Last Updated: April 3, 2014
Shooting in the golden hour can have a transformational effect on your landscape photography. The light is fantastic, with warm golden tones giving your images a welcome touch of magic. In fact, the golden hour is often referred to as the magic hour, and with good reason.
In this article we’re going to look at a few tips to help you make the most of this golden light, and ensure that you come away with the images you want.
Firstly, what does the golden hour actually mean? It generally refers to the first hour of light after sunrise, or the last hour of light before sunset. These are the best times of day to get the most interesting light. This wonderful light can of course be utilised for all types of photography, portraits, street photography, but particularly landscapes.
On occasion I’ve shot at a new location during the day, then gone back to the same location at sunset for another shoot, on reviewing the images it was clear that other than scouting out the best spots, the daytime shoot was a complete waste of time in comparison.
Preparation is paramount
Sometimes you might get lucky, you’ve got your camera with you, and suddenly there is a magical sunset that you can capture right where you are. That often won’t be the case, though, so preparation is key to a successful golden hour shoot.
Firstly there’s the obvious gear considerations, a wide-angle lens is preferable for landscapes, and you may want to think about the filters that you might use. These could be any one of the following, a circular polarising filter (CPL), a graduated neutral density filter, or perhaps a regular neutral density filter if you want to shoot longer exposures.
A tripod is not absolutely essential for golden hour photography, but it is highly recommended, as it would be for all serious landscape work. If you don’t have access to a tripod then a camera with good high-ISO performance will be a real asset. I took the shot above with no tripod on the Jurassic Coast in England, my Canon 5D saved the day with its excellent low-light performance.
Location, location, location
Choosing a good location is another obvious consideration, but that isn’t always enough. How well do you know the location? What are the best spots on that location? Where does the sun rise or set in that location? How will that effect the light on your position?
Golden hour doesn’t last long, so it’s good to consider all of these aspects, and get in place, with plenty of time to spare.
In you live in the right area, or are on vacation, then it’s often relatively easy to find a great location. I took the image above in Thailand, this was a stunning area where you really couldn’t fail to find a great spot.
Sometimes that isn’t possible, I live in South East England, which isn’t a great place for dramatic scenery or landscapes, but you can still make the most of things during golden hour.
The shot below was taken a five-minute drive away from my house, a fairly unremarkable seascape in normal daylight conditions, but I was able to create an interesting and vibrant composition during golden hour.
Golden hour camera settings
I usually keep my white balance set to auto, or choose a sunny setting for golden hour shots, if you’re shooting in Raw this isn’t too important anyway as you can change the white balance with no loss of quality in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw later.
My aperture selection is usually between f/8 to f/16 for landscape shots at sunset. I’m primarily an aperture priority mode shooter, but golden hour shots can throw up some pretty challenging light, so sometimes I switch to manual shooting for total control.
If working with a tripod then I will keep my ISO down at 100 for maximum quality, if shooting handheld then I go up to 1600 or 3200 if needed on my 5D, but I don’t like to go any higher as noise becomes too prominent for my liking.
Your shutter speed will be relative to your chosen aperture (and the available light of course), if it starts to dip below 1/30 sec then you will definitely need a tripod if you want to stick to a low 100 ISO. If you don’t have a tripod to hand then raise the ISO, or you may have a camera or lens that has built-in image stabilization, which can be a great help in low-light situations. I’ve had a number of image stabilized lenses, and it is remarkable what you can get away with, I’ve got sharp results when shooting hand-held at speeds under 1/10 sec.
Blue hour photography
Whilst golden sunsets can offer some fantastic photographic opportunities, probably my favourite type of light occurs just after the sun sets (or before it rises). Really the first 20 minutes or so are the best, this way you also don’t have to deal with the possible flare issues that can present themselves when the sun is above the horizon.
You really don’t have much time to get the best out of this period, so acting quickly during this short window is crucial. If shooting after sunset it obviously starts to get dark very quickly, so a tripod is all but essential as the light drops.
Here’s another shot I’ve taken during this blue hour window, I just love the light at this time, there’s no sun glare, no shadow issues to deal with, just lovely pastel tones.