How to make the most of the golden hour?

21 Jul 2020 by Monica Linzmeier

Photo by Monica Linzmeier

You may have heard it called golden hour, or maybe you’ve heard it called magic hour. Or maybe you’ve never heard the term before but you’ve noticed the time of day when just about all of your photos turn out great. 

What is it and when is it? 

So what exactly do we mean when we say golden hour or magic hour? Approximately 45 minutes before the sunset or after sunrise, the natural light from the sun’s rays is diffused gently and evenly, illuminating landscapes and setting up the perfect lighting for portraits or other artistic shots.

For the ideal time for outdoor real estate photography, the hour following sunset (also known as twilight) works best. To learn more about shooting real estate at twilight, be sure to check out this guide! 

In order to get the hour exactly right, you’ll have to look up sunset times near you and head out to your preferred location. For some ideas of places to get creative: Do you have a grassy field, a garden of flowers, cityscape, or (my personal favorite) a body of water nearby? It’s great to get the colors of the sky reflected in the windows of buildings or off the water.

Photo by Monica Linzmeier

How to make the most of golden hour

Capture beautifully lit scenes 

When it comes to capturing a beautiful cityscape, the hour before the sun sets can create some really beautiful reflection and shadows. Check out this photo by Lital Levy on Unsplash of San Diego, California. They captured the sun reflecting off of the buildings and the sunset changing the mood of the city. 

Photo by Lital Levy, Unsplash

Making the most of the lighting to perfecting portraits 

Shooting portraits during golden hour is just a joy. When you have that magic lighting, a gorgeous background, and a happy subject, it’s hard to go wrong. Facing the light or backlit, there’s a lot of wriggle room here.

As for regular portraits I, like many photographers, prefer a shallow depth of field and a fixed lens (50mm ideally), but of course, you can always experiment with whatever lens you have.  

Soft outdoor portrait lighting

Photo by Francisco Delgado, Unsplash

One of the principal advantages of the magic hour is that the sun is softly diffused, and there are no harsh shadows. This makes for ideal portraits that have a naturally warmer tone. Not to mention, your subjects can look towards the light without squinting. Look at the above photo by Francisco Delgado. His subject is lit up beautifully, with no dark shadows on the subject’s face. 

Be sure to keep an eye on your color grading though, sometimes when shooting in automatic your camera may overcompensate and your photos will have a blue tone. 

Backlighting your portraits with the setting sun

Photo by Monica Linzmeier

Another trick to try out during golden hour is backlighting your subject. You can see in the photo above (of my favorite subject - my little sister) how the setting sun lights up her hair and shoulders, giving her a soft glow. By exposing the photo to her face, the background becomes lighter. This is a fun technique to practice and test out, and your model will be happy to not be looking into the sun.  

For this photo there’s a slight bokeh effect, which you can achieve with a low aperture. (This photo was shot at f1.6 with a 50 mm fixed lens and has not been edited.) To learn more about how to use aperture effectively and get started shooting in manual mode, check out this article! 

Using the light to create dramatic silhouettes

Photo by Monica Linzmeier

When the setting sun brings out those vivid colors, that’s the time to start playing with silhouettes! 

In order to get a good silhouette photo, you want to be exposing your camera for the background. The foreground will then become underexposed and will give you that solid black line you’re looking for. As you can see in the photo above, I didn’t completely cover the sun, which created a small, barely noticeable sun flare. If I had wanted a clean straight black line, I would’ve tucked the sun away behind the hand on the left. 

Playing with shadows

In the hour leading up to sunset, shadows become long and dramatic and you can use this to benefit! Check out this photo by Mika Korhonen, taken at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The crowd on the lawn typically wouldn’t be that exceptional, but the long shadows cast by the low sun angle creates a beautiful scene of visitors enjoying the view. 

Photo by Mika Korhonen, Unsplash

What camera and equipment to use

As you probably guessed, each of the different types of photos we outlined above is going to use specific settings, but you don’t need the fanciest camera to try them out. You can get great results from an entry-level camera, as long as you take the time to practice and experiment! It’s all about getting out there and just trying it out! 

And if you’re just starting out in photography and looking into which kind of camera to buy to start out, we’ve outlined some of our favorites here


Golden Hour

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