What’s the best time of the day to take a picture with natural lighting?
You’re probably thinking of that time window in the evening, right before sunset, or right before sunrise, when the sun’s golden rays are shining gracefully without casting any harsh shadows.
Whether you are a professional photographer or just a selfie enthusiast, you have probably heard of the “Golden Hour”.
This is, arguably, the best time to take photos—especially portraits!
But how well do you understand the golden hour? Why is the golden hour so special?
In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about the golden hour.
Let’s get into it!
What is Golden Hour?
The term “Golden Hour” refers to the short window of time usually right after sunrise and right before sunset.
The golden hour can be identified by the smooth golden hue on the sky, reflected on the ground, which makes for a perfectly flattering condition for taking pictures of just about anything: from landscapes to self-portraits.
The golden hue is created by the low position of the sun.
The sunlight is diffused and filtered by the atmosphere and sometimes fog, which makes the sunlight appear softer and a little bit redder.
The golden hour is short, and won’t cast any harsh or unflattering shadows.
Because of this naturally flattering and beautiful light, taking pictures during the golden hour usually results in better-looking pictures.
You don’t have to do go out of your way to avoid common photography problems that usually occur at other times during the day, such as harsh shadow and chromatic aberration.
This is because the golden hour radiates smooth light, which is pretty similar to the lighting usually found in studios.
It helps to soften the appearance of skin textures, which makes it just the perfect lighting for self-portraits.
What Time is Golden Hour?
It really depends on where you are in the world.
People who live on tropical islands (around the equator) would be able to enjoy the golden hour at a different time from, say, people living in the northern hemisphere.
It also depends on the time of year and what season you are currently experiencing.
For example, the time you experience the golden hour in summer will be different from the golden hour during the fall.
It also depends on the weather that day.
If you want to find the precise timing, you can try to use the golden hour calculator.
You may get the approximation time result but you need to remember that in real life, you may not always be able to use this result because nature can be unpredictable sometimes.
The rule of thumb for the golden hour is that it usually occurs around an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.
Check your local sunrise and sunset time. This is especially useful if you’re traveling to different cities or countries.
You may need to check on the sunrise and sunset time in that area if you don’t want to miss the magic of golden hour.
What Is So Special about Golden Hour?
The golden hour is special—and this isn’t an exaggeration or a cliché. It really does live up to its hype! As we all know, lighting is one of the key factors in photography.
We cannot produce good pictures without good lighting conditions. And if you opt for natural light, the golden hour is your best bet. Here’s why:
The golden hour has its special qualities. It is still bright enough to catch details, but also soft enough to avoid the harsh shadow you often get on middays.
Because of its golden hue and soft nature, pictures taken during this time will appear more beautiful no matter if it’s a human model or landscape.
The soft golden light is also reflected on every object it touches such as the clouds, the eyes, buildings, and water to name a few.
The golden hour also has a warm flattering touch, so it is perfect for capturing an object’s warmth.
During the golden hour, the sun is low on the horizon and it can create a soft long shadow that creates dimension on your pictures.
You cannot create this kind of dimension at other times of the day. It is pretty difficult unless you are using artificial studio lights.
One of the benefits of shooting in the golden hour is that the light is soft so it is perfect for portraits.
Not only will it make the skin look softer, but it will allow the models to face the sun without squinting so you can explore more poses. It’s a win-win situation!
Is the Golden Hour Every day?
Theoretically, if the golden hour happens after the sunrise and before the sunset, then the answer to this question should be yes because sunrise and sunset happen every day, right?
Well, sadly, in reality, you may not be able to enjoy the golden hour every day.
There are few factors that are key to making the golden hour appear, all of which are unfortunately out of your control.
One of them is good weather: when the weather is good, you are more likely to enjoy the golden hour.
But weather is not always constant, and we all know that some days are just not as nice as others. For example, rainy days.
Days when the sky is covered by thick, dark clouds. Days when the sun simply refuses to show up.
Nature has its own rules and can change very quickly as well.
You may feel like the weather that day is good, and predict that the golden hour will for sure be there, but just moments before it occurs, the weather decides to change!
Well, when that happens, there’s really nothing you can do except wait for another day when you’re lucky.
This is also what makes the golden hour even more special because you can never guarantee when you can enjoy it!
Golden Hour vs. Blue Hour
Aside from golden hour, there is also something called blue hour. Now that we know what the golden hour is, it’s time to talk a little bit about the blue hour.
If the golden hour occurs after sunrise and before sunset, then the blue hour happens right before sunrise and after sunset.
To be exact, blue hour happens when the sun is just right under the horizon and produces a cooler tone.
Although they appear at almost the same time, the golden hour and the blue hour have very distinct differences, especially in the mood.
While the golden hour offers warmth and magical feels, the blue hour offers a cooler and slightly darker mood.
Now, which one is better? It depends on each photographers’ preferences. And also, what kind of story you want to tell.
This has a lot to do with your photography style, and of course the photo concept you aim to obtain.
Also notably, the blue hour may be a little bit harder to catch because it lasts for an even shorter period than the golden hour.
The blue hour appears when the sun is already below the horizon. Soon it will set and the blue hour begins.
But in general, both lighting has their own difficulties and can give you beautiful results.
Tips for Shooting during the Golden Hour
Even though the golden hour happens twice a day, it only happens around an hour each.
And if you are at all experienced with photography, you may already guess that an hour is not a very long time to get the perfect picture.
When we rely on natural lighting, it can change quickly and you may be able to take the same picture twice.
So, to make sure that you make the most of this short window of golden hour, make sure that you follow the following tips:
1. Plan your Shoot
Planning is key. Before you shoot in a new area, you should go and observe the area first to get to know the landscape better, its direction of light, and other factors so that you can properly plan your shoot.
By having an understanding of the location, you are able to arrive early before the shooting time and set up your camera.
If you want to shoot around sunrise, this means you need to go to the location and set up your camera while it’s still dark.
And if you want to shoot around the sunset, you can go earlier in the afternoon and try to capture several pictures to get a better idea of the best angles you want to take.
Since the golden hour happens for only a short amount of time, you may not be able to move to different locations so you better plan your shoot to get as many pictures as possible in an area from different angles.
2. Adjust your Camera Setting
When setting up your camera, you may also need to adjust your camera setting.
For example, when shooting during the golden hour, it is recommended to use the manual White Balance setting instead of Auto While Balance (AWB).
The reasoning behind this is because the White Balance will balance out the lighting in the picture so the result will appear bluer.
You will lose that amazing golden hue and defeat the whole purpose of shooting during golden hour.
Even when you shoot in raw, which can be easily altered in the post-production process, it is better to turn off the AWB for a more realistic scene on the review screen.
So you have a better idea of the final result.
3. Use a Wide Aperture
Golden hour is perfect for taking portraits. You can adjust the magical effect even more by using a wider aperture.
By shooting your object with a wider aperture and shallow depth of field, you will be able to create a dreamy bokeh effect with the focus of the object that is beautifully bathed in sunlight.
Are you a beginner photographer and still uncomfortable with adjusting your camera settings? Don’t worry. You can set your camera into aperture priority mode.
This mode will allow you to choose the aperture and the camera will automatically determine the best ISO and shutter speed for you.
Don’t forget to set your ISO on auto mode to make this work.
4. Use Spot Metering
Spot metering is a feature you can find on modern cameras that allow you to measure the amount of light around you so you can choose the right setting to get the best exposure.
Sometimes, the exposure considered perfect by this mode is not always what you’re looking for.
So, you’ll still need to perform more tweaks and adjustments yourself.
The good thing about spot metering is that it allows you to focus on the main thing you want to focus on such as your object.
This may result in overexposing the scene surrounding the object, but during the golden hour, this can create a beautiful result.
5. Play with Different Types of Lighting
There is a range of different lighting types you can choose from here.
The good thing about the golden hour is that you can play and experiment with a different type of lighting in one location.
A golden hour makes it possible for you to take pictures with front lighting.
This is because the light is soft enough for the models to directly face the sun, which is the primary light source of the shoot.
You can also create beautiful backlight photos during the golden hour.
This is perfect when the sun is still slightly high in the sky and will create a thin line of light around the object.
This will give an illusion as if the object is glowing while the background is blurred and hazy.
This lighting type is similar to rim/edge lighting.
But on rim/edge lighting, the line appears even brighter against a darker background and gives the illusion of separation between the object and the background.
You can also create the flare effect. Flare is one of the lighting modes often used during the golden hour.
This lighting type can be achieved by intentionally placing the object to partially cover the sun in order to create beautiful flares.
You can also create beautiful silhouette photos by placing the object in between the camera and the sun.
The object will block the light from entering your camera resulting in the object appearing as a silhouette.
You can create full silhouette photography or play around to show other details and not only shadows.
6. Work Quickly
We all know that the golden hour doesn’t last very long, usually less than an hour. During these 60 minutes, the lighting and the weather can change very quickly.
You can get one beautiful shot in a minute and lose the light the next minute.
This is why you need to work as effectively and efficiently as possible. Try to come an hour early before the golden hour so you can practice what you try to capture.
So when the golden hour is happening, you can just retake the shot you already practiced. This way, you can save a lot of time and take many more pictures.
Jon has been a passionate photographer for 10+ years. Fun fact is that he has a collection of around 300-400 cameras that his family has collected over the years. Outside of photography, he has a Masters Degree in Engineering and has 13 years experience working in the industry across the globe.