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Most photographers will argue vehemently that the golden hour – that pocket of time just after sunrise and just before sunset – produces some of the most gorgeous light ever. Golden light shows up during this time, generally about an hour or so before sunset (after sunrise). However these times are not exact because golden light does depend on where you live. The further away from the equator you are located, the longer golden hour lasts. The closer to the equator you are, the shorter it is. Golden hour is also seasonal.
There is a reason why most natural light photographers tend to schedule their portrait sessions around golden hour – to maximize the amount of golden light that they can use and get amazing results for their clients.
There are several reasons why golden light is so sought after.
Since the sun is almost setting or just rising during golden hour, the sunlight tends to be much softer than when the sun is high in the sky. During the golden hour, you can have your subjects look towards the sun and not have to squint or shield their eyes. Practice discretion on how long you want them to stare at the sun, and also take care not to point lens and cameras directly into the sun.
It is easy to think that any form of sunlight is warm – whether the sun is high in the sky, or close to the horizon. But in reality, the warmth varies as the sun moves across the sky. Sun near the horizon has less intensity of direct light since it must travel through more of the atmosphere. You may notice, it is much easier to look at a sunrise and sunset with the naked eye – not that you should because it can damage the retina. As per wikipedia, more blue light is scattered during golden hour, so the sun’s light appears more reddish.
When the sun is high in the sky, particularly around noon, the overhead light is very harsh, creating strong highlights and dark shadows. This type of lighting is not very flattering or desirable especially in portrait photography. Most photographers will use external flash or even a reflector to add additional light to the subject’s face or body, to make the light more even. Because the contrast is lower during golden hour, shadows and highlights are not that extreme. In addition, the sun’s smaller angle to the horizon produces long shadows.
Take the time to know the area that you are looking to do photography. There are many website and apps that can provide exact sunrise and sunset times. Some even take it a step further and provide golden hour times – which is specifically for photographers! Even the location matters when searching for golden light. If your photoshoot is in a park that has a lot of tree cover, the light will be further diffused, giving you the option of having a spotlight type effect for your portraits. If you are in a big city, take advantage of the natural block that tall buildings provide when photographing a subject.
Golden light can be challenging from a metering perspective. Most people leave it in standard (matrix or evaluative) mode and then play around in post-production to try and get the look they want. There is an easier way to eliminate all that time spent in front of the camera. Spot metering is my preferred metering method particularly for backlighting situations. I spot meter off the subject’s face or shadowy part of the image and then recompose and adjust exposure compensation half a stop or more to get the look I want.
Front lighting is when your subjects face the sun directly. Because of the low angle of the sun and the soft light, the sun isn’t as harsh and your subjects will not be squinting as they face the sun. The light is even and warm so make sure that is the look you want – gorgeous, warmly lit, imagery!
Backlighting is when you put the subjects between you and the sun. This creates a warm glow and looks really stunning. Make sure you expose for your subject’s skin tones. If you expose for the sun, then you will get a silhouette effect (which might not be the look you are going for, but is equally stunning).
Rim lighting occurs when you are using the sun to backlight the subject. Here the subject is between you and the sun. If you have a darker background, you can see a faint glow outlining them. That is a rim light and it really helps the subjects pop out in the image, drawing attention to them, adding separation of subject from the background.
No matter what type of golden hour lighting you use, you are bound to get some awesome images. Experiment with various locations and techniques. Also go back to the same location at various times of the year and track how golden hour lighting changes – you will learn to gauge, judge, and use light as a key element in your portrait photography.