Golden hour photography: the best settings and techniques.
The golden hour in photography is widely seen as the best time of day to shoot. At golden hour the light is warm and soft – enhancing shots of landscapes, nature, and more. To help you make the most of it, our golden hour photography experts offer their tips for shooting in the magic hour.
What you’ll learn:
- What is the golden hour in photography?
- When is the golden hour and how long does it last?
- Why do photographers love the golden hour?
- Golden hour photography tips from the experts
- Golden hour FAQs
What is the golden hour in photography?
That short period of time just after sunrise, or right before sunset, is known as the golden hour in photography. Also referred to as the magic hour, this period is defined by natural light which has a warm, reddish hue.
Due to the sun’s low angle, its rays filter through a greater distance. This creates a colour temperature at the redder end of the spectrum, with longer shadows which can add an extra dimension to photos.
Generally, the optimum angle of the sun is as follows:
- Morning sunrise: -4° to 6°
- Evening sunset: 6° to -4°
Despite its name, the golden hour can only last for about 20 or 30 minutes (though it depends on your location, the season, and weather). Another popular period of time for photographers is blue hour, which occurs just before the golden hour begins at sunrise, or ends at sunset.
When is the golden hour and how long does it last?
The golden hour time changes each day. It depends on your location (latitude), time of year (season), and the weather – the latter of which also affects how long it may last. As a good rule of thumb, golden hour is usually the first hour of sunlight in the morning and last hour of sunlight in an evening.
How long the golden hour lasts depends on your shooting location and season. Where there’s a higher latitude and longer days – such as in Antarctica during summer – the sun can take around 90 minutes to move from -4° below the horizon to 6° above it during sunrise. Along the equator, in a lower latitude, the same process can be much quicker – taking around 50 minutes.
For photographers in the UK, it generally lasts around an hour or less. Overcast and shorter winter days can limit the magic hour. However, golden hour also happens twice a day. So if you miss it in the morning, there’s always the chance of shooting during the golden hour time in the evening.
Why do photographers love the golden hour?
The golden hour produces beautiful natural light that’s easy to work with. Harnessing the power it presents is something every photographer loves to use, helping create stunning golden hour photos.
“It’s hard to overexpose or underexpose parts of an image, like a subject’s face, because the light is very even and has a beautiful golden hue.”
– Photographer Jenn Byrne
Compared to the light at other times of day, golden hour light is:
- Softer – the sun’s rays diffuse the light as they come in at an angle, rather than shining down directly. This creates a softer, more flattering light.
- Directional – low angles form longer shadows and lighting situations which can help if you’re applying creative effects like silhouettes, sunbursts, and lens flare.
- Warmer – on the Kelvin colour temperature spectrum, golden hour light is warmer, with lots of yellows, oranges, and reds. This creates a colour palette associated with feelings of happiness and positivity.
“Skin tones get washed out by really direct sunlight. But the golden hue makes for beautiful skin tones that are hard to blow out.”
– Jenn Byrne
This special light enables photographers to shoot creative golden hour photos. It’s also harder to make mistakes when using a manual exposure mode – the sky is less bright compared to the middle of the day, reducing your chance of overexposure.
Golden hour light works especially well for these types of photography:
Portrait photography in the golden hour.
Taking portrait photos outside can introduce challenges such as squinting subjects, shadows that hide facial features, and an overexposed background. During the golden hour, most of these are easily overcome. Longer shadows add depth, the golden hue can flatter your subject, and you can get creative with the low sun backdrop to form a shimmer around them.
Discover more portrait photography tips
Golden hour wedding photography.
Like portrait photos, golden hour wedding photography flatters the subjects, avoids squinting, and adds that wonderful soft glow. It can make the wedding photographer’s job easier as they have the ability to capture effective compositions using long shadows. Positioning the happy couple with the setting sun to their back or side is a common technique for adding an eye-catching halo effect to an image.
Discover more wedding photography tips
Landscape photography in the golden hour.
The main advantage of shooting landscapes in the golden hour is the ability to use longer shutter speeds effectively. Lower light levels mean you can capture extra detail in still landscape scenes, or get creative when shooting the motion of flowing waterfalls, tides lapping the shoreline, and running animals. The sunset or rise and orange hue add to the effect.
Discover more landscape photography tips
Golden hour architecture photography
Buildings benefit from the soft golden hour light, as the long shadows can help form compositions which add an extra dimension compared to shooting in the middle of the day. As with landscape photography, a narrower dynamic range and longer shutter speeds capture more detail. Positioning is key – the right angle, with a colourful sky backdrop, can form some striking architectural images.
Discover more architecture photography tips
Golden hour photography tips from the experts.
Making the most of golden hour lighting to create stunning photographs is a three-step process. Start by understanding the best golden hour photography settings, before moving onto shooting effectively, and finally touching up your images with editing software.
Master each stage with these expert golden hour photography tips.
Golden hour camera settings.
Experimenting with photography settings during golden hour can help you realise what settings you should be using more broadly. Try a range of combinations to see the different effects they can produce – shooting in manual mode is advised to easily adjust exposure and benefit more from the natural back lighting.
As a good starting point, key camera settings to experiment with during golden hour include:
- Aperture. Unless you’re going for a long-exposure shot, use a wide aperture to let in as much light as you can during golden hour. It can be worth using a tripod to keep your images sharp.
- Dynamic range. A camera with a high dynamic range measures how many stops of exposure it can capture in a single frame. The best cameras for the job are typically full-frame DSLRs – perfect for pulling up deep shadows in post-processing.
- Fill light. Flashes or reflectors help fill in the shadows on your subject’s face for a more evenly lit exposure. Bouncing some of the light back on the subject balances the exposure.
- ISO. Low light levels also mean using a higher ISO setting can be best. Find a good balance that keeps the image clear and bright.
- Shutter speed. Keep your shutter speed low to reduce any motion blur when shooting portrait and still scenes, as there’ll be less light than usual (around 1/125 or 1/250). If you want to capture movement of waterfalls or flowing rivers in the golden hour, steadily increase it and use a tripod to hold your camera steady.
- White balance. Choose a manual setting for white balance, as a camera set to auto white balance could mean your images end up bluer than you want. This can be fixed in post – but you’d much rather capture that orange glow naturally.
“It can be hard to include the sky because the exposure of it and the subject are two different things. Using fill flash can really make a difference. It’ll illuminate the person.”
– Photographer Tina Tryforo
Golden hour photography tips and techniques.
Want to make the most of golden hour? Planning is vital. Scout the location beforehand and visualise your compositions to maximise your time when the golden hour starts. If you can’t get there early, prepare by looking at other photographers’ work in the same spot. Use apps that list sunset times so you know exactly where the sun will be at any given time or place – these golden hour calculators can remove some of the guesswork.
“What will happen ten minutes from now is going to be radically different than what happened ten minutes before.”
– Tina Tryforos
Take lots of photos to capture the changing light. This will give you more options to work with afterwards. Go beyond the golden hour into the blue hour just after sunset, or arrive early before sunrise. You may get some effective, unplanned bonus images.
Working with directional light.
Finding the right balance between the beautiful orange sky and darker areas of a scene can be challenging. The sun’s low angle creates directional light which, when shooting a subject in front, will produce a beautiful backlit effect. However, it might shadow your subject’s face.
“You don’t have a ton of light on their face, so if you’re not exposing your camera properly, you can lose all of the beautiful highlights on their skin.”
– Photographer David Green
Using flashes or reflectors can help combat this, alongside a few other elements such as:
- Composition. Consider the position of the sun and your subjects. While you’ll want that orange hue, do you need the actual sun in the shot? The position of your camera also affects the shadows of buildings, people, trees, and other objects.
- Lens flare. With the sun in your frame due to its low angle, lens flare could be an issue. Reframing the shot or dropping to a low aperture can create sunbursts.
- Rim and bounce light. Place your subject between the camera and sun to forge a natural golden outline. Look for where the sunlight bounces off windows and water, or use a reflector to avoid a silhouette.
- Shoot raw. There’s less light as the sun sets, making it even more important to recover deep shadows in underexposed parts of your photos.~
- Silhouettes. Silhouettes are very effective in golden hour. They can happen by accident – just make sure the subject is in front of the sun.
“JPEG files make editing and processing photos more difficult because you have less data to work with.”
– Steve Schwindt
How to edit golden hour images.
Post-processing tools like Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop open up a world of possibilities for editing your golden hour photos. If you’re having trouble keeping your highlights from being blown out, you can edit for results you couldn’t get during the shoot.
“Have a vision for how you want the photograph to turn out. That will impact what you do in post-processing.”
– Steve Schwindt
Take note of these expert tips for editing your golden hour images:
- Raise your shadows. Use an adjustment brush to pull up shadows on individual parts. Pulling up shadows and pulling down highlights can help restore balance between the brightest and darkest parts of an image. Learn how to use shadow and highlight clippings in Adobe Lightroom and adjustment brushes in Lightroom.
- Blend HDR photos. One technique landscape photographers use is to take multiple photos at different exposures and combine them in Lightroom. Learn how to merge HDR photos in Adobe Photoshop.
- Adjust white balance. Enhance the colours of a sunset by controlling temperature, tint, and saturation in your photos.
- Work with the HSL panel. Backlit photos avoid direct sunlight that can make skin look orange. If you don’t want your images to be backlit, you can correct skin tones by making adjustments. This avoids the problem and keeps your lighting options open.
“You can blend different exposures to compensate for the much brighter sky in comparison to a darker foreground.”
– Steve Schwindt
Golden hour: frequently asked questions.
What time is golden hour for selfies?
The time for golden hour selfies is the same as the golden hour for every other type of shot – about an hour before sunset or after sunrise. This changes with the season throughout the year – there are apps where you can check the golden hour time for selfies in your area. In general, between 8am and 9am or 4pm and 5pm are prime times for golden hour selfies throughout autumn and spring.
How can I fake golden hour?
During winter or on overcast days there are a few things you can do to fake the golden hour in your photos:
- Position a strobe or speed light around your subject
- Use a fast lens for a soft-focus background
- Place a flash outside a window to create an afternoon sun effect
- Stick with a low shutter speed and high aperture as if you’re shooting in the real golden hour
- Use Adobe Lightroom to apply radial filters and adjust colours
What time is golden hour in the UK?
Golden hour in the UK is the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. This means it changes depending on the season and even location. There may be a few minutes difference for when the golden hour starts and ends across the UK – from Lizard Point to Dunnet Head.
Can I use my phone for golden hour photographs?
You can use any camera to take golden hour photos. There are a few ways to do this effectively:
- Try the high dynamic range (HDR) feature to capture more light
- Use a tripod to reduce the chance of blur, which can be introduced by less light
- Find a good location and make the most of backlighting by framing your subject in front of the sun
Is there a golden hour every day?
Golden hour occurs at every sunrise and sunset. However, it can be much shorter or longer depending on your location and the season. Overcast days also affect its impact. Some places within the Arctic Circle during winter – when the sun doesn’t rise and summer when it doesn’t set – won’t have a golden hour.
Adobe’s golden hour photography partners.
The following expert photographers contributed to this golden hour photography guide.
- Jenn Byrne is a photographer and videographer based in Portland. She specialises in portrait and wedding photography. See Jenn’s work.
- David Green is a photographer and cinematographer who focuses on people, sports, and lifestyle imagery. See David’s work.
- Steve Schwindt is an experienced landscape photographer based in Oregon. See Steve’s work.
- Tina Tryforo is a New York photographer who teaches photography and digital art in Rhode Island. See Tina’s work.
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