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You may have heard the term 'golden hour' or 'magic hour'. These are figurative terms referring to the period of time just after sunrise or before sunset. These terms are interchangeable, and for the sake of keeping things simple, we’ll use the term 'golden hour'. The golden hour is a measurable time based on the sun’s angle to the horizon. The length of time varies since it depends on where you are, the season, and weather conditions. Using a sunrise/sunset calculator helps to determine when the golden hour will take place. There are also a number of iPhone and Android apps that calculate the local golden hour based on your location.

Why is this time so special? Lighting is a critical part of photography, but we’ll get into that in a bit. First, we are going to talk about how to plan for shooting during the golden hour.

Desert Sunset
Fishing boats at sunset

Getting Started

Before you know it, you can miss the golden hour. If you’re not already out and ready to shoot when the golden hour starts, you’re most likely going to miss it before you can pick your subject and get set up. It’s best to plan ahead – pick your location ahead of time and get there an hour or two before you want to start shooting. As mentioned before, the time and duration of the golden hour is determined by your location and the time of year. For instance, if you’re close to the equator, the sun rises quickly and you may only have minutes, not an hour. On the other hand, if you live in a northern location, the sun may not rise very high in the sky and you’ll have a whole golden day.

Sunrise in the mountains
Sunset in long grass

What Makes the Golden Hour Magical?

Before sunrise and sunset, the sun is low in the sky, creating orange, yellow, and red light, hence the name, golden hour. Due to the sun being close to the horizon, and, therefore, traveling through more atmosphere than at other points in the sky, the light is soft and diffused with little contrast.

Practically any kind of photography – landscape, cityscape, portrait – they all benefit from the soft, golden light. This isn’t just limited to outdoors either. Shoot indoors with the beautiful natural light shining through a large window.

Sunset portrait
Sunset portait

How to Shoot in the Golden Hour

Shooting during the golden hour is much more versatile with regards to the direction of the light. You can have your subject directly facing the sun without causing them to squint or looked washed out. Additionally, you can have the sun behind your subject, creating a beautiful warm glow behind them. Create an eye-catching effect with lens flare, or open up your aperture for a bokeh effect. Play around with the position of the sun relative to your subject.

Sunset with moon in Grand Canyon
Sunset on pier

It’s important to note that you want to adjust your white balance. Auto white balance will not be your friend, as it will work to neutralize the golden glow. It’s best to set the white balance to cloudy.

Finally, take as many photos as you can. The lighting in the golden hour can change quite quickly so you will have an array of photos with many variations of light.

Happy Shooting!

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