Shooting at Magic Hour With an Off Camera One Light Set Up

Shooting at Magic Hour With an Off Camera One Light Set Up


A Guest Post by Xavier Burgin from QTL Images.

Professional or amateur, all photographers can agree shooting during the magic hour can produce aesthetically amazing results. Landscape photography especially shines during this period, but the magic hour is not restricted to landscape alone. Amazing portraits can be captured during these brief, beautiful times of the day.

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Before you sprint out with a client, couple, or model there are a few things you should keep in mind to help you produce the best quality image during this period. For beginners, the magic hour is the first and last hour of sunlight during the day. The appeal of magic hour (or golden hour as some call it) stems from the warm glow, soft light, and saturated colors this time of day provides.

Still, like nighttime portrait photography, your camera alone may not capture images fully encompassing your subject along with the landscape. Expose for your subject, and the extra light could eliminate the visceral effect of magic hour as your portrait’s background. Expose for the landscape, and you could leave your subject in silhouette. This can give you great images, but you’re going for a picture where both foreground and background are well lit.

This is where off camera lighting comes into play. Using an extra off camera strobe or flash will allow you to expose for the background, while properly lighting your subject with simultaneously. I conducted a photoshoot with a close friend and model to demonstrate. Here a few guidelines.

1. Check Your Time

Magic hour happens at sunset and sunrise. At the most, you have an hour to shoot your best images. Go to a Sunrise/Sunset Calculator Site to ensure you know the exact time either will begin. Don’t guess. This could cause you to miss precious shooting time and force you to wait until later that day or in the morning.

2. Get There Early

Once you know your location and have calculated the time, get there thirty minutes early with your client. This will allow you breathing room before magic hour begins and perform a few test shots. Magic Hour comes and ends quickly. Don’t waste time.

3. Bring an Assistant

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My assistant holding the off camera flash and softbox

If you’re going to use an off camera light set up it’s best to bring an assistant to hold and adjust your equipment. Alternatively, you could use a sandbag or something heavy to steady your set-up, but in rugged terrain or windy situations, an assistant on set will be your safest route.

4. Expose for the Background, Light The Subject with Your Flash

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If you’ve made it to this point, great! You’re only a few steps away from a great photograph. Wherever the most dynamic range of colors in the sky reside, place your subject near. Find blocking which is suitable and complimentary towards your subject. Now, expose for the background. Adjust your F-Stop or Shutter Speed, whichever suitably leaves your background with its full array of colors or suits your taste. Then shoot a few test shots to properly expose (with your off camera lighting set up) your subject. Finally, take that moment defining photograph!

Following these steps will provide you with great images capturing both your subject and the landscape. Enjoy your time shooting!

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Xavier Burgin is a current student at USC’s Graduate Cinematic Arts Program studying cinematography. He also freelances as a photographer. You can find his work at QTL Images and his blog at Que The Lights. To ask him any questions contact him via twitter @QueTheLights or Facebook.

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Some Older Comments

  • Leon Nery October 1, 2012 10:51 am

    I say, AMEN! to the comments of Ron.

  • Kenneth Hyam September 30, 2012 09:07 pm

    I find this article and the finely lit photographs of the beautiful model very inspiring. I love the idea of using off camera flash at sunset, and appreciate how vital accurate timing is. I would think quite a lot could be achieved by placing the off camera flash for an SLR on a tripod. So that the third person may not be needed.

  • ROD FERMIN September 28, 2012 12:11 pm

    It's always nice to be equipped with magic hour tips as clients might request shoots during those times of the day! Thanks

  • Bill M September 28, 2012 11:34 am

    This type of photography is personally appealing. Enjoyed the results of XB's efforts. I think the photos are exceptional. Love the catch lights in first photo. Colors are rich. Much more to like than not. Good detail. Well done.

  • Ash Furrow September 28, 2012 01:25 am

    Oops - wrong link :)

  • NursultanTulyakbay September 28, 2012 12:30 am

    Not impressed with these images. Since this article is about light I will refrain from ripping apart the composition. These tree images are an example of the vary tail end of Golden Hour. Personally I would consider this time of the day too late for most portraiture save for some artistic interpretations. Better to shoot with more sunlight actually hitting the model and use a reflector and/or scrim. This way you won't need to gel your flash to match the white balance

  • Eric C. Gould September 27, 2012 11:46 pm

    Good article. Right on. Expose for the background and light the foreground. The CTO gel comment works too. Some people play with the color balance to tungsten to blue up the background and gel to balance the light on the subject. Here's a video of how we handled a similar situation at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

  • Ron September 27, 2012 08:20 pm

    I find these articles informative, always. I'm an amateur, novice, hobbyist. This is, after all, a digital photography "school". If I were a pro, or a very advanced user any criticism would be constructive, professional and respectful (why a professional would use this site is beyond me-maybe to let everyone know they are a better than the author?). I never come to this site to judge any of the articles, work, equipment, etc.

    A big thanks to those who have written articles here.

  • sundsbo September 26, 2012 02:52 am

    Not quite feeling the images. There isn't enough attention brought to the model and the composition is elementary; amateur at best (the second example with the over-exaggerated use of Rule of Thirds.) In addition, the colour and light temperature are not working for me. The model's skin tone could have been brought out more too (first and final image.) However, the model is gorgeous! I understand that this photographer is a freelancer but that shoot had great potential and for the sake of a tutorial- it would be best to use better examples in the future. Good Luck!

  • Cornell September 25, 2012 03:46 pm

    Good article. Thanks for the link to the sunrise/sunset calculator site.

    I'd like the one with the bridge in the background better if it weren't going through the mode'ls head. The bridge is not blurry enough to ignore.

  • ccting September 25, 2012 11:32 am

    Go to a Sunrise/Sunset Calculator Site to ensure you know the exact time either will begin. Don’t guess.

    LOL. i love this scientific approach as many people used to use "feeling" to do so.. ;D

  • Jason September 25, 2012 09:39 am

    Agreed with the CTO for color balancing the light - another fun trick is to use an ND filter to stop down some of that flashed light so it's not as harsh when compared to the ambient light. Some great articles abound on this, and Moose Peterson did a good one here:

  • Jai Catalano September 25, 2012 06:57 am

    I sometimes like to add the golden hour in.

  • Lenie Hulse September 25, 2012 05:12 am

    One problem I encountered was my lens was very foggy jumping out of an air conditioned home into the hot humid Caribbean sunrise!!! Needless to say, I lost valuable 'golden hour' waiting for my lens to de-fog!!!!!!

  • Brian Fuller September 25, 2012 02:32 am

    Sorry, but honestly, I don't like any of those pics. None of them brought detail in for both the model AND the background.

  • Brian September 25, 2012 01:46 am

    You need to balance your light temperature, get a CTO on that flash!