Firstly, let’s take a quick look at what golden hour photography actually is? The full explanation is quite scientific but we’ll go over a more general description which is to do with the rising and setting of the sun. At these two points in the sun’s rotation, there’s an effect called Rayleigh scattering which means that the shorter light wavelengths are removed (the green and blue components). What’s left are the longer red and orange wavelengths that are then scattered by large particles such as cloud droplets and other similar particles – this is another phenomenon referred to Mie scattering. What this all boils down to is that at these two points in the day we get glorious golden hours where the sunlight casts long shadows and the colours reflected off the sky and clouds are wonderful oranges and reds.
So, now we know the science behind it (sort of!), how do we go about capturing it on film? In this article we’ll take a look at some helpful tips to get the most out of the beautiful glow of golden hour photography.
1 – Preparation
Just like with a lot of shots, you’ll want to prepare to get the most out of it. This may mean an early rise if you’re looking to get something from the morning golden hour as it’s often not really an hour and can in fact be half that. With that in mind, preparation is key to ensuring you don’t miss the brief window. Checking the weather forecast will also help inform your shoot, whether you want cloud cover or clear skies the day on which you shoot will be key.
2 – Shoot Manual
This is a great opportunity to practise shooting in manual mode because the light is very forgiving. If you’re photographing the light cast over a landscape or on a person, it should be evenly lit or maybe with striking shadows cast across which again is great to play around with and practise capturing.
3 – Light Halo
This effect of an apparent halo around people in portraits is easily achievable during the golden hours. By getting the subject to block the sun’s light or catch it from a certain angle you’ll see a ‘halo’ or light outline around the subject. Below is a great example of how this effect can be achieved:
This photograph wasn’t taken during golden hour but it does illustrate the point nicely where we can see the ‘halo’ effect in action. It’s useful to explore certain angles when trying to achieve this effect; you need the light rays to catch the subject matter and illuminate it from behind essentially.
4 – Landscape Shots
This is where the golden hour really shines in my opinion. Capturing a landscape really adds a sense of beauty and scale when caught during golden hours. This is usually thanks to the long contrasting shadows that highlight the natural formations that appear in the frame. It’s also a good opportunity to capture long shutter speed photos of water or clouds that have caught the orange and red hues. With the low light and a longer shutter speed you can get smooth painterly colours appearing across the photo.
This photo is a good example of the soft and smooth orange hues during golden hour. Just the light alone is enough to make this image have some interest and appeal.
5 – Exposure
Golden hour is a great time to experiment with exposure as you can shoot directly into the sun (not always advisable) while still retaining detail and illumination of the subject matter in the foreground thanks to the even coverage. So in this regard, it’s an evenly lit shot as the light isn’t too harsh to achieve this. This also means that you can feature the sun as subject matter without it completely washing out the rest of the frame because, at these times of day during the sun’s lowest points in the sky, there’s enough atmosphere blocking the sun’s full power.
6 – Editing
This is where you may decide that the shadows weren’t dramatic enough and need to be darkened or that the hues were more purple. This is why shooting RAW files is always recommended in digital photography as it retains a great deal of information that can then be modified later in the digital darkroom. You’re also free to explore what elements of the image can be warped and taken to either end of the spectrum – you may find that a certain effect or filter actually adds something to the final picture.
7 – Experiment
Just like playing around with exposures you can also try a bit of lens flare, for instance, if you like this effect. Not only that but shadows can also add a sense of drama and scale to your landscape for instance. For this reason as well, golden hour photography can also be quite magical in black and white too, precisely because of the extended shadows. A lot of street photography and urban scenes really benefit from the low-lying sun because of the amazing shadows it can cast. You can capture interesting shapes and silhouettes of people and other objects when the only thing you can see is their outline.
Hopefully this list will have given you some insight and inspiration into golden hour photography. As always the best way to get better is to take photos, see what works, what doesn’t and from there you’ll start seeing fantastic results!
Andrew Farron works for Fable Studios, a Creative-led boutique video and animation studio that creates tailored brand stories that endure in your audience’s mind. Fable combines your objectives with audience insights and inspired ideas to create unforgettable productions that tell the unique story of your brand.