A Touch of Magic

Why I love shooting during the "Golden Hour"

As photographers, we all have our “favourites” when it comes to shooting. Some of us are drawn to landscapes, some of us are avid bird-watchers, some of us shoot boudoir, or fashion or fine art. We might prefer the studio, or we might prefer getting out into nature. For those of us that love shooting portraits outdoors, the “Golden Hour” is the ideal time for us to capture images with warm, soft light.

The Golden Hour refers to the hour just after sunrise or just before sunset, and it’s sometimes referred to as the “Magic Hour” because this warm, soft light is great for lighting portraits when your subjects are facing the sun. There's a lot less squinting involved and you don't have the harsh under-nose and under-chin shadows that happen when shooting outdoors in the sun at midday.

Placing your subject between yourself and the lens can also create different effects including rim lighting and lens flare.

Morning or Evening?

I prefer afternoons purely because I’m not much of a morning person, but the Golden Hour you choose could depend on various factors including tall trees that could block a sunrise but let through a gorgeous sunset – or vice versa! There is less dust floating around in the morning, as well as it being the coolest time of the day – something to consider if you are planning a shoot during our Gauteng summers when the temperature can still be sitting in the thirties at 5pm!


Either way, the results you can achieve when shooting the first or last daylight hours can be quite remarkable and dramatic. You can also come away from a shoot with a wide range of content, just by changing your position and that of your subject in relation to the sun.

These two images (above and below) of the band The One Night Stands were taken on the same afternoon, on the same street. In the first shot the band are lined up against a yellow wall, looking at me and into the sun. The second shot is taken from the other angle – same location, two totally different images.

Note the long shadows in this second image - the long shadow lines created by the sun being so low on the horizon are great for creating depth and interest to your images.

Planning ahead is the key to a successful shoot

The changing seasons also have an impact on the Golden Hour, as well as the area in which you live. There are numerous online calculators and apps that you can use to determine sunrise and sunset times in your area, use them as a tool. Nothing beats going out there and experimenting with locations at different times and during different seasons. Knowing what the light does and when is important when planning shoots – you don’t want to be shooting with 30 minutes still to go and suddenly the sun has disappeared behind a building.

In some cases your Golden Hour might be a full sixty minutes or more, and in some cases, much less. If you’re shooting in the morning, be ready to start as the sun is coming up. For afternoon shooters, pay attention to clouds forming during the day, as clouds on the horizon can also cut your shooting time short.

Experiment with different techniques

While you are out testing locations, experiment with lens flare. You’ll see different results with different lenses at different apertures. Changing the angle at which you’re shooting will also give you different results.

The lens flare in the image above adds to the whimsical feeling of this farm wedding, but lens flare might not work for every image. Think about your subject matter and decide if flare will add or detract.

I do love a bit of lens flare, but my favourite technique when shooting in the late afternoon is to have the sun behind my subject, and bounce light back with a reflector. A 3-in-1 reflector with white, silver and gold is very versatile – I might use the gold side to enhance the warm light even more (shots 1 and 2 below). This technique won’t be suitable for large groups of people, but for shooting one-on-one it’s ideal. Using the reflector creates a catch-light in the model’s eyes and they don’t have to look directly into the setting sun. You can still achieve rim lighting or flare as well as light your model without the use of any fill flash.

Shoot, shoot, shoot

Keep trying new things until you find the results that will work for you and your personal preference. Spend time in one place and keep capturing images as the sun comes up (or goes down) and compare your results.

Visit the same spot at two different times of day and see how the environment can seem completely different. Fill up a flask with some good coffee and enjoy the sunrise - I might just join you!

Happy shooting!

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