When you think of golden hour, you probably think of that gorgeous, soft, warm lighting at sunset.
That kind of light is ideal for all sorts of photography subjects, from landscapes to cityscapes to portraits, and everything in between.
If I had to guess, I’d say that most often, golden hour lighting is used to create silhouettes like the one seen above.
And though there’s nothing wrong with doing that, it isn’t the only option at your disposal when golden hour is concerned.
A Quick Review
Just so we’re all on the same page, golden hour refers to the period of about an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset during which the sun is very low in the sky.
That positioning means the sun’s rays have to travel through more of the earth’s atmosphere, making the sunlight very soft and very warm.
Those characteristics are great because the lack of shadows makes golden hour an ideal time for perfect portraits because the lighting is so diffuse. It’s also an ideal time for landscapes because the warmth of the light gives the scene a gorgeous glow, as you can see in the image above.
What’s more, the dynamic range at golden hour is much narrower. That is, there aren’t a lot of very dark or very bright light values, so your camera is more able to handle the range of light values to get you a great-looking shot, at least from an exposure point of view.
Let’s look more closely at five ways you can use golden hour lighting to your creative advantage.
As I noted earlier, silhouettes seem to be the most popular application of golden hour light, at least where portraiture is concerned.
Silhouettes can vary quite a bit, from a subject that’s completely darkened with no detail to one that’s barely darkened with much detail that’s still visible.
The common thread, however, is that all silhouettes benefit from a brighter background, as you can see in the image above.
That’s why silhouettes are so easy to make during golden hour because the sun is low in the sky, making it easier for you to place your subject directly in front of its bright light.
Like a silhouette, backlighting involves having the rising or setting sun behind the subject.
However, rather than casting the subject as a silhouette, you use backlighting to create an image that’s well-exposed for the subject’s, with a dreamy, bright background that has almost a hazy look to it.
As you can see in the image above, the boy and his puppy have plenty of detail such that you can easily make out their faces. Yet the background has that characteristic bright, golden, hazy look that’s so pleasing at sunrise, or in this case, sunset.
Another option is to reverse your positioning, put the sun at your back, and use golden hour lighting to frontlight the subject.
Because golden hour lighting is so soft, this often results in very pleasing portraits because the subject doesn’t have to squint, even though they’re looking toward the rising or setting sun.
What’s more, frontlighting minimizes shadows, so there’s a nice, even, and warm light illuminating the subject.
This gorgeously even lighting is great for landscapes too.
As you can see in the image above, putting the sun behind the shooter allowed the photographer to capture the warm glow of the sun falling across the landscape.
What’s more, a key consideration to make when photographing at sunrise or sunset is to turn around.
Instead of always shooting toward the sun, look behind you to see what details and colors are revealed in a frontlit situation.
Adding Sun Flare
In many situations, you take measures to minimize or eliminate sun flare. That might be by using a lens hood or something as simple as holding your hand outward to block the sun from directly entering your lens.
However, during golden hour, sun flare can add an interesting creative element to portraits, landscapes, and other popular subject matter.
As you can see in the image above, the subtle sun flare adds a bit of depth to the shot. This was achieved by strategically positioning the camera such that the portrait subjects partially blocked the direct sun from entering the lens.
Similar to backlighting, rim lighting is used when the sun is behind the subject, and it’s rays are used to create a halo effect around the subject.
To really enhance this effect, it’s best to place your subject in front of a darker background. That will help the light pop as it creates that halo effect you’re looking for.
In the image above, you can see how the light from the sun in the background illuminates the woman’s hair.
Notice how the dark greens in the background help enhance this effect, just like I noted earlier.
Also of note is that to achieve this effect, move your positioning to capitalize on the lighting. That is, don’t assume that the first position from which you shoot will produce the best rim lighting results.
Instead, move up, down, left, and right to find the best rim lighting.
Getting the Best Golden Hour Shots
No matter which type of golden hour photo you take, there are a few steps that will enhance the results you get:
- Give yourself plenty of time . Factor in time to get to the shoot location as well as time to get your gear setup. You want to be ready to go with time to spare before golden hour begins.
- Check the weather . If there will be significant cloud cover, you won’t be able to get the same kind of results as discussed in this article.
- Use the shade or cloudy white balance setting . Both settings add a little bit of warmth to the image and will enhance the warm tones of the sunrise or sunset.
- Don’t stop shooting . Golden hour light changes from one moment to the next. Just because you think you’ve capitalized on the best light doesn’t mean better light isn’t a couple of minutes away.
- Underexpose your images . It’s much easier to brighten your images in post-processing than to darken them. If anything, slightly underexpose and work on bringing back that detail in post.