Finding the Light, Part 3: Shooting the Golden Hour

One of the most important factors in a good photo is lighting. You can have the perfect settings, great exposure, and even knockout composition, but if you don’t have good lighting, your image will fall flat. In this new series, Finding the Light, we are going to be talking about how to find and work with all types of lighting. Our goal is to help you understand how to work with all kinds of light, and how to use the light you have to create powerful, standout images. This is Part 3 of this series, and today we are talking about the golden hour. If you’re just joining us, you can follow along in our series here:

Part 1: Finding the Light
Part 2: Using Shadows for Dramatic Portraits
Part 3: Shooting the Golden Hour
Part 4: How to Shoot in Harsh Light
Part 5: 3 Ways to Use Window Light
Part 6: Creative Light Sources

Magic
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We’ve all seen those photos that seem to have a glowing, magical feel to them. There is just something about them that can’t quite be replicated with editing, presets, actions, or overlays. Have you struggled to put your finger on what that “magic” is? What if I told you that very same magic is available to you every day? And the best news is that it’s totally free…

It’s the “Golden Hour.”

If you’re ready for a little magic to set your photos apart, it’s time to learn about shooting the golden hour.

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What is the Golden Hour?

Simply put, the golden hour is the first hour of light after sunrise, and the last hour of light before sunset. At these times, the sun is low in the sky, giving beautiful soft, golden light – the kind of light that is perfect for photos. The stark shadows of the afternoon sun are gone, and the harsh rays from overhead have stooped into an even blanket of light. The light is soft, warm, and has great dimension and versatility. Whether you’re shooting portraits, landscapes or still life, this is one of the most sought after times to shoot.

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How Do You Shoot in the Golden Hour?

Shooting during this warm, golden light is a photographer’s dream. Unlike mid-day, when the sun is overhead casting bright highlights and harsh shadows, the light of the golden hour is soft and even. It is very flattering for portraits. Because of the beautiful light, this is my absolute favorite time of day to shoot. But the golden hour isn’t without it’s nuances. The light changes dramatically over the course of the golden hour, giving you a lot of versatility in a short amount of time. By becoming familiar with the many ways to use this changing light, you can get stunning photos. These are a few of my favorite ways to use golden hour light.

Backlighting

In backlighting, you place your subjects between yourself and the sun. Depending on the strength of the sun, you may want to consider filtering the sunlight through trees or nearby structures to keep the light from flooding your lens. Get creative and play with how shooting at different angles in relation to the sun affects the final image.

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Rim Light

Keeping the sun behind your subject creates a rim light, where your subject is surrounded by a rim of light from behind. This adds dimension to your photo by making your subject pop off the background of your image. You can see the rim lighting around the subjects in the image above.

Haze

By letting a little more of that sunlight hit your lens, you can get a nice haze effect. Haze is one of those things in photography that is all about personal preference. Too much, and you run the risk of losing your subjects completely, but many people love the soft, romantic feel a bit of haze can add to portraits.

HAZE
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Sun Flare

Because the light from the sun is softer during the golden hour, it is an ideal time to capture sun flares without completely blowing your highlights or underexposing your shadows. Intentional placement of your subjects in relation to the sun can help the flare to compliment the image and not simply dominate it.

FLARE
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Front & Side Light

Golden hour light is so soft, that you can turn your subject in almost any direction, even right towards the sun, called front lighting. The warm light from this time of day is very flattering for portraits, and because the light is so soft, your subject won’t have to squint against bright light. Golden hour light can also be beautiful as side lighting, sweeping in from the edge of the frame as in the image below.

SIDELIGHT
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Silhouettes

The golden hour is the perfect time to capture some gorgeous silhouette shots. Silhouettes are just a dramatic form of backlighting. By placing your subjects between yourself and the sun, you can expose for the sky and create an awesome image!

SILHOUETTE
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Bokeh

The golden hour isn’t just for portraits! That golden light makes everything magical. Just look at how watering my flowers became a piece of art during the golden hour.

BOKEH
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Other Tips

When I shoot during the golden hour I most frequently spot meter for my subject’s face. By exposing for their skin, I am better able to achieve natural skin tones, which can be tricky when shooting with warm light (and especially backlighting).

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Also remember that the golden hour will change based on the time of year and your location. There are many websites and apps that can help you determine when the golden hour will be at your location on any given day. Plan ahead to ensure you are ready for photos during this hour, and be prepared for the light to change consistently during that time.

The golden hour is, hands down, my favorite time of day to shoot. So much so that I almost exclusively shoot clients during this time. I love the versatility it offers me as an artist. Have you tried any of these ways of using golden hour light? Let us know in the comments!

Have you loved these tips? Don’t forget to read along in the rest of our series here:

Part 1: Finding the Light
Part 2: Using Shadows for Dramatic Portraits
Part 3: Shooting the Golden Hour
Part 4: How to Shoot in Harsh Light
Part 5: 3 Ways to Use Window Light
Part 6: Creative Light Sources

And stay tuned for upcoming additions to this series on Finding the Light!