The golden hour. Even if you haven’t been doing landscape photography for very long, you’ve undoubtedly heard the term thrown around. As photographers, we’re in the business of capturing light, and it rarely gets better than the soft, golden rays of the early morning or late afternoon sun.
During this window – which generally lasts around an hour – the light takes on an otherworldly quality. It blankets the landscape with warm hues, adding a touch of softness and depth that you won’t find during any other time of the day.
Unfortunately, capturing breathtaking golden-hour landscape photos isn’t as simple as pointing your camera and clicking away. Working around sunrise and sunset comes with several major challenges, and to ensure outstanding images, you’ll need to apply a few tricks and tips of the trade. That’s why I’ve put together this article – to help you unlock the full potential of nature’s most magical time!
Below, I share a variety of helpful advice, including gear recommendations, ideal camera settings, and tips for taking advantage of that gorgeous light. So if you’re ready to start capturing sun-drenched landscapes guaranteed to make your heart beat faster, let’s dive right in!
1. Pay attention to the direction of the light
When it comes to capturing stunning golden-hour landscape photographs, understanding the direction of light is key. During this magical hour, the sun hangs low in the sky, casting a warm glow over the landscape. But here’s the thing: Depending on the sun’s position, the landscape will be hit from different angles, creating unique lighting effects that can transform your images.
Let’s break it down. There are three main lighting directions to consider: frontlight, backlight, and sidelight. Frontlight occurs when the light is coming from the front, illuminating the scene directly. This effect is often more straightforward and descriptive, showcasing the landscape in a clear way.
On the other hand, sidelight occurs when the light is coming from the side, creating beautiful shadows, emphasizing texture, and adding depth to the scene. And then we have backlight, where the light is coming from behind the subject, a striking and artistic choice that can make for captivating images.
While many landscape photographers are drawn to backlight and sidelight for their dramatic effects, don’t underestimate the power of frontlight. It can produce equally stunning results and allow you to capture the landscape in all its glory.
The key is to pay attention to the position of the sun when you arrive at your location. Observe how it hits the landscape and consider the lighting direction that best suits your creative vision for each scene.
2. Look for some clouds
Looking to create awe-inspiring golden-hour landscape photos? Clouds can be the extra ingredient that elevates your images from ordinary to extraordinary. They possess the remarkable ability to transform a boring image into a mesmerizing display of texture and ethereal beauty.
Of course, there is such a thing as too many clouds! A completely overcast sky will generally dampen the intensity of your photos. What you want is partly cloudy skies, which will infuse your compositions with plenty of drama and magic.
Before embarking on your photography adventure, it’s worth checking the weather forecast to gauge the cloud cover in your desired location. But don’t despair if you find yourself facing a cloudless sky during the golden hour. Instead, try to explore more non-conventional shots, such as minimalist compositions where simplicity takes center stage.
Remember that, even in the absence of clouds, the golden-hour light can still work its magic!
3. Bring a tripod
If you plan to shoot during the golden hours, a sturdy tripod becomes your trusty companion. As the sun descends lower in the sky during this magical hour, the light becomes weaker. This can result in underexposed images if you don’t adjust your camera settings accordingly. One way to compensate for the diminishing light is by lengthening your shutter speed. However, doing so without a stable tripod can lead to unwanted blurriness in your shots.
Now, I know what you might be thinking: Tripods can be cumbersome and a hassle to carry around. But the benefits far outweigh any minor inconveniences. In addition to ensuring your photos stay sharp, tripods force you to slow down and carefully consider each composition. You might even find that working with a tripod enhances your overall photography experience.
Of course, if you find yourself without a tripod, there are alternative options to explore. You can keep your shutter speed relatively fast by increasing the ISO or widening the aperture, though these adjustments do come with trade-offs. Boosting the ISO can introduce noise artifacts, while widening the aperture narrows the plane of focus, resulting in blurry portions of the scene. Therefore, while a tripod isn’t a necessity, I do highly recommend it!
4. Scout the location in advance
To make the most of the fleeting golden-hour light, it’s essential to scout your location in advance. This allows you to familiarize yourself with the environment, discover potential compositions, and anticipate how the sun’s light will interact with the landscape.
If you plan to shoot during the early morning, scouting becomes even more critical as you’ll need to find a composition and set up your equipment in the dark.
Consider allocating time before your planned shoot to visit the location. It can be days in advance or just a few hours (if you’re shooting in the evening). During your scouting trip, pay attention to the various subjects that catch your eye. Visualize how the sunlight will paint the scene, bringing out textures and casting shadows.
By familiarizing yourself with the location, you’ll approach the golden hour with confidence and be better equipped to capture truly remarkable images.
5. Consider waking up for the sunrise
While many photographers head out around sunset, there are significant benefits to setting your alarm and venturing out to witness the magical moments of sunrise. It’s a time when the world is very tranquil and the soft light of dawn casts a delicate glow upon the landscape.
One of the greatest advantages of shooting at sunrise is the solitude it offers. As the rest of the world sleeps, you’ll find yourself immersed in a serene setting, free from the distractions of crowds and bustling activity. This sense of solitude not only enhances your creative focus but also allows you to capture scenes without worrying about people accidentally stepping into your frame.
In addition to the peaceful ambiance, the morning hours often bring less wind compared to the rest of the day. This means you have a better chance of capturing pristine reflections in bodies of water, adding an extra layer of beauty and tranquility to your landscape compositions.
Plus, there is something truly magical about witnessing the sunrise itself. It’s a remarkable experience that can connect you with the beauty and rhythm of the natural world – so don’t be afraid to get up a bit earlier and embrace the unique rewards of shooting at sunrise!
6. Use the right aperture and shutter speed
Setting the appropriate aperture and shutter speed is essential to achieve stunning golden-hour landscape shots. Here’s what I recommend:
To keep the entire scene sharp, opt for a narrow aperture. Generally, f/8 works well when your composition doesn’t involve elements very close to the camera. However, if there are prominent foreground elements, consider using an aperture of f/11 or beyond. But be cautious not to exceed f/16; otherwise, you might end up with blur due to diffraction.
When it comes to shutter speed, a longer exposure is often necessary during the golden hour due to the diminishing light. If you have a tripod, you can use longer shutter speeds without worrying about camera shake. In Manual mode, you can set the shutter speed with the help of the exposure bar in the camera viewfinder. Alternatively, if you use Aperture Priority mode, the camera will automatically select a suitable shutter speed for a well-exposed image.
Pro tip: Don’t shy away from experimenting with ultra-long shutter speeds to capture the mesmerizing movement of water or clouds. By narrowing your aperture to around f/16 and maintaining an ISO of 100, you can achieve relatively slow shutter speeds during sunrise and sunset.
Finally, if you desire even longer shutter speeds or find yourself shooting when the sun is slightly higher in the sky, a neutral density filter can be a game-changer. It’ll reduce the influx of light, preventing overexposure and allowing for extended exposure times.
7. Use GND filters or HDR techniques
During the golden hours, you’ll often encounter scenes with significant variations in brightness. This combination of dark shadows and bright skies can pose a challenge for your camera’s sensor, making it difficult to capture all the details in a single shot. Fortunately, there are two techniques you can employ to overcome this hurdle.
One option is to use graduated neutral density (GND) filters. They’re specifically designed to balance the exposure between the sky and the foreground. By placing the darker portion of the filter over the sky, you can reduce the brightness levels while keeping the foreground properly exposed. GND filters are highly effective, although they can be a bit cumbersome to set up and require careful positioning.
Alternatively, you can try high dynamic range (HDR) techniques. With this approach, you capture a series of shots at different exposure levels, typically bracketing to capture details in the highlights, midtones, and shadows. Later, you merge these shots using post-processing software like Lightroom Classic, allowing you to blend the properly exposed areas from each image into one final photograph. HDR can be a viable option and has fast become a favorite among professionals.
GND filters provide an in-camera solution while HDR techniques offer a post-processing solution. Both methods have their merits, so it’s worth researching to find the one that suits your style and preferences.
Remember, the goal is to achieve a balanced exposure where both the sky and the foreground retain their details. By using GND filters or HDR shooting, you can overcome the limitations of your camera’s dynamic range and capture the full beauty of the golden-hour landscapes. So whether you prefer the hands-on approach of filters or the post-processing finesse of HDR, these techniques will both be valuable tools in your photographic arsenal.
8. Try some landscape silhouettes
As I explained in the previous section, landscape photography often revolves around capturing intricate details in both the foreground and the sky. While these images are undeniably stunning, certain scenes are difficult to photograph without filters or HDR techniques. What if you just want to enjoy some straightforward photography?
That’s where the magic of silhouette shots comes in. Instead of aiming for perfect detail, you can focus on capturing landscape silhouettes against a beautiful sky.
To create a silhouette, position yourself so that a bright portion of the sky serves as the backdrop. Frame your shot, ensuring that the landscape elements you want to silhouette are prominent. Now, lock in the suggested exposure for the bright sky. Manual mode is particularly suitable for this technique, but Aperture Priority can also work well.
Once you’ve taken a shot, review it on your camera’s LCD screen. A successful silhouette will result in a dark foreground and a detailed sky, forming a captivating contrast. If the exposure isn’t ideal, don’t be discouraged. Adjust the exposure compensation or the shutter speed until you achieve the desired outcome.
Silhouette photos can add a touch of mystique to your portfolio. The approach allows you to focus on the shapes and contours of the landscape – and create visually compelling images that evoke emotion and spark the viewer’s imagination.
9. Don’t forget to post-process your golden-hour landscapes
The beauty of golden-hour lighting is undeniable, but to truly unlock the full potential of your landscape shots, it’s crucial to spend time enhancing them through post-processing. This is where you can take your already stunning images and elevate them to a whole new level.
One of the first steps in post-processing your golden-hour landscapes is to work with the white balance. By adjusting the temperature and tint sliders, you can achieve a more natural look or even create a deliberately cooler or warmer tone that elevates the overall mood of your image.
Next, pay attention to the details in your highlights and shadows. Golden-hour scenes often have a wide dynamic range, with deep shadows and bright skies, and this can result in a loss of detail in both areas. Happily, you can use post-processing tools to recover lost details, ensuring that the important elements of your image are well-exposed.
Color grading can also be a powerful technique to enhance the depth and drama of your golden-hour landscapes. By adjusting the color hues, you can create a unique and personalized look. Experiment with different color combinations to find the one that evokes the desired emotions and reinforces the atmosphere you’re after.
Lastly, consider applying a subtle vignette to push the viewer’s eye toward the main subject of your image. Be cautious not to overdo it, however; restraint is the key to maintaining a natural and balanced look.
Pro tip: When heading out for some golden-hour adventuring, I highly recommend shooting in RAW. RAW files contain more data and provide greater flexibility for adjusting various aspects of your image during post-processing compared to JPEGs. This enables you to make adjustments without sacrificing image quality and recover detail as needed.
Remember, post-processing is an art form in itself, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Take the time to experiment, develop your own editing style, and stay true to your artistic vision.
10. Keep shooting after sunset
The evening golden hour is great for landscape photographers. However, the magic doesn’t fade away as soon as the sun slips below the horizon. In fact, right after the golden hour concludes, a mesmerizing transformation takes place. The sky takes on a cool blue hue, and a serene, soft light creates a wonderfully ethereal atmosphere. This period is known as the blue hour, and it’s another great time for landscape photography.
While the blue hour presents its own unique challenges, it offers an opportunity to capture a whole other type of landscape shot. The illumination is incredibly subtle and gentle, casting a tranquil mood over your scenes. To make the most of this exquisite hour, remember to bring along your trusty tripod. The dwindling light means a steady foundation is essential to avoid blurry shots.
Scouting becomes even more essential if you plan to shoot during this time. With the light fading, it’s easy to overlook important details or miss potential subjects. Take your time to familiarize yourself with the location beforehand, so you can navigate it with ease and recognize key elements even after the sun has set.
So when the golden hour comes to a close in the evening, don’t pack up your gear. Stay a little longer and immerse yourself in the captivating beauty of the blue hour. Capture the serene ambiance and let your photographs convey a sense of tranquility and enchantment!
Golden-hour landscape photography: final words
And there you have it! We’ve covered a whole bunch of golden-hour landscape photography tips that will take your skills to new heights, so make sure you commit them to memory and apply them during your next sunrise or sunset photoshoot.
Remember, this magical hour is fleeting, so don’t waste a single moment. Rise early, chase sunsets, experiment with different settings, and don’t be afraid to break the rules and try new techniques.
Also, don’t pack up once the golden hour fades away! Keep shooting during the tranquil blue hour and watch as the world transforms into a mesmerizing realm of soft, ethereal light. You won’t regret it!
Now over to you:
Do you have any golden-hour landscape tips that we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!