The “Golden Hour” is a term in photography that refers to the first and last hours of sunlight in a day. Basically it means, shooting at sunrise and sunset. The reason people love shooting at this time is beyond the ubiquitous gorgeous sunset, although it’s quite the bonus, but due more so to the lighting it creates. The light becomes softer and less harsh and takes on a warmer hue that is very complimentary to things like skin tone, or any red and orange colors you want to pop (think bricks on a wall). The light is softer and coming in as a direct source as opposed to being harsh and directly overhead; this lessens the contrast and allows your shadows and highlighted areas to be more balanced (not to dark, not too light, kind of like the baby bear’s porridge).
I often find myself shooting around this ‘golden hour’ simply due to work. My full time job, as it is with most, is not a full time photographer and so when I can shoot is limited. Luckily I finish at a reasonable hour and if the sky is a glow I have time to grab a camera and head out. I rarely shoot in the morning’s golden hour but I find that the colors of dawn are a lot paler and subdued than that of a sunset. I have a “Sunset Series” which I periodically update here, and I want to share some of my favorite photos. Hopefully they can illuminate (har har) on how different lighting can affect your photography.
*see more Sunset photos here & (note click the pictures to see them at full resolution)
Here is a wonderful shot of the sun setting behind Mt. Fuji over Tokyo, Japan. Its just at the tail end of the golden hour and almost to the blue hour (the hour after/before the golden hour respectively) and you can see the wonderful gradient of color sprawled across the sky. Let’s wind the clock back though and you can see how the light changes.
Here’s a shot of the Tokyo Tower and the surrounding city-scape taken maybe 30-40 minutes earlier. When you’re getting direct sunlight everything is going to look warmer and obviously brighter. You can see that the sky is about the same but the buildings are practically orange. (note: they’re not normally orange).
Lastly here’s a shot I took outside of the golden hour. I know the background almost looks photoshopped, but it was behind glass and I focused on the subject. The point is though the buildings, they’re white and the sky has only the faintest hint of orange. These three shots span the entirety of the “Golden Hour” just to give you the dynamic array of light that you can get. So even if you go with a shot in mind, or think you already captured what you needed. I recommend staying and shooting again in 20 mins, because they light will be completely different.
This is a shot I captured one morning when I was up at dawn for some reason I cannot remember (probably because I was up at dawn). The sun had been up for quite some time at this point, probably nearing the end of dawn’s golden hour, but nevertheless you can see the same affect with the color and lighting. I really like the way the mountains look layered in the background and the early light is just hitting the top of the city, illuminating only the roofs. It’s a beautiful time to shoot and such brilliant light can transform what would otherwise be a mediocre shot or a mediocre camera into something to be proud of. Even with my iPhone camera I was able to capture the array of colors of the light in these.
So far almost all of the golden hour shots I have featured have been silhouettes, and for a reason too! It is a great time to do shoot them! (also I just happen to love shooting silhouettes) However, you can also use the light to both softly and delicately illuminate your subjects. You can compare and contrast these two images of cherry blossoms to see the difference between using the golden hour to silhouette your subject versus illuminating it. I find both images to be very attractive in their own way, so it just depends on what you want to emphasize in your shoot.
In these portraits you can see how I used the natural light to pull out red highlights in her hair, and warm light helped to give both a healthy skin tone and a flash of color to white muffler.
Here are some other examples of shooting subjects bathed in warm sunset light. Just notice the difference in can make in even common place objects like a door or brick. Both have a naturally warm hue to them but the light just causes that color to pop.