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Golden Hour Photography

The Golden Hour is one of the more magical times to do photography. It has the advantage of being an entirely predictable period. And it’s something everyone can appreciate in photography. But just what is the Golden Hour, exactly, and how can we use it to create amazing images?

Scattering and Reddening of Light

Everyone can easily see that the sun has a ruddier color in the morning and evening before it sets entirely. But what exactly is going on here? It turns out that the earth’s atmosphere is not entirely transparent to sunlight, just mostly so. When the sun is lower on the horizon, the light has to travel through more layers of air than when it’s higher up in the sky. As a result, there’s a much greater chance of waves of light being scattered, which is to say, redirected. Blue light has a much higher tendency to be scattered, leaving a golden or red light to illuminate the ground.

But even this warmer golden light has been scattered slightly. The result is what’s called “diffused lighting.” If you’ve worked with portrait subjects and used a portable light diffuser, you’ll have an idea of what diffused light does. For those unfamiliar with them, diffusers scatter the light and create a light that fills in a subject more evenly. Most non-photographers (and even some photographers) think the bright overhead sunlight of noon is the best time to go shooting. But direct lighting on a subject is often very harsh. The brightness of it creates overexposed areas and harsh shadows that are especially unflattering around the eyes and chins of human subjects. Instead, diffused light allows the light to come in from different angles, reducing or eliminating bright highlights or intense shadows that would otherwise occur.

Another benefit of the lighting during the Golden Hour is its softness. Subjects can look in the direction of the sun without needing to squint or use sunglasses. And the warmth of the light brings out skin tones better.

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When is the Golden Hour?

As the name suggests, the Golden Hour is the first hour after sunrise and the last hour after sunset. Except when it isn’t. It turns out that the Golden Hour actually varies with seasons and the time of year. Fortunately, there’s an excellent tool here that allows you to find your location and the exact time the Golden Hour should begin and end. In middle latitudes, the Golden Hour will last roughly an hour. But once the sun is higher than 10-12 degrees in the sky, the lighting shifts more towards traditional daylight. Closer to the equator, the sun climbs higher than 10 degrees faster, so the Golden Hour is shorter. And closer to the poles the time period is longer. The sun may even stay around this height for the entire day in some locations around the Arctic and Antarctic Circles.

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The Golden Hour and Composition

Because the levels of lighting are lower overall, photographers should be aiming to use longer exposure times. This means slower shutter speeds, higher ISO values, and larger aperture settings. If the shutter speed is set too fast, and the other two values haven’t been adjusted, the result will be blurry and underexposed photos. A tripod or monopod should always be brought during a Golden Hour shoot.

The Golden Hour is a great time for any sort of photography, but the two types that really shine are portrait and landscape photography. The rising sunlight adds a sense of warmth and vitality when photographing people and animals. Wedding photography shoots outside of the main ceremony are often done during this time period. And with landscapes, the result is a sense of timelessness, possibility, and even joy, depending on the scene.

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Portrait lenses have wide open aperture settings of f/2.8 or below, so they should have little difficulty letting in enough light for proper exposure. But when shooting landscapes, we want to use narrower apertures in order to increase our depth of field. Depth of field, by the way, is the area of an image that is in sharp focus. To increase this amount, we can increase the aperture setting. By increasing the number, we actually REDUCE how wide the hole that lets in light. f/2.8 is a much larger hole than f/11. As a result, while more of our scene is in focus at f/11, the scene will be darker if we keep the shutter speed and ISO values the same.

So the best ways to adjust for our favorite aperture value during the Golden Hour is to use slower shutter speeds and a tripod, as shooting handheld will almost always result in blur without a much higher ISO value.

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The Golden Hour is a favorite time for photographers around the world. The warm, diffused lighting is especially good for landscapes and portrait work. And the softness of the light brings out warm, flattering color tones in your subjects. The main thing to watch out for is proper exposure in the reduced lighting. This means watching out for your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO value. But for the creative photographer, anything is possible! Happy shooting!

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