If your outdoor photos have been looking a little flat and—let's be honest—boring, maybe you haven't heard of the magical time of day when it's nearly impossible to take a bad photo. Or perhaps you have heard of it, but you don't know when it is. Photographers in the know call it "Golden Hour"—the hour following sunrise and the hour before sunset. So, wait, that's actually TWO hours a day you can (and should!) be out there with your camera, shooting pictures in the day's most gorgeous light.
What's So Great About Golden Hour?
SHADOWPLAY— The sun is lower in the sky, which will throw you some interesting shadows—far more interesting than the harsh light of the midday sun. Shadows give you dimension and pizazz! A clear, bright day might sound like a great day to take your camera outside, but you'll find that your pictures don't pop when the light washes evenly over everything.
QUALITY OF LIGHT— The light just after sunrise and before sunset is softer, which will make your images softer, too (in a good way). The colors will be warmer, deeper, and richer, and you'll catch that soothing vibe in your photos. If you're shooting portraits, the soft light will be more flattering on your subject.
ANY WHICH WAY — The sun's light is directional as it's rising or setting, and you'll want to take full advantage. Move around (or move your subject around) to snap a picture that's backlit by the sun. Try lighting your subject from the side. Let the sunshine directly on your subject and see what you think. Grab a reflector to bounce the light around a bit, creating some nice, soft fill lighting. You have more options when the sun throws light in a particular direction, not beating down on top of your head. More choices = more creativity!
1. Don't Be Late!
You'll want to know when the sun rises or sets on the day you plan to go out shooting. That way, you can give yourself enough time to get out to your location. Download an app to your phone which will tell you the daily sunrise/sunset times, like Helios Magic Hour Calculator for iOS or Blue Hour for Android.
Show up early to get the lay of the land. Get a few ideas of what you'd like to shoot. Clean up a little if you see trash lying around. It might be nice to have the location all to yourself, so take the opportunity to beat the crowds at sunrise. If you want landscapes, there will be fewer people up and around that early, wandering into your shot.
2. Position Yourself for the Best Use of the Light
You'll find what you like best for your own images, but there are a few tried-and-true ways to use the sun's position to get you started. For portraits, move your subject so the sun's light hits them from the side. (You'll want to avoid front lighting, so the person isn't squinting.) Side lighting is also called split lighting because half of your subject will be lit while the other half is in shadow. The result is a more dramatic, dynamic image.
Put your subject between you and the sun for the mystical glow of backlighting. If parts of your subject are translucent, the light behind it can shine through for a more striking effect. Leaves and branches on a tree and feathery foliage stand out more with sunlight shining through them. If you want to create silhouettes in your frame, expose your shot correctly for the image's brighter part, that is, the sky. Shapes in the foreground will be underexposed, so they'll be darker. Silhouettes lend your landscapes a bit of mystery and drama, which is an opportunity you'll only have during Golden Hour!
Be sure to try the same shot from a few different angles to keep your creative juices flowing. Learning how to use light is the most valuable skill in photography, so get all the experience you can.
3. Choose the Right Camera Settings
For the best control over your backlit exposures, shoot in Manual Mode. If you let your camera make all the decisions in Automatic Mode, you might find that your subject comes out too dark, which is only cool if you're shooting for silhouettes.
Another practical setting on your camera is Aperture Priority—you change the aperture, and your camera adjusts shutter speed and ISO accordingly. If you're using Autofocus, go into the camera menu (or find the shortcut button on your camera) and select Spot Metering. That way, the camera will expose the focal point of your image correctly.
Remember that portraits with a single subject are often best when shot with a low aperture, like f/2.8 or lower. If you're shooting more than one person, use a narrower aperture to ensure all faces are in focus.
If you're shooting at sunset, bump up the ISO a bit as the light decreases so you can continue shooting in Aperture Priority.
4. Choose Your Shadows Carefully
When you're shooting a portrait, avoid unflattering shadows on your subject's face. Any light coming from above your subject will create dark shadows under and around the eyes, making them look a bit more like a raccoon than either of you will probably want.
When you're shooting the landscape or other unique features of the location, shadows can add depth, texture, and detail to your image. You'll see a lot of long shadows during Golden Hour due to the sun's lower position in the sky. Remember to be mindful of your own shadow when the sun is behind you… You might not want that in your image! Shadows can give you a cooler contrast to the warmer reds, oranges, and yellows of Golden Hour. Have fun with them!
5. Capture That Cool Starburst Effect
Give your photos an otherworldly spark with this optical trick. Here's how you do it: Shoot with a high aperture, something like f/16 or f/22, if possible. Change the shutter speed and ISO for a good exposure, but don't stop there—you'll ultimately want to underexpose the image by about two stops. You don't want too much light in your photo. A starburst is easier to create when the sun is smaller, so find something in the frame to hide it behind; if the sun is behind a cloud, there you go! Wait for it to peek out just a little. If not a cloud, move around to let the sun peek out behind another object in the foreground.
(Please remember not to look directly at the sun with your own eyeballs, though—not even through the camera's eyepiece. The lens will concentrate the light and make it even more harmful to your eye.)
6. Don't Let a Good Sunrise or Sunset Slip Away.
Hey! The most breathtaking feature of the day is happening while you're out there snapping your Golden Hour photos! Sunrise and sunset will gift you with the kind of images we call "picturesque" for a reason—you'll want to revisit these scenes of natural beauty in your pictures time and again. Getting up early in the morning has never been more WORTH IT.
Golden Hour is the not-so-secret secret to great photography for beginners and professionals alike. Remember to bring your tripod along to eliminate unwanted camera movement and get the sharpest possible image when you're shooting landscapes. Pack a few tools for light modification too, like a reflector and—surprise!—using a flash outdoors is totally okay, sometimes even recommended, depending on what you're looking to achieve. You may want to work with more than just natural light during Golden Hour. Get out there and mess around! The possibilities are endless. You'll get addicted to sunrises and sunsets once you discover the magic of the Golden Hour.