It probably occured to you that the golden hour, or magic hour, is some kind of sacred moment for every photographer. So much that they all advise to choose this particular moment to get out and shoot. I am not going to contradict them!
The golden hour acts like a natural enhancer for any photograph. It is very precious for us travel photographers, in our quest to inspire wanderlust and share the beauty of the regions we travel across.
If you are wondering what’s so great about the golden hour (hint: it goes beyond the fact that a sunset is pretty) and looking for advice to get the most of this magical light, this article is for you!
What Is The Golden Hour?
Just to know what we are talking about, let’s first define what we call the golden hour.
The golden hour actually happens twice a day: after sunrise, and before sunset. How much time it lasts varies according to your geographical location and the season. It often lasts between 20 mins and 45 mins. Most of the time closer to 20 mins though.
“Golden hour” is a bit of a generic term for these two moments where the sun is low on the horizon and its light gets wonderfully golden.
There is a very handy website called golden-hour.com where you can easily get the precise timing of the golden hour, according to where you are in the world.
You might be wondering why the light gets warmer and warmer (more and more orange) as the sun gets closer to the horizon line.
Well, the light coming from the sun is white. This means that it contains all the colors in a rainbow, corresponding to different wave lengths.
As the sun gets closer to the horizon, its light travels along the surface of the Earth and has to cross a thicker part of our atmosphere. On top of that, the air closer to the ground is naturally more dusty.
This has the effect of filtering out the wave lengths in the blue range, revealing the yellow-to-red part of the spectrum.
Just to illustrate this filtering effect, take a look at this (beautiful) portrait of me on the left, shot during the golden hour.
I am standing in front of a smoking volcano crater, and you can see how the light appears much more orange after going through the smoke, than it is outside the smoke on the left of the image. This is because the smoke is filtering the light even further.
Why The Golden Hour Light Is Great For Photographers
When you think about it, what makes or breaks a photo is often the quality of the light.
Let’s start with the most obvious: golden hour light is warm. There is this thing called color temperature (from blue to red – cold to warm) and as we just saw, during golden hour it is on the warmer side. The warm glow is inevitably pleasant to the eye and often creates this sought-after magical atmosphere in the picture. The effect is also great on the human skin, enabling us to shoot remarkable portraits.
The light during the golden hour is soft. It illuminates the scene in a gentle way. Many beginners think they need a bright full sun to properly illuminate a scene. But most of the time, such a light is actually too harsh and leads to overexposed pictures, dull colors and flat relief. During the golden hour, the amount of light is smaller, filtered and diffused through the atmosphere.
As a result, it is easier for us to capture a wide dynamic range, the contrasts are less extreme than in bright sunlight. You can check this article if you are not sure of what I am talking about.
The light is also directional, which means it comes from the side. This is great because it leads to long, pretty shadows that add a lot if depth to our subject. It also does wonder to make any texture really pop in your picture.
How To Get The Most of The Golden Hour
Planning The Shot
Unfortunately, the golden hour, which rarely lasts an hour, is a very short time. It means that if you arrive just on time and totally unprepared, all you’ll do is rushing a few shots before the magic moment is gone.
If you seriously want to get good pictures, it is important to plan your shots, know where you will be going, what pictures you will be getting. Arrive early and prepared.
It might be a good move to choose the morning golden hour, as sunset times are often crowded with photographers (depending on where you are, of course), whereas not everyone is ready to get up early to catch the sunrise. Moreover, in early morning it is sometimes to add interesting elements to your images, such as a morning mist.
Use a Tripod
As we have seen earlier, the amount of light during the golden hour is smaller. It is a good recipe for blurred pictures and it is a good idea to bring a tripod with you.
Indeed, in a darker environment, for a given aperture, the shutter speed is slower. You can of course choose a wider aperture and keep a fast shutter speed but this can only get you so far and it’s not always the best solution. Let’s take a closer look at camera settings to understand why.
Camera Settings For The Golden Hour
The following settings are good to go if you are using a tripod and a remote control (very cool and very cheap!) – Check what’s in my camera bag to see more. If you don’t have a remote, you can also set the timer to 2 seconds before the picture is shot. This avoids blurry images caused by the vibrations when you press the shutter release button.
ISO Settings: It can be tempting to just set your ISO higher to keep a reasonably fast shutter speed and avoid blurred pictures. This is not a great solution, because higher ISO also means lower image quality and image full of noise or grain. A general rule is to keep your ISO as low as possible.
If you can do with ISO 100 or 200 it’s great, ISO 400 if you have to is also okay. I would personally try not go over ISO 800 if you want a great image quality (but depending on the circumstances, you might have no choice).
Aperture: Most of the time, you can shoot in Aperture Priority Mode and let the camera decide the shutter speed. Ideally, you want to keep your aperture around f/8 or f/11, as it is the area where the image quality is the best on most lenses. If it’s getting really dark and you need to open more, f/5.6 is a good compromise. Usually, opening more than that will lead to lower image quality (less sharp images) – it all depends on what lens you are using of course.
Shoot in RAW: This is something you really need to get used to if you want to improve you photography. I never shoot only JPG anymore (unless I know it will just be a bunch of unimportant pictures). Shooting in RAW allows best image post-processing, and possible recovery of any underexposed or overexposed area in your image (among many, many other things). You can check this article about HDR processing for more info.
Shutter speed: So far, we have been using a tripod and let the camera decide the shutter speed. If a low shutter speed is a problem (i.e. if you don’t have a tripod, or if you don’t want moving elements to be blurred in your pictures), then you will need to shoot in Manual Mode of Shutter Speed Priority Mode.
The minimum shutter speed needed to freeze motion is 1/100th second, and can go up to 1/1000th second for fast-moving objects. However, 1/1000th second is really fast and in a darker environment, it will most likely lead to severely underexposed images.
In manual mode, you can set your shutter speed to 1/100th second and play with aperture and ISO settings to get the image you want. If 1/100th second gets you very dark images, you have no other choice than opening more and increasing ISO.
About Motion Blur: We have just seen how to freeze motion but usually, motion blur creates really cool and creative elements that make an image stand out. Since they rely on a slower shutter speed, they can be more tricky to obtain in bright light (because your image gets overexposed, you need to use filters etc.). The lower light during the golden hour is a great opportunity to use motion blur in your pictures, by using longer shutter speeds without overexposing your pictures.
I hope this article will help you shoot wonderful, great quality images during the golden hour. I have talked quite a lot about shutter speed, aperture and ISO. These are the three elements to really understand if you want to get good at photography.
If the past paragraph about camera settings gave you a headache and you don’t understand how aperture, shutter speed and ISO work together, I suggest you make it a priority to learn about them.
The best photographers have learned from the best. Unfortunately, most photography trainings cost a bomb, which leads most of us to learn on our own, which is not always great. However, there is this course I want you to check.
For less than 100 bucks, you get a complete photography course that you can follow at your own pace, with assignments and feedback from a top travel photographer! He even teaches you how you can earn from your images. Click here to learn more about it!