A lot of what makes a great photo is the lighting. Nothing quite sets the mood of a photograph more than how the light moves through a scene.
Natural light creates our view of the world, and we spend our lives immersed in it every minute of the day.
It makes sense that some of our best photographs will be taken with natural lighting, and natural light is at its best during the golden hour of photography.
What is Photography’s Golden Hour?
There are two golden hours during the day; one in the morning and one in the late afternoon, which are approximately one hour before sunrise, and one hour after sunset respectively.
It can be challenging to know the precise times off the top of your head, but as with most things these days, there’s an app for that.
One of the best apps for ensuring you are on-site for the golden hour is “The Photographer’s Ephemeris”.
The app is available on Android and iOS and has an augmented reality (AR) feature. This feature allows you to pinpoint the sun’s precise position for your location at any time of the day.
Why Photographers Prefer the Golden Hour?
The light from the sun during the golden hour is soft and warm, and more importantly, directional.
Photographers find it a lot easier to set up their shots during these hours of the day. That’s because they don’t have blinding bright light, harsh shadows, and squinty eyes with which to contend.
Photographers prefer soft, warm light because it doesn’t create harsh shadows, and it won’t stress your camera’s dynamic range.
You get to capture every detail and feature of your subject without dark shadows, or extreme high lights blowing out your image.
People love the warm orange glow of golden hour for the same reason people love a good sunset. It evokes feelings of peace, and that all is right with the world.
The directional light also allows for creative flexibility with front lighting, backlighting, or side lighting with no fancy equipment, except for maybe a reflector or fill flash.
Put all of the above together, and you have the perfect cocktail for a beautiful image.
Golden Hour Photo Tips
Golden hour gives you perfect lighting, but that’s not a guarantee that every shot you take during this magical hour is going to turn out as a masterpiece.
As with most photography sessions, preparation will be your key to making the most of your time.
Plan Your Shoot
Every minute of the golden hour should be productive. You will want to plan ahead and not waste precious daylight by preparing your set while the sun continues its drop below the horizon.
It might mean you’ll be setting up your camera and tripod in the dark if you are doing a morning shoot, but the results will be worth it.
Scout Your Location
Where you shoot is just as important as when you shoot when you want to make the most of the golden hour.
Depending on where you live and what hemisphere you reside in, it may be better for you to work during the morning.
Although in some locations, an early evening shoot will give you the best light. Experiment at different times of the day in an area to see what works best.
Most micro four-thirds camera auto settings will adjust for white balance. This auto setting means you’ll lose those warm golden tones for which you waited all day or crawled out of bed at an ungodly hour.
Golden hour creates marvelous warm hues, but there is less light at this time of day. Due to this low light, you will want to adjust your shutter speed to ensure you make use of every available photon.
If you’re taking portraits, you will need to use a wide aperture to take advantage of how the light gives skin a soft golden glow.
Create a shallower depth of field by opening the aperture to around f/2.8 for that lovely bokeh effect that highlights your subject. That’s a good reason to invest in the Pro lenses in the Olympus line, as well as the Panasonic line.
Camera settings will vary depending on several factors. For instance, how much golden hour you have left, where you are shooting, cloud cover, and the surrounding environment (trees, buildings, etc.).
Start by setting your aperture for the depth of field you want, then work with shutter speed to reduce blur or camera shake. Once that is all set, adjust your ISO to minimize noise while getting enough exposure.
You will need to check these settings as you go because the level of light changes significantly through the hour as the sun dips below the horizon.
Playing with Lighting
There’s nothing like the golden hour to give you a ton of choices for making creative use of lighting. You have side lighting, backlighting, rim lighting, lens flare, and silhouettes to play with and get creative.
Rim Lighting and Back Lighting
Golden hour is the best time to create backlit photographs for a subtle halo effect on your subject as well as other objects in the scene.
If you are creating portraits, your subjects will appreciate the soft, almost magical glow surrounding them like an aura of angelic light.
As the name suggests, this technique has most of the light falling onto one side of the subject and is excellent for highlighting textures and depth without creating harsh shadows.
Flares are created by light directly hitting your lens and is usually avoided by photographers because they can wash out the rest of the image.
However, during the golden hour, when you get the angle just right, you can capture a flare which features all the beautiful hues of the rainbow.
Silhouettes create a striking contrast between the subject and the last vestiges of warm, golden light as the sun finally dips below the horizon.
You will need to set your exposure appropriately for the background and the brightest sections of the image, so your colors don’t get washed out.
Golden Hour Architectural Images
Side lighting can be used to good effect for architectural images of buildings with intricately carved exteriors. The soft shadows perfectly highlight the detail of the work and add depth to the structures.
If you’re in a cityscape, the side lighting will also be responsible for beautiful reflections in tall glass buildings, with a little lens flare thrown in for good measure.
The micro four-thirds cameras and lenses are more than capable of capturing stunning golden hour photography.
There is a perfect lightweight system for all budgets and you’ll be impressed with the results that you can garner for a fraction of the cost of their bigger cousins.
Start with an Olympus budget OM-D or the equivalent Panasonic coupled with either the M.Zuiko 17mm f1.8 or the Panasonic Leica 15mm f1.7.
You’ll not only be pleased by the cost performance but especially by the stellar quality of the images produced.