- What Is Golden Hour Photography?
- Camera Settings for Golden Hour Photography
- Golden Hour Photography Landscapes
- Golden Hour Photography Portraits
- Displaying Golden Hour Photography
- Final Encouragement
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Photo by Bogdan Pigulyak via iStock
Golden hour photography is one of my favorite photography styles. It works wonderfully for portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, and for various types of commercial photography, too.
Let’s take a look at what makes golden hour photography so special, how you can harness that light quality for better photos, and how to display it in such a way that highlights the beauty of this photographic style.
Here we go!
Table of Contents:
What Is Golden Hour Photography?
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Golden Hour photography refers more to the quality of light than the time period itself. Still, both ideas are linked together since the quality of light occurs within a general timeframe.
The time of day for golden hour photography can vary quite a bit based on your location, the season, the weather, and other small variables.
In a nutshell, golden hour is the time of day in which the sun is above the horizon but relatively close to it. The color of the sunlight changes to warmer because it’s passing through more atmosphere than at other times when the sun is higher in the sky.
While many people tend to think of golden hour photography as occurring in the late afternoon, going towards evening time, it actually happens twice a day, near both sunrise and sunset. The warmth of light increases the closer the sun is to the horizon.
Photo by Fani Kurti via iStock
So, for the afternoon into evening, the light quality goes from Golden Hour to sunset, to Blue Hour, to the dark of night. The order is reversed for mornings: night to Blue Hour to sunrise to Golden Hour. The light quality is cooler when the sun is below the horizon and warmer when it is above it.
As the sun continues to rise in the morning, the color quality or color temperature cools back down to end up being what is considered daylight color balance. For the afternoon golden hour photographers, the light will get warmer and warmer until it becomes a full-on sunset. Whether morning or afternoon, the light color changes more rapidly the closer the sun is to the horizon.
Camera Settings for Golden Hour Photography
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It’s not just the color temperature that changes during golden hour photography; light intensity is also variable. The closer the sun is to the horizon, the more rapidly the light intensity changes, just as with the color warmth. This means your camera settings for exposure will be variable as well.
Keeping a constant lens aperture that works for your photographic ideas is beneficial during golden hour photography.
The “sweet spot” aperture or f-stop is ideal for this type of photography since you’re likely looking for an artful photo style and want the best optical quality. Another idea is to keep the aperture constant based on the depth of field you want and how much is in or out of sharp focus.
Photo by FabrikaCr via iStock
Either way, you’re taking your camera off fully automatic (the Green Dot or “P” on the mode dial) and setting some things yourself. You can still have auto-exposure calculations, but the f-stop stays where you put it.
However, I find that many golden hour photography opportunities are best approached by not relying totally on the camera’s exposure automation. This is because the situations you find for exposing your intended subject during this time may not fit into the pre-programmed matrix of exposure settings.
Most cameras have multiple options for handling some of the exposure calculation variables involved in golden hour photography. One method is keeping the camera in auto mode and adjusting the exposure compensation settings. If the subject is more or less backlit to some degree, you can add more to the plus “+” side of exposure compensation.
Photo by Chalabala via iStock
Another method available on some cameras is the exposure hold feature. Zoom in what you want properly exposed (or zoom with your feet), press the hold button to lock in that setting, and then recompose.
Your camera may have a spot metering mode that lets you take readings on one small part of the scene. Or, this time of day is a great opportunity to use a handheld exposure meter for either reflected or incident readings. Take some time to learn to use a handheld meter, and you’ll quickly be impressed by how well it works for your photo ideas.
You’ll want your ISO to be in the moderate area, not so slow that your shutter speeds are measured in full seconds as opposed to fractions, but also not so high that you’re introducing grain-like noise into the image. Unless, of course, either of those are your intent, which can also result in great images.
Photo by Jonathan Marsh via iStock
I find that autofocus (AF) systems are sometimes fooled by the lighting conditions of golden hour photography, so you’ll sometimes want to focus manually. It’s not just the light color and intensity that changes; the light is also more diffuse when traveling through more atmosphere.
All of this means that you’ll probably get better golden hour photography images when you take more control of camera settings.
However, modern camera automation is capable of handling many things, so don’t be put off from trying golden hour photography because manual controls give you the willies. Just shoot during this lovely time of day with whatever you have, and then look at the results with an eye toward how taking more control can result in even better images.
By the way, auto, semi-auto, or full manual exposure and focus control will all benefit from using a tripod. Shutter speeds can get on the long side, and tripod use also makes you a little more deliberate in approaching artful photography. Don’t waste time, though; that light is still changing!
Golden Hour Photography Landscapes
Photo by Matt_Gibson via iStock
Fall season is a beautiful time of year for golden hour photography, with the leaves and other plants changing their own colors as well, but this time and style for photography works wonderfully in every season.
I include cityscapes and architectural photography in my thoughts of golden hour landscape photography. Take full advantage of the light color and quality by looking for subjects that can be accentuated by golden hour photography.
Try some black and white (B&W) golden hour photography, too! The color temps and the diffused lighting can alter how certain colors contrast or complement each other in B&W images. The differences can be subtle, but sometimes, that’s all you need to go from a really nice landscape to an outstanding image.
Golden Hour Photography Portraits
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Golden hour photography for portraits often results in amazingly beautiful images that you and your friends will absolutely love. If you want to get into portrait photography for profit, going pro, you’ll want to have the experience in capturing portraits during this time of day.
The warmth of the light flatters skin tones from light to dark, and the diffused nature of the light is conducive to softer-looking portraits that make people feel romance, nostalgia, or timelessness.
I find that using a reflector is very useful for golden hour portrait photography. To avoid the subject squinting into the sun, turn them away from the direct sun in their face and use a reflector to give even softer light to their face. You can do this with the sun to one side or the other or with it backlighting your subject.
Watch this informative YouTube video from Tatyana Zadorin covering making backlit golden hour portraits:
Most of what I said about landscape exposure settings will apply equally to this genre of photography. However, you may want to move a bit faster to ensure that you capture what you intend during the limited time available for your session.
Displaying Golden Hour Photography
Displaying your golden hour photography images is the next step in the joy of this style of photography. Since golden hour photography is all about the art of light and exposure, displaying it as art is a logical thing to do.
The best way to display art prints like this is metal prints. Metal prints help highlight all that is beautiful and special about golden hour photography. The flat aluminum panel substrate brings out the photography in an outstanding way.
Shiny Prints makes the best metal prints because they are their specialty. They use ChromaLuxe panels, the industry standard for professional photographers and artists, and make them with the dye sublimation process.
The colors, sharpness, and durability of metal prints are unsurpassed. Shiny Prints metal prints are rated for up to 65 years of archival permanence. The different metal finishes help bring out everything special about golden hour photography.
Photo by Chalabala via iStock
Golden hour photography is one of my favorite methods of creating special images. You can do it with any type of camera, from smartphones to the most sophisticated mirrorless cameras, and you can capture great images easily in automatic modes or go full out with the creative approach and manual control.
Any way you approach it, golden hour photography is a fantastic method to use for creating outstanding images. Try it out for yourself!
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