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How to Shoot at the Golden Hour Time

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In this article, Jason Parnell-Brookes explains what golden hour is and gives you some top tips to take better golden shots.

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What is golden hour in photography?

What is golden hour? Well, gases in earth’s atmosphere scatter the white light that comes from our sun, and due to the wavelength of blue light, it scatters this most. This is called Rayleigh scattering. That’s why the sky appears blue. When the sun hangs low in the sky at sunrise and sunset the light has to travel through a thicker portion of the atmosphere and scatters the blue light so much that the longer wavelengths of light are more visible – these being reds, oranges and yellows, this is called the ‘golden hour’.

The term ‘golden hour’ is a bit of a misnomer because the length of time you see these warmer colors depends on weather, time of year and your position on the earth’s surface. Too much cloud cover and the light will be concealed from view, too little cloud and the golden tones will be less visible because there’s fewer surfaces to absorb and reflect the light. The best conditions for roaring colors are when there’s broken patches of cloud that allow some light to pass through but also absorb these warmer tones and so amplify the golden effect. If you’re positioned nearer the equator the arc of the sun is the sky is quite steep and as such the ‘golden hour’ is short lived. Contrast that with a position nearer the poles and you may not see sunrise or sunset at all, due to the longer arc. However, there’s opportunity to see incredibly long sunrises and sunsets at the right time of year. Take, for example, spring or autumn just inside the arctic circle, the sun makes it above the horizon, but not by much, resulting in several hours of golden light.

When does the golden hour start?

To determine when the golden hour starts we can turn to the internet and smart device apps. Websites such as act as calculators to provide sun, moon and even night sky information based on your desired location. If you’re in an area where internet connection isn’t possible, you can turn to apps such as PhotoPills or The Photographer’s Ephemeris which also give you offline visual displays of where golden light will start and end for both sunrise and sunsets at given locations. It even takes shadow size and length into account which is great for planning your composition to take good golden hour photography.

Check the weather

Plan your golden hour shoot in advance with weather forecasters such as the Met Office who detail multi-day forecasts. They’re more accurate up to three days before your event, but can be useful estimates for up to 10-14 days out from your shoot. Check for satellite data maps which give visual representation of the cloud cover as it moves across the map, this is especially important to look at the day before because heavy cloud cover means little to no golden light. That said, weather is incredibly hard to predict so sometimes it’s worth heading out just in case there’s a small break in the clouds.

Take good exposures on smartphones

The easiest way to get good shots on smartphones is to tap on the brightest area of your shot, this is usually the sky. Because the sky is much brighter the phone will automatically darken the scene allowing you to capture detail in the brightest sections. If you find the rest of the landscape is too dark, turn on High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode which takes multiple images in one go and composites them together to retain detail in darker areas and bright areas simultaneously.

Good golden hour selfies

The best way to take selfies during the golden hour is to work with the lighting. Take portraits side-on to the light or with the light in front of you, lighting your face. Taking selfies with the sunrise behind you is still possible, but because your face is in shade you’ll have to turn on HDR mode if your phone has it. Alternatively, you can use a reflector to bounce the light back onto your face, a simple piece of paper or even someone with a bright white shirt will be able to give you enough light to do this.

Take good exposures on DSLR and Mirrorless cameras

Set your camera to Aperture priority mode to have the camera automatically adjust shutter speed to balance exposure. As the sun rises (or sets) and becomes brighter (or darker) the camera will take consistent exposures of your scene without you having to lift a finger. A good feature to use in this mode is exposure compensation. Exposure compensation allows you to adjust the brightness of the shot by up to two or three stops of light. The user sets the desired aperture and then the camera adjusts the shutter speed to balance the exposure. If you find the image is still overexposed in the highlights just dial in some negative exposure compensation. Usually around -0.7 to -1.3 negative exposure compensation works well.

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Stabilize your camera

During periods of low light it’s sometimes essential to have a slow shutter speed if you want to keep ISO low to avoid noise. These long exposures mean shooting handheld will give blurry results because of camera shake. So a tripod is required to stabilize the camera and keep shots sharp. If you find yourself without a tripod, the ground or a wall is equally useable, albeit a little less flexible when it comes to composition.

Filter your scene

A graduated neutral density filter darkens one side of the frame and can be used to lower the brightness of the sky to get exposed definition in the foreground and sky at the same time. These filters also exist in editing software which can be done after-the-fact, but don’t work on clipped areas as there’s no detail left to recover.

White balance

Getting accurate colours is crucial for golden hour photography because it’s the warm golden tones that you’re trying to capture. A white balance preset of Flash or Sunny is ideal for consistently accurate colours. However, if you want a little more warmth in your photos then use a custom white balance of around 6000-6500K.

Author's Bio

Jason Parnell-Brookes is an internationally award-winning photographer. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014. He is also a Masters graduate, qualified teacher and writer.

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