7 top tips for getting the best results when shooting landscapes around the golden hour
In the world of landscape photography, you’ll have undoubtedly come across the term ‘golden hour’. It’s also probably one of the two times of the day when you’re out shooting most often. But what is it that makes golden hour so special?
Golden hour is the period of time after sunrise and before sunset, which varies in length depending on the time of year and the latitude of the location where you’re shooting. During this time, light is typically softer/more diffused than in the middle of the day because with the sun closer to the horizon, the light has to travel through more of the Earth’s atmosphere.
This also has the effect of creating more dramatic directional light, as well as the light appearing warmer since the blue and violet wavelengths of light are scattered into the atmosphere while the warmer looking wavelengths reach the Earth. It’s the perfect recipe for dramatic and colourful landscape images, so here are seven tips to help you to get the most out of shooting at golden hour…
1 Set white balance to Daylight
Many photographers shoot with white balance set to Auto for convenience. And in many situations, this is a great option because it will provide a correct and neutralised white balance – which is especially useful when shooting under artificial and mixed lighting conditions.
The warm colours present in light during golden hour mean that Auto white balance is the last setting you should use at this time. This is simply because Auto white balance will neutralise colours, often overcompensating to make images appear too cold, so stick with Daylight white balance at this time of day.
Shooting in Raw makes it much more effective to change white balance post capture than when you shoot in JPEG, so shooting in Raw is always recommended. And although you can change white balance with ease, it’s still best to shoot golden hour in Daylight white balance so the image on the LCD screen is a more faithful representation of the scene.
2 Use a tripod
Tripods are a great way to slow you down when shooting landscapes, forcing you to take a more considered approach. They also make it much easier to add and remove filters from the lens because the camera is held securely rather than being handheld, which can make attaching filters difficult.
The main reason for using a tripod, however, is simply to provide support and to avoid camera shake when shooting exposures too slow to handhold the camera. Camera shake is the movement of the camera during exposures that’s captured as movement blur in the resulting images.
Shooting around golden hour typically means that shutter speeds will be too slow to handhold the camera, so a tripod is essential. For maximum versatility, opt for a tripod head with an Arca Swiss compatible plate so you can use an L bracket for more effective shooting in both portrait and landscape formats.
3 Employ filters to maintain detail
When shooting at golden hour, the contrast between the sky and the foreground can typically be 2-4 stops of exposure. So, using ND grads (neutral density graduated filters) is the perfect way to balance the exposure between the two parts of the frame.
The type of ND grad that you use will depend on the landscape you’re shooting; soft, medium and hard graduations are the most common types but reverse ND grads are designed specifically for shooting when the bright sun is close to the horizon.
Alternatively, if you don’t have filters, you can shoot bracketed exposures that can then be merged into an HDR image in Lightroom or other software. The bracketed exposures are merged into a single image that has image data covering the shadows, mid-tones and highlights.
4 Face away from the sun
With the sun close to the horizon providing dramatic directional light, many of us experience an overwhelming desire to shoot directly towards the sun. And in most situations, this is the best approach, but it’s not the only option; sometimes, facing away from the sun will provide even better results.
Depending on the location, you may find that shooting with the sun at a 90° angle to the subject produces warm and dramatic side light. While shooting with the sun behind you provides a softly illuminated foreground with subtle pastel colours in the sky.
What’s more, shooting away from the sun reduces the difference in exposure between the foreground and the sky, which often makes it possible to capture detail throughout the scene without the need for filters or HDR.
5 Capture sun stars
Admittedly, you can capture sun stars when the sun is in any position in the sky, as long as it’s visible in the frame. But it’s most effective when the sun is close to the horizon, either after sunrise or before sunset. You can also create stars around artificial lighting at night when shooting cityscapes.
Creating sun stars is a simple technique, but one where there are a couple of factors that will improve the overall effect. The main factor is aperture, which will need to be stopped down to create a star around the sun or the artificial light sources. Some lenses will provide great results from f/11 onwards, while others may need to be set to f/16 or f/22, although f/22 typically produces the best sun stars.
When capturing sun stars around the sun itself, you’ll often achieve the best result when the sun is partially obscured by a feature within the scene; this could be hills, mountains or even a tree. By half obscuring the sun and shooting at a narrow aperture, the sun star will be much more pronounced.
6 Arrive early, leave late
Let’s assume that you aim to be on location and shooting at the point the sun crosses the horizon, whether that’s at sunrise or sunset. Some photographers will aim to arrive just before this time, but the wise photographer will arrive 45-60 minutes before sunrise or sunset and stay for 45-60 minutes after.
The terms, sunrise and sunset focus on the point where the sun crosses the horizon, but this isn’t always the time that produces the best light and most impressive colour. The time before sunrise and after sunset often produces the most vibrant colours with softer light overall, while when the sun is close to the horizon it produces the most dramatic golden light.
Being on location well in advance and after the point where the sun crosses the horizon ultimately creates more photographic opportunities. Not to mention, you have plenty of time to explore the location and find the best compositions as the light changes.
7 Wait for blue hour
Following on from the idea of arriving early and leaving late, being on location well before and after sunrise and sunset opens up the ability to capture blue hour. Blue hour, like golden hour, isn’t an hour, and during this time the landscape is bathed in soft blue light.
The great thing about blue hour is that it occurs regardless of the weather conditions, so you can capture and enjoy it even if sunrise and sunset aren’t perfect. This can be a great way to salvage a trip out where the weather conditions simply didn’t result in the light you were hoping for.
Another feature of blue hour is that light levels are extremely low, so exposures can range from 30 seconds to four minutes or more depending on how close the sun is to the horizon. This makes it possible to capture long exposures, like using a Big Stopper/10-sop ND filter, but without the need to use an ND filter.
James is a freelance photographer and journalist producing content for photography magazines and websites and is a former deputy editor of Practical Photography magazine. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing.View all articles