How to Get the Most Out of Photographing at Golden Hour

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The infamous golden hour is a photographer’s dream. That one key period of time that could make even the most stringent artist swoon with inspiration. The sun will dance across your viewfinder, and an endless array of possibilities will present themselves. Regardless of whether your photographic style is vibrant, monochrome, gentle, or contrasted, the golden hour will grant you the ultimate canvas upon which to paint your vision.

So, what is golden hour exactly?

golden hour

The golden hours include the first hour after sunrise and the last hour of light before sunset. Predicting this short window of time depends upon your geographical location and the current season. What makes this lighting situation so ideal for photography is the sun’s positioning relative to what you are photographing.

Due to the sun beginning its speedy rise or setting in the sky, the light source is now closer in relation to your subject. It is also going through more of the earth’s atmosphere at this low angle. When this occurs, soft diffused light is produced.

Generally speaking, soft light is considered the best canvas for a photographer. It does not create harsh shadows and tends to be very dynamic-range-friendly, as your images will not feature harsh shadows or blown-out highlights. The golden hour casts a warm color temperature as well, which can be enhanced upon or corrected via post-processing. This warm color cast lends itself to being a flattering illumination upon any subject of your choosing.

golden hour portrait

Five key lighting situations at golden hour

Any type of photography, from portraits to landscapes to action, can benefit from the use of the golden hour. There are five key lighting situations you can create during this time:

Front-Lighting

This is when your subject faces the sun directly. During the golden hour, this lighting gives a very warm feel to images. Because the sun is not directly above them, in many cases, your subject will not have to suffer the intensely bright light and need to squint. This lighting situation is very easy to photograph in and will make a lasting impression.

golden hour front-lighting

An example of front-lighting at golden hour.

Back-Lighting

Back-lighting occurs when the sun is behind your subject. During the golden hour, this lighting situation creates a soft, warm, hazy, glowing effect. Be sure to expose for your subject’s proper tones, and enjoy the masterpiece that you create.

Golden hour back lighting.

An example of back-lighting.

Rim Lighting:

Rim lighting is when the sun is positioned in such a way to create a halo around your subject. This halo is especially prevalent when placed against a dark background. The sun doesn’t need to be directly behind your subject to achieve this effect, though, as long as the background is dark. You will have to move around to find the sweet spot to achieve this effect, but a good way to start is by shooting from a lower camera angle.

golden hour - rim lighting

Sun Flare

A sun flare occurs when light hits your lens. Different lenses render different types of flares, so this effect is very fun to try with different types of equipment. To achieve a flare, just move your lens around until you see the light hit it through the viewfinder.

During the golden hour, the sun is at its optimal height for this exact outcome. A simple way to achieve a flare is to move your camera and lens so that your subject is only partially covering the sun. Move around (sometimes you only need to move an inch or two left or right) to find the angle that best creates a sun flare. Another way to achieve a flare is to position your lens and camera so the sun is just out of the frame.

Read more on sun flares: How to Photograph Sun Flares: 14 Tips for Beginners

Golden hour sun flare

An example of a sun flare.

golden hour

A different type of sun flare.

Silhouette

A silhouette is created when your subject is completely black without detail, against a bright background. When the sun is near the end of the golden hour, it becomes fairly easy to achieve a silhouette. Photograph your subject directly against the light, and add some contrast in post-processing.

Golden hour silhouette.

An example of a silhouette at golden hour.

There are several tips to truly take advantage of the golden hour. Here are a few to help you:

1. Observe the sky the day before

The best way to figure out when the golden hour will be at its peak is by observation! Peek out of the window the day before your photo session, and see how the sun moves and how the light changes. This will allow you to get a better idea of what the lighting situation will be like on the day of your shoot.

golden hour

2. Plan your photo session around golden hour

No one wants to feel stressed, anxious or rushed when doing photography, so be sure to plan well ahead of time! It is a good idea to begin setting up for your photo session an hour before the golden hour. That way you have plenty of time to ensure that your subject and equipment are ready for that perfect moment.

Golden hour portrait

Anani Inaru with Trinket photographed at golden hour.

3. Watch out for clouds!

Depending on the level of cloud coverage in the sky, your golden hour can change (or not appear at all!). Clouds can enhance the brilliant sunrise or sunset, or they can block your view.

golden hour

4. Set your White Balance to Cloudy

By changing your White Balance setting, you ensure that the images you produce hold true to the colors you want to appear. This allows you to get the warm look the golden hour is famous for – choose Cloudy or Shade to add even more warmth and golden hues to your images.

golden hour

5. Shoot with a wide aperture

How the light dances during this brilliant hour can make for an incredible bokeh (the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus parts of a photograph). The dazzling yellows, reds, oranges, and golds make a rather exceptional backdrop.

Golden hour

Golden hour bokeh.

6. Keep photographing, because the light will change every couple of minutes!

The sun moves faster than you may expect, so keep shooting and don’t stop! Every position of the sun will create a brand new image for you to take.

golden hour

7. Try different angles and positions.

The sun flares, colors, and intensity of the light in your image are all affected by how you angle your lens. Experiment and try as many different positions as humanly possible! The best way to get the absolute most out of the golden hour is to take advantage of how easy it is to manipulate this unique lighting situation.

golden hour

8. Underexpose a bit to add more vibrancy

You can always lighten up your subject(s) in post-processing, but it is harder to darken an overexposed image. Underexpose just a bit to bring out the beautiful vibrancy of the sunset or sunrise.

Golden hour

9. Explore the use of HDR

Photograph multiple exposures and then layer them on top of one another in post-processing, and see how many incredible lighting details you can achieve. Read more on HDR: Step by Step How to Use HDR Merge in Lightroom

HDR golden hour

10. Play with post-processing

What colors can you bring out in your image? Use post-processing to really enhance the colors that you capture. You will be surprised at what colors you can see when the sky has a few clouds in it.

Conclusion

The golden hour is full of limitless possibilities, and no two photographs will look the same. Experimentation is key, explore the light. How do you use golden hour for your photography? Share your thoughts and images below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anabel DFlux is a published photographer in Los Angeles, California. Having started her photography business at the age of 15, Anabel has dedicated her life to her photographic passion. From canine sports to exotic animals, to some of the biggest musicians in the world - Anabel’s work doesn’t fall into any specific niche. She believes there are no limits to what you can create, and to photograph everything that gives you that spark of inspiration.

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  • Angel

    I’d take this post more seriously if many of the photo examples weren’t so over-exposed…

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    This photographer’s work is stunning, so versatile but still has a signature style I can always spot a mile away! I love seeing her articles on here, she’s a great teacher! Keep it up!

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    Thank you kindly! I am glad you enjoy the articles!

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    Where was the HDR picture taken?

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  • TheTechnomanc3r

    The lighting in these is absolutely perfect! I don’t understand all the negative comments on this. Excellent tutorial.

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