smudgy light is kind on wrinkles in photographs, because when it’s overcast it’s like having a great big softbox in the sky to diffuse the harsh, direct light of the sun.

Even though a spectacular sunset may be a rarer feature in the UK, the light at the end of the day is nevertheless consistently better than at any other time of day. Just as it is all over the world.

To avoid confusion, take it as read that when I talk about light quality at the end of the day, I’m also referring to early morning light.

Here’s a great little tool for calculating the golden hour where you live:

What makes golden hour photography so amazing?

I’ll do a bit of a show and tell to explain why golden hour light is so great…

I had a golden hour beach shoot scheduled. As beaches are so exposed, with nowhere to escape the overhead sun, golden hour is ideal for a shoot at the beach. We don’t have many sandy beaches here in the UK as most of them are covered in pebbles. There’s one beach I love that has the most beautiful expanse of sand at low tide, so of course it’s my favourite beach for photography.

golden hour photography tips for best time of day

I specifically wanted to use natural light only, so no off camera flash. I’d chosen a day that the tide would be out during the golden hour. The weather was forecast to be beautiful. All week it said it was going to be one of those balmy evenings. Until the afternoon of the shoot. The clouds came over, the wind came up and it was no longer going to be the ideal shoot I’d planned.

I was determined to go ahead and still use natural light only, with a reflector. Just one reflector, held by me, while shooting, with the wind blowing. Not ideal. I could have called it off and rescheduled for another day or changed my shooting plan, but that wouldn’t have been a challenge.

The shoot was a personal project, I wasn’t getting paid for it and I didn’t have any other spare time to reschedule. Especially when considering the logistics of planning for when the tide would be out at golden hour. So we went ahead with it.

Even in those conditions, the photos worked beautifully, because it was the golden hour.

Golden hour photography tip 1: angle of the sun

Aside from the beautiful warm tones of golden hour, the angle of the sun is also flattering.

An overhead sun causes eye socket shadows (racoon eyes), which are very unflattering. A low sun comes in at angles that work beautifully for portrait photography. In fact, it’s often what we try to replicate in studios.

Golden hour photography tip 2: shoot into the sun

I prefer to photograph into the sun so that my subject doesn’t scrunch up their face, or risk being blinded by the sun behind me.

Also (and if I”m honest, mainly) because a backlit subject just sings in a photograph.

Backlight so much more interesting than a front lit subject. Just think of wildflowers with the sun behind. The rim light caused by the low sun behind them makes them pop from the image and highlights their vulnerability. The sun shining through leaves results in a beautiful, sheer green, rather than a flat fully-lit-from-the-front leaf. Then it’s just another leaf.

Further reading: Angles of light: how to use backlight

Golden hour photography at sunset for low angle backlighting

The backlit grasses photographed in the golden hour before sunset add to the calm and peaceful feeling in the image.

negative space used for strong photography composition

Golden hour photography tip 3: never underestimate your need for a reflector

Because I don’t like spending a great deal of time working an image on the computer after I have shot it, I make sure that I do whatever I can while I’m shooting to get what I want from an image. I don’t want to have to lighten up shadows and fight to bring down over exposed areas in post production.

For this reason I never leave for a shoot without a reflector…and most of the time I find I need one.

Eyes need catchlights to be alive and complete a portrait. If you’re photographing natural light only, with the sun behind your subject you’re going to need a reflector to create catchlights.

Sometimes the reflector might not be the one you brought with you. It might be the white wall behind you, or the building across the road, or even the sea. Either way, it’s still a reflector. If it reflects, it is my friend. If I don’t have to hold it, it makes my life so much easier.

Never underestimate your need for a reflector.Click To Tweet

Reflect rather than edit

There is nothing wrong with “Photoshopping” an image, but it’s not my preferred way of spending time. I would rather be out there taking photos.

That said, every digital photograph needs something doing to it in Lightroom, Photoshop, or other editing software, just as every film photograph had to be processed in a darkroom. I alter contrast, lighten shadows, adjust blemishes and warm up cooler tones. I occasionally darken a slightly too light sky and adjust luminance. Aside from this, I don’t do much at all.

Further reading: How to develop your photographic style effortlessly

So, as I was saying, using a reflector makes sense. It cuts down on editing time, because you’ve lit your subject, so you don’t need to correct the image in post processing.

Further reading:  How to use a reflector properly – and why you really need one

backlit golden hour photography tips

Stormy golden hour photo shoot results

Despite the potentially disastrous weather, it was well worth going ahead with the shoot. We had a blast and I just love the results.

Instead of the usual bright golds and oranges with a blue sky, we had gold-brown tones for a change. When the sun dropped low and shone below the cloud cover, we did get the typically golden light of the golden hour, but with a moody sky in the background to add drama.

Storm lighting is my absolute favourite type of natural light. I don’t know if there is such a term, but it’s what I’ve always called that moment when the sky is heavy with dark clouds and the low sun breaks through beneath the cloud layer. Oh my. Storm lighting in the golden hour is the ultimate. I don’t even need a camera to sit and appreciate it. It’ just beautiful. I could go on about it for hours, so will save that for another time.

The lesson is – sometimes you just have to go for it. No regrets and all that.

Bonus golden hour photography tip 4: background details

If I’ve not been able to adjust my position to avoid getting something unsightly or distracting in the background, or I couldn’t move my subject to block it, I will disappear things in Photoshop. You don’t want a viewer’s eye to be pulled unnecessarily to something that doesn’t enhance your composition.

Examples of things you don’t want in the background, unless they are an essential part of the composition, are:

  • dustbins
  • litter
  • brightly colored objects such as a life-buoy
  • bright white things like a random seagull that decides to photobomb from a distance in exactly the wrong place

And breathe…

I just love the way the world slows down at the end of the day.

Everything settles and feels calmer as the golden hour arrives. The wind calms down a bit and the light melts into a lovely golden glow. Clouds turn into color catchers, offering every shade of gold and pink with contrasting greys and blues. Nature is posing.

For me, golden hour photography reflects how I feel at the end of the day. It’s without doubt my favourite time of day, not just for photography. To quote from one of my favourite songs by Anna Nalick, “And breathe, just breathe”.

If you like golden hour, you’ll enjoy learning about blue hour. Find out more here.

golden hour photography at sunset

Leave a comment

We’d love to hear about any golden hour photography challenges you’ve had and overcome to get gorgeous results. We’ve all got a story. Share yours in the comments.

Or, if you have any questions about our golden hour photography tips, ask away in the comments – you’ll be helping others who have the same questions. One thing I’ve learned from teaching photography is that if you’re struggling with something, you can absolutely guarantee that others are too.

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Golden hour photography tutorial - the best time of day for outdoor photography. Tips for photographing with natural light in the golden hour. Click through to learn all about the golden hour. #goldenhour #phototips #photography #light
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