There's no secret that good light is one of the most important aspects of capturing good photographs; it's hard to capture an impactful image without it.
Studio photographers have the advantage of controlling light using a variety of strobes, soft boxes and other equipment but landscape and outdoor photographers have to work with what nature decides. This is one of the reasons why we return to the same place over and over in search of 'the best light'.
Now, good light comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes hard light can lead to beautiful shadows or perhaps thick fog creates a mysterious and compelling light. There is, however, a time of day where you're more likely to find that good, picturesque light...
This period is known as the 'Golden Hour' and is exactly what we're going to discuss in this article.
What is the Golden Hour?
Technically speaking, the term Golden Hour should've been 'the Golden Hours' as it isn't only limited to one hour. In fact, the Golden Hour can last roughly 4 hours every day!
This period takes place in the hours around sunrise and sunset, when the sun is low in the horizon and creates a nice golden light, hence the name Golden Hour.
Its exact duration depends on the time of year and your location. In winter the Golden Hour tends to be longer while in summer it can be shorter. If you take the trip to the Arctic in winter, you'll find that it last up to 6 hours as the sun never gets high above the horizon.
The sun's low position on the sky creates a warm, soft and directional light which is more pleasing to the eye of a photographer. There's a reason why both professional and beginner photographers prefer photographing during these hours.
Why Shoot During the Golden Hour?
Yes, good light can be found all day long. Many photographers may not admit this but anything else is a lie.
The problem with photographing during daytime, however, is that the sun casts a harsh light that rarely looks good when shooting grand landscapes. Images captured during daytime tend to have a lot of contrast and shadows that aren't pleasant for the eye.
The softer light that takes place in the hours around sunrise or sunset is a lot more desirable for landscape photographers. In this light you avoid the harsh contrast and get a much more pleasing feel to your photo.
Just take a look at the difference between these two images below. It's quite significant, right?
Tips for Photographing the Golden Hour
If you've never photographed during the Golden Hour before, you'll probably notice that it's not quite as easy as regular daytime photography; the automatic function starts struggling, the images look noisy and the sky ends up completely white or the foreground pure black.
These are just a few of the hurdles you'll face but it doesn't require taking more than a few extra steps before you get amazing results.
- Use a Tripod
Since the sun is low on the horizon, you'll need to either increase the ISO or lengthen the exposure time in order to get a well-exposed image.
The first option is rarely ideal as increasing the ISO means that noise and grain is added onto the photo. This is typically the alternative your camera chooses when using automatic modes but, unfortunately, entry-level cameras struggle with high ISO values. In some cases, it can completely ruin the photo. It does, however, allow you to shoot with a quick shutter speed.
The second option is to keep a low ISO but use a slower shutter speed. This makes sure the image-quality remains high but, at the same time, it introduces a new issue: it's nearly impossible to get a sharp image handheld when the shutter speed is slow.
For that reason, a tripod is essential when photographing the Golden Hour. Using a tripod allows you to keep a low ISO while using a long exposure time and still get a sharp image.
- Get Up Early
Popular locations are crowded during daytime and can still be busy during sunset. Getting up early and heading out for a sunrise is a great way to beat the crowds and get the area for yourself. Make sure to hang around for a while as the light goes through several picturesque phases until eventually getting less photogenic.
I recommend also visiting the location during daylight though, as it makes it easier to know where to go and how to set up your composition when it's still dark.
This goes for photographing sunset too. Make sure to arrive early and scout the area so that you know where to be when the light gets good. You want to stay past the Golden Hour too, though; the Blue Hour can be just as picturesque!
- Use a Filter
One of the difficulties when photographing the Golden Hour is the big contrast between sky and landscape. The sky is still bright but the landscape is quickly getting darker which is making it challenging to capture a well-exposed image where both the sky and landscape looks good.
There are several methods to overcome this hurdle, such as capturing multiple exposures and blending them in post-processing, but the far easier alternative is to use a Graduated Neutral Density Filter.
For filters I can recommend the NiSi medium graduated ND filter. This also requires a holder and adapter depending on your camera model. And I'd personally avoid any circular / screw-in GND filters.
The filter is darkened on the top and transparent on the bottom and is placed in front of your lens. By covering the sky with the darkened part, you're able to get a well-exposed image right away!
- Take Advantage of Sidelight
Even though the sun is softer during Golden Hour you should still consider its placement in your photo. It's possible to shoot directly towards the sun but it still is a lot brighter than the landscape and may cause a lot of difficulties.
A better option is to place the sun slightly to the side of your frame and take advantage of the sidelight. This can help create a warm and magical atmosphere that looks great!
The Golden Hour (or Golden Hours as it should be called) is the perfect time to go outdoors with a camera as the sun's low position on the sky casts a soft and warm glow on the landscape.
We know that good light can be found all day but there's a reason why photographers prefer to plan their sessions early morning or late evening. It's hard to beat the magical Golden Hour light! Photographing during this period comes with a few more challenges than regular daytime photography but with a little extra preparation it will lead to some of your favourite photos yet.
Cover image from Paul Roberts.