What is Golden Hour?
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
I was shooting at a local park in the evening recently, and met a grandmother taking some pictures with her granddaughter. The grandmother commented to me that it must be a good night for pictures, seeing a few other photographers around, and then asked, "Is this the golden hour I hear about?" So I told her a little bit about what golden hour is and why she's probably heard about it from photographers who love to shoot during that time.
I thought if she had that question, maybe others are wondering the same thing.
So, what is golden hour?
Golden hour is the time of day when the light is warm and soft. It isn't necessarily an hour long, it's just that period of time when the sunlight has a"golden" quality. Photographers most often find golden hour in the evening, right before sunset, but it can also show up in the mornings just after the sun rises. It's most noticeable if there aren't a lot of clouds in the sky.
Check out the soft, warm sunlight in this photo of my hanging plant. That's golden hour!
If I may interest you in a fun science fact: The light has this soft, warm quality as the sun is coming up and going down because during these times the sun's light is hitting the earth at a sharper angle. This makes the light pass through more of the atmosphere. It's kind of like crossing the street diagonally instead of walking straight across; you're taking a longer path and spending more time in the road.
The earth's atmosphere is full of gasses and particles, and these particles break up the sunlight and spread it around. The more particles the light has to pass through, the more it gets diffused. That's what gives it the gentle golden glow, as opposed to the brighter intensity of midday sunlight. This is also what causes colorful sunrises and sunsets, and why clouds look so cool when the sun is coming up or going down.
I bet you didn't realize photography and meteorology had so much in common.
Why do photographers love the golden hour so much?
The simple answer is that golden hour sunlight is pretty and easy to work with. The soft quality of the light falls evenly on subjects, which reduces intense shadows and highlights. It's warmer and more flattering than direct midday sunlight.
A while back I wrote a entire post about soft light and why it's best for portraits: Why Your Photographer Loves a Cloudy Day.
Golden hour is also great for getting that "halo" of light behind a subject. The sun's angle is low and the light is gentle enough to highlight the subject without overpowering them.
In fall especially, you can catch a dramatic orange glow as golden hour ends and the sun starts to set. This glowing orange light doesn't last long, but it is a great setting for portraits (or any kind of photography!) Some photographers refer to this short time alone as "golden hour" - when the golden effect of the light is most intense.
How do I know when to find the golden hour?
The sunlight starts to get its warmer, softer quality about two hours before sunset. An hour before sunset is even better, and then the best of golden hour shows up right before the sun goes down. Some evenings the light is better than others; it just depends on how clear or cloudy it is, the time of year, and atmospheric conditions.
Sometimes it's a bit of a guessing game trying to find the best evening light. It helps to know what time the sun is going to set (again, this is where meteorology and photography overlap) and work backwards to find the best time to go out and shoot. I like to start my portrait sessions about 1.5 to 2 hours before sunset to make sure we get enough time with the best available light.
Of course, it's possible to get good images at any time of day. But there's just something special about that late evening light, and I know I'm not the only photographer who prefers to shoot during this popular golden hour!