Photography 101: Mastering the golden hour

Photography 101: Mastering the golden hour

The magic hour creates magic photos. Here’s how to capture dreamy stunners


You know those photos that look snapshots of a memory instead of an actual person or place? The ones that seem to glow, and everything in them seems rimmed with a halo of light? The ones with stunning flares of light that look like the subject’s soul is exploding out of them and dust clouds that look like magic suspended in air? Well, most of the time that wasn’t just coincidence – those photos were taken during what’s commonly known as the golden hour, also known as the magic hour.

“Hour” is figurative here. The golden hour refers to the period just after sunrise or just before sunset, and its length depends on where you are, what time of year it is, and the weather conditions. Also, while the terms are nearly synonymous, golden hour actually has a definition based on the measurable angle of the sun to the horizon, whereas magic hour is a broader term that sometimes incorporates both the golden hour and the blue hour — another measurable time based on the sun’s angle to the horizon. In this article, we’ll use them interchangeably. Regardless of season or location – or what you call it – it’s a special time for photography. But why, exactly?

Light. Light is the most important photographic element. The light just after sunrise and just before sunset is unlike any other light and it can’t be replicated, no matter how hard you try (well, you could cheat if you have photo-editing software, but it doesn’t beat the real thing or feel as rewarding). There are a few things about this kind of light that make it unique and beloved.


It’s warm

The golden hour is all about light. The temperature of the light during this time is, as the name suggests, in the yellow range when it comes to the light spectrum. Without delving too deeply into your AP Chemistry textboon, light has a spectrum of temperatures that correspond to different colors of light. Remember ROY G BIV? On one side of the spectrum you have high-temperature blue light, and on the other end you have low-temperature red light. During the golden hour, the temperature is in the yellow range, which gives the light that coveted, golden hue.

Daylight Kelvin Scale

It’s diffuse

When the sun is near the horizon, its light has to travel through more atmosphere than at other points in the sky. That atmosphere acts as a giant diffuser, thus reducing and softening the intensity of direct light. This creates a more even light, so the difference in correct exposure between your darks and lights is less, meaning it’s far easier to capture a more evenly exposed photo. It’s as if the whole sky is one giant light box, only better. Furthermore, all that atmosphere the light has to travel through filters out the blue light and makes the light appear more reddish.

Diffuse light from the sunrise spreads over this vineyard, lighting the foreground and background without sharp shadows. Malcolm Carlaw/Flickr

It’s directional

When the sun is very low in the sky, its angle is more drastic in relation to the earth, making shadows longer and softer. Having long shadows in your shot helps show all three dimensions of the world when you’re trying to capture them in a two dimensional space. Also, because your exposure is more even, the sky and whatever else is in the background, your middle ground, and the foreground can all be clearly defined and properly exposed, which creates a greater sense of depth. You can also use the direction of the sun to create specific effects and to highlight textural details.

The low angle of the sun help when creating longer shadows, which makes this photo more dimensional. Rabiem22/Flickr
With even, golden sunlight falling over the subject, her face and skin have a luster that only the golden hour can provide. MI T C H 3 L L/Flickr

Rim light effects

Rim light is the actual term for that halo effect we previously mentioned. It’s created by backlighting your subject, which is actually what some people call rim light. The light outlining your subject is even more dynamic when you place them in front of a darker background. The sun behind them will create the rim light around your subject which, in turn, will make them pop out from the background. The sun doesn’t need to be directly behind your subject to achieve this effect though, so long as the background is also kind of dark (like hills or under a bridge).

The jackal in the photo below is outlined with golden rim light, making him stand out from the dark background.

Golden rim light makes this jackal pop out from his background. Jan Lombard/123RF


Flare is when light bounces around in your lens, creating magical rainbow streaks and polygonal rainbow “dots.” Almost 90 percent of the time, you don’t want flare – unless you’re director Baz Luhrmann, and then you apparently want flare all the time. However, it can make for some really beautiful shots during the magic hour. All lenses flare differently, and telephoto lenses or zoom lenses typically flare more than their fixed counterparts. So if you have a zoom lens (you don’t? Get one now) feel free to pop it on your camera body for shots in which you intend to have flare.

You can create a flare with portraits in one of two ways. The first involves backlighting your subject with the sun so that your subject is only partially covering the light. Move around to find the angle that best creates flare. This often makes your subject, or subjects, look as if the flare is coming from them, which is a pretty magical effect.

Positioning the subject to partially obscure the sun directly behind them helps to create the flare in this photo. John Hope/Flickr

The second method involves positioning the sun so that it rests just outside the frame or is fully inside of it, depending on where you want the flare to appear in the photo. For example, you could position the sun just out of the frame in the upper corner to create a flare that reaches down to your subject. You could also position the sun directly in the frame to create a flare, thus allowing it to stretch out to a silhouette of your subject.


A slow shutter speed makes the incoming waves soft and blurry, but we can still see the details of green grass on the rocks. Andrii Slonchak/Flickr

Shoot at the sun

Golden hour is the perfect time to actually introduce the sun into the frame of your photo. (Capturing the moon is a whole different ball of wax.) It’s virtually impossible to really capture the sun at other times of the day, let alone with anything else in the photo – in other words, not just pointing your camera straight up into the sky – because the sun is too bright. During the golden hour, however, the sun can be captured to dramatic effect.

Unless you use a graduated neutral-density filter (an optical filter that allows greater control over light levels), introducing the sun into your photo will typically cause the foreground to become a silhouette. However, that contrast can create a more striking photo and can emphasize certain distinctive shapes in the foreground.

Shooting the sun makes it the dramatic subject of this portrait, highlighting it and the sky while downplaying the ocean. suwatpo/123RF

Pick up more detail

This is where the tripod really comes in handy. Because shadows are longer at this time of day and help create more depth in your photos, you’ll want to utilize depth-of-field to your advantage. With a camera and lens capable of doing so, step down the aperture, to f/16 or so, and lengthen your shutter speed to compensate. This often works best if you position the sun so that its light is illuminating the scene from one side of the photo. Any change of surface or texture is picked up by the light this way, whether we’re talking craggy mountains or blades of grass. Directional light and a closed down aperture help pick out these subtle nuances.

Light raking across the photo from left to right picks out each blade of grass and the texture of the sand grains. Charles Knowles/Flickr

Shoot reflections of the sky

If the sky is particularly colorful at these times of day, why not catch it two-fold in your photo? It’s easily done. Fountains, lakes, tidepools, glass – any relatively still, reflective surface – all reflect the sky. While this is a great compositional element at any time of the day, it’s especially effective during golden hour when the sky is stained with extremely vibrant colors. Even ice can somewhat reflect the sky.

The pink, orange, and golden clouds are reflected on the surface of this tide pool, make the photo doubly colorful. Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr

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