The single biggest leap forward you can make with your landscape photography is to start shooting during golden hour. Goodbye harsh contrasty shadows, hello keepers in your blossoming portfolio!
What is Golden Hour in Landscape Photography?
The Golden Hour or as it’s sometimes called; ‘magic hour’, is the time slightly before and after sunrise and sunset, so really it should be called ‘golden hours’. It is when the sun is lower on the horizon causing softer light, which also brings more colourful sky colour with softer tones and shadows.
The duration of the soft light with more colourful skies varies depending on the time of year and the location you are photographing. In winter the globe gets longer golden hour light in the Northern and Southern hemispheres due to the angle of the sunlight hitting the planet. In summer it will tend to be shorter before the sun rises too high and the light becomes harsh once again. Golden hour can last the entire day if shooting in the arctic circle in winter, but your day may only be two or three hours long!
Why is the Light Better and What Makes the Colours During Golden Hour?
From a technical perspective, we see the reds, oranges and purples because red wavelengths are longer in the colour spectrum so are able to break through more than the shorter bluer wavelengths. Dust and pollution play a part too, with brighter colours showing when there are more particles in the atmosphere, this includes the particles in clouds.
Later in the day, the sun is higher in the sky causing more blue light to hit the planet, the angle of light also makes for darker contrasty shadows, which turn what appeared to be a beautiful scene into a blotchy blackened mess when you look at it later. If you are having to squint at your camera, it’s probably not the right time of day!
Can I Only Shoot Landscapes During Golden Hour?
Of course not, every rule has exceptions and here are some:
If it’s cloudy the light will be dispersed and diffused though the sun is in a soft-box. You can get nice soft tones in this light, but the brighter colours will be missing.
Sunshine won’t always be able to get through a canopy such as in a forest, so the light can be dappled and diffused by leaves. Even in forests you will find midday light is harsher though, so look at the light carefully.
Valleys and gorges
If the sun hasn’t penetrated the gorge you are shooting in, you can still get great light without too much contrast.
Foggy and misty days
As with clouds, you can get excellent images during fog and mist at various times of day. The light from the sun is diffused by the moisture in the atmosphere, though again the brighter colours will be missing.
Dramatic stormy days
If there are big clouds and storms awry, the light can be amazing and contrast may benefit your image. Don’t hold back!
Location scouting and composition practice
If you are looking for great locations and new compositions, photographing during the day can be the best time as you won’t miss the best light. Be outside anytime of day in order to get the right comp for when you return during golden hour.
What Should I Consider When Photographing During Golden Hour
If you are shooting during sunrise or sunset for the first few times, here are some tips to get started:
- Bring a tripod. It will be darker than during the day so exposures will be longer so you generally won’t be able to handhold your camera.
- Bring your polarizer. Polarisers can enhance colours and reduce glare even during golden hour. Use of a polariser will depend on your relative position to the sun as well as where you are shooting if there is a lot of moisture. Use the same practice you would at any time of day; see if it works, if it doesn’t take it off!
- Get to your location early. The light will often be fading fast, get there early to avoid missing the best light.
- Don’t always rush off after the pinks and reds. Many times I see photographers leave just before or after the brightest colours in the sky. Sometimes the magic is slightly after that time.
- Be aware of dangers. With dusk come new issues. It can be dark when you arrive or leave, bring a flashlight. There can be different animals and critters around. If you are at the coast, be aware of tides as the ocean can be especially lethal in the dark.
I’m the first to admit that getting out of bed when the rest of the world sleeps can be tough, but it is definitely when the magic can happen if mother nature plays along. So to summarise, golden hour rocks, be there or not, but your images will dramatically improve once you do. And always have fun!