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Golden hour

Golden magic - harness the light of golden hour...


What is golden hour?

Golden Hour refers to the period of time shortly after sunrise or just before sunset. It’s called “Golden Hour” due to the fact that warm golden hues can be seen in the light due to the sun.

Flowers in a field during golden hour.
Golden Hour example

This time of day is very popular among photographers and videographers because it creates soft, warm, golden light that is diffused and not as intense as the mid-day sun, allowing us to capture images that feel very inviting.

Due to the flattering light, we can capture various subjects during this time of day, including portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, weddings, and more!

Three photos during golden hour.
Golden Hour example cases

It can generally last anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour, depending on where you live.

Additionally, the season affects how long Golden Hour lasts. There are many apps or websites online that provide sunrise and sunset times for your specific location, so I’d recommend doing a quick search if you want the exact time in your area.

Online search for sunset time near me.
Golden Hour checking sunset

What settings are needed for golden hour photography?

In terms of settings, I wouldn’t say you need “special” settings to capture Golden Hour photos, but you need an understanding of the exposure triangle, which consists of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

Graphic of the exposure triangle.
Exposure triangle

I would also recommend shooting in Manual Mode, as this will give you complete control over your exposure settings. I’ll touch more on this later in my tips.

Camera set to manual mode.
Manual mode on camera

So now that we know the definition of Golden Hour and when it occurs, let’s look at ten tips I personally use to maximize my session when I have a photoshoot during Golden Hour.


10 Golden hour photography tips

1. Understand the light

The first tip I have for Golden Hour photography is to understand the light. In order to effectively shoot during Golden Hour, you need to know how this light works technically and what mood and story it can tell.

As mentioned earlier, Golden Hour light is characterized by its low angle, softness, and warm, golden temperature. To understand this light effectively, I believe there are three areas we need to address.

Soft light

The first area is the soft light quality.

As mentioned, Golden Hour is characterized by soft light, which means your light source may not be as strong as the midday sun.

Photo of woman during golden hour and man during midday sun.
Golden Hour vs. midday sun

That said, it can be very easy to overexpose your highlights or lose shadow details unless you know how to effectively control each element of the exposure triangle on your camera.

Photo of woman during golden hour backlit.
Golden Hour overexposed highlights

I also believe this light is best when you want to highlight textures, create depth, enhance colors, and add a magic, dreamlike mood to your images. This leads me to the second area to address with Golden Hour.

Mood

The second area is the mood that Golden Hour creates.

As mentioned, images captured during Golden Hour often create a magic, dreamlike mood to them due to the golden hues.

Flowers in a field with the sunset behind them.
Golden Hour dreamlike mood

While Golden Hour is very popular, it can be easy initially to want to always shoot during Golden Hour, but this could be a mistake.

For example, if you want to capture more punchy images, like you often see with fashion photos, then shooting during Golden Hour may not be the best choice.

Man sitting on fence with palm trees behind him midday.
Photo during midday for punchy look

So before shooting during Golden Hour, first, ask yourself what story or mood you’re trying to capture with your images. If the answer isn’t a magical, dreamlike look, then Golden Hour may not be the best choice. You may consider shooting more midday in the shade, a couple of hours before Golden Hour, or indoors.

Time window

The third area is the time window.

Technically, you have a relatively short window to use this light, about an hour, hence the name. This short window makes the light very dynamic, and the intensity and color within your scene change very rapidly.

Stopwatch showing one hour for golden hour.
Golden Hour limited time window

When shooting during Golden Hour, I constantly have to adjust my exposure settings because I’m racing against the setting sun. You have to go into a Golden Hour session with a sense of patience and efficiency. It is almost like a get-in, get your shots, get-out attitude.

So, how can you prepare for a Golden Hour photoshoot? You plan your shoot in advance. And this leads me to my next tip.

2. Plan your shoot in advance

The second Golden Hour photography tip I have is to plan your shoot in advance.

Researching and planning are essential for making the most out of your Golden Hour session. This involves knowing your local sunrise and sunset times and the weather conditions.

Screenshot showing local sunrise and sunset time.
Know your sunrise and sunset time

For example, if I have a client shoot on Friday, then on Monday, I’m already checking the weather conditions and using websites to look at the precise times for Golden Hour in my area. I’m then telling my client to meet me at least 30 minutes before the start of Golden Hour.

This gives me enough time to greet my clients, talk with them a bit to get them comfortable, and get my gear all set up so I’m ready to go.

Another thing you also have to plan for is how the light direction will affect your chosen location. And this leads me to tip three.

3. Scout your location

The third Golden Hour photography tip is to scout your location.

The beauty of Golden Hour is not the same in every location. Similar to how watching a sunset is better in some locations than others, some locations are better suited for Golden Hour photos than others.

Because of this, you must visit your shooting location beforehand so you can envision your shots, identify the best angles, and recognize potential challenges.

Graphic of eye, angles, and challenges.
Reasons to location scout

If you are photographing for a hobby, this may not be necessary, but it’s imperative if you are taking photos of others during Golden Hour.

Here’s an example: let’s say you plan to take Golden Hour photos in a park for a husband and wife. You checked the time Golden Hour will take place and the weather conditions, and you arrived early.

But let’s say there is a mountain in the distance you did not realize was there, and now your Golden Hour session is cut down in half because the sun goes behind the mountain before fully setting.

Graphic of woman standing with sun during golden hour.
Golden hour
Woman standing with sun being blocked behind mountains.
Golden Hour - Mountain blocking the sun from setting

The same thing could happen if you’re in a city and the sun goes behind a building before fully setting.

Graphic of woman standing with sun during golden hour.
Golden hour
Woman standing with sun being blocked behind building.
Golden Hour - Building blocking the sun setting

My point is that by looking 360 degrees in your shooting location, you can identify and understand potential terrain and building challenges along with the light direction to position yourself and your subjects optimally.

4. Use manual mode

The fourth Golden Hour photography tip is to use manual mode.

By using manual mode, you will have complete control over your camera settings, allowing you to adjust the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to best capture the dynamic range of Golden Hour light.

I’d first recommend starting with as low an ISO as possible to ensure the highest image quality with minimal noise. As the light fades, you may need to increase it to maintain your desired aperture and shutter speed.

Man wearing suit in a no noise photo.
Low ISO (No grain/noise)
DJ in a bar.
High ISO (High grain/noise)

Next, I’d recommend adjusting your aperture depending on your depth of field choice. For a more shallow depth of field, such as if you’re shooting portraits, then use a lower f-stop number like f/1.2 to f/5.6, and a more narrow depth of field if you’re taking landscapes like f/11 to f/16.

Two side by side photos showing shallow and narrow depth of field.
Shallow vs. narrow depth of field

Lastly, adjust your shutter speed based on the movement and the stability of your camera. Just be aware that during Golden Hour, light is often soft and less available, so you'll usually need to shoot at slower shutter speeds compared to shoots during the midday sun.

And if you’re shooting handheld at a slower shutter speed, you may experience camera shake, so you may want to consider bringing a tripod in case your shutter speeds get very slow.

In summary, you don’t really need “special” settings to shoot during Golden Hour, and if you have a strong understanding of the exposure triangle, you’ll be good to go.

And I have a separate guide on that, so be sure to check that out if you aren’t familiar with it!

5. Shoot in RAW format

The fifth Golden Hour photography tip I have is to shoot in RAW.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then you’re probably shooting in JPEG. So what’s the big deal with RAW?

Graphic showing a RAW file format.
RAW file format

Well, RAW format captures all image data from the sensor, providing the highest quality files. This is important during post-processing time, when we may need to make minor shadows, highlights, and other exposure adjustments.

Shooting in RAW is particularly beneficial during Golden Hour when we want to maximize the dynamic range and color fidelity, which is crucial.

To switch to RAW on your camera, you can do a quick search online for your specific camera. But usually, you just head to the menu, select an Image Quality setting, and change it to RAW.

Settings to change to RAW file format on a Canon 6D Mark II.
Changing to RAW on my Canon 6D Mark II

Just note that RAW images need to be converted to JPEGs before they can be sent to people, and you can usually make that conversion once you upload them into Adobe Lightroom or other post-processing software.

6. Experiment with angles

The sixth Golden Hour photography tip is to experiment with your angles.

This tip is for portrait photographers or photographers taking photos of people. What I mean by this tip is how you position your subject in relation to your Golden Hour light source.

The three main angles we have are facing the light, backlighting, and silhouettes.

Facing the light

The first angle is to have your subject face the light.

Now, when your subject faces the light, there are distinctive angles like Rembrandt lighting, Side lighting, Loop lighting, etc. But the main thing to remember with any of these distinctive angles is that in Golden Hour, this angle is best when the Golden Hour is closer to ending.

For example, if you have your subject face the sun when Golden Hour has just started, the light still might be a bit too strong on your subject’s face, creating stronger shadows that aren't as soft:

Girl wearing flower dress at the beginning of golden hour.
Beginning of Golden Hour portrait

If you wait until the end of Golden Hour, the sun will be lower, and the light will be at its softest, creating the softest shadows with diffused light:

Girl holding onto fence during end of golden hour.
End of Golden Hour portrait

But because it’s towards the end of Golden Hour, I usually capture these images. Before then, we can capture backlit and silhouette shots which leads me to my next angles.

Backlighting

The second angle is to capture backlit photos of your subject.

For backlighting, simply place the sun behind your subject’s head or body.

Girl wearing yellow dress standing in front of sun.
Backlit portrait during end of golden hour

This will cause the sun to create a halo or soft glow around your subject. This will enhance the mood and depth of your images.

Silhouettes

The third angle is to capture a silhouette of your subject.

For silhouettes, position your subject against the light source and then expose for the sky, leaving your subject underexposed.

Woman standing in front of sun creating a silhouette.
Silhouette during golden hour

Just note that with silhouettes, you won’t really be able to see details of your subject, so make sure you capture some photos of them facing the light and backlit photos as well, so you aren’t just delivering photos of them where it’s just their body outlined.

7. Decide what to expose

The seventh Golden Hour photography tip is to decide what to expose.

In the varying light of Golden Hour, deciding whether to expose your subject or the background can dramatically affect your image’s mood and detail. This tip ties in to the last one.

For example, if you decide to backlight your subject and expose it to the skin, you’ll blow out the highlights and destroy the Golden Hour light. If you expose for the highlights/sky instead, you’ll create a somewhat silhouette image and might not be able to see your subject as well.

Two photo of guy standing in front of his car.
Exposing for subject vs. exposing for sky

In either case, you’ll be making a tradeoff either exposing for the sky or your subject so you need to make that creative choice as a photographer.

But luckily, with current post-processing software and camera tools such as shooting in RAW, we can make some slight adjustments in post to either bring out the shadows in our subjects if shooting a silhouette image or reduce the highlights if taking a backlit image.

If we want to retain proper exposure on both our subject and the Golden Hour sky, though, we have a second option: using an external flash.

8. Consider using an external flash

The eighth Golden Hour photography tip is to consider using an external flash.

An external flash or even a reflector is often used for filling in shadows, especially when photographing people or subjects against a bright backdrop like the sun in the sky.

In order to use the external flash, you expose the sky and set your external flash, like a speedlight, to a flash power that will softly illuminate your subject without overpowering the natural ambiance.

For example, here's an image where I exposed the background and my subject has no contrast and is flat and another photo in the same exact area where I exposed the sky, but this time, I added an external flash to light my subject. Notice the contrast and depth that it adds while retaining exposure in my sky:

Man wearing white dress shirt during golden hour.
Exposing for background with no external flash during Golden Hour
Man adjusting his suit tie during golden hour.
Added external flash during Golden Hour exposing for sky

The key here is to illuminate your subject softly. You want to ensure your flash’s warmth matches the Golden Hour light so it looks natural. I do this by starting out on the lower powers of my Godox TT600 speedlight, like 1/128, and then I work my way up if I need more light.

This technique is often referred to as balancing ambient light with your flash and is a whole topic in itself that I’ll probably make a separate guide for, but that’s the basics of it!

9. Keep an eye on your exposure

The ninth Golden Hour photography tip is to monitor your exposure.

As mentioned earlier, when photographing during Golden Hour, the light is very dynamic and changes every minute as the sun sets. Because of this, you’ll want to monitor your exposure settings closely as the light changes.

I like to do this by using my camera’s histogram, setting up highlight blinkies, and by looking at my in-camera exposure meter.

Graphic of histogram, blinkies, and an exposure meter.
Keep eye on exposure during Golden Hour

Looking at the histogram after a test shot will let me know if I’m capturing a broad dynamic range without clipping any highlights or crushing shadows.

Photo of an underexposed histogram.
Underexposed histogram

Highlight blinkies are a setting you can turn on in most cameras that will flash a black spot on your highlights to let you know if they are blown out. It's also called Highlight Alert:

Photo of highlight blinkies on a camera.
Highlight Blinkies - Black part is overblown highlights

Lastly, looking at the in-camera exposure meter will allow you to see in real time how exposed your image is.

Exposure meter on a camera.
Exposure meter on my camera

When I’m on a photo shoot, I usually only look at the histogram after a couple of test shoots for the whole session because I don’t want to look at the playback and then go to the histogram after each shot, especially if I’m in front of a client. The two I usually rely on to keep track of my exposure of the highlight blinkies and my in-camera exposure meter.

10. Enhance in post-processing

The tenth and final Golden Hour photography tip I use is to enhance in post-processing.

Post-processing plays a key role in helping you realize your vision in any kind of photos you take, such as during Golden Hour. In the beginning, I used to rely heavily on post-processing. Still, as I’ve become more experienced, I try to capture the exposure as best as possible in camera and then only make minor adjustments in post-processing.

I’ve found this leads to better, natural-looking images overall. So we can use post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom or Luminar Neo to adjust our exposure, contrast, saturation, and white balance to reflect the warmth in our scene accurately.

The biggest change I think we can make to enhance the Golden Hour look in our images is to simply slide our Temperature slider to make it a slightly bit warmer. This will make our Golden Hour look even more golden.

Two photos showing before and after adjusting temperature slider for a golden hour look.
Before and after temperature slider for Golden Hour photo

Just be careful not to go overboard. As mentioned before, other key post-processing adjustments include raising the shadows or reducing the highlights, depending on what you are exposed to.

Here's a before and after of an image where I exposed my subject instead of the sky, and I just brought down the highlights and whites in my image on the sky and water, and now it's perfectly exposed:

Two photos showing before and after adjusting highlights on a golden hour photo.
Before and after highlights adjustment on Golden Hour photo

Lastly, another key adjustment I make is to lower the orange a bit on the skin itself using masking tools.

Golden Hour is beautiful, but I’ve found that it can make the skin tones look very orange, so by just reducing that color a bit on the skin, I’ve found it makes a nice difference.

Two photos showing before and after adjusting orange color on a golden hour photo.
Before and after orange color adjustment on Golden Hour photo

And those are my ten tips for Golden Hour photography.


In conclusion, taking photos during Golden Hour will open up a world of warmth and depth that will make you even more appreciative of the beautiful art of photography.

As I’ve touched on, Golden Hour photography isn’t just about taking pictures during a certain time of day but about understanding and working with the light to create images that help us evoke emotion and tell our story.

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