Monday, September 29, 2014

the craft corner : photographing golden hour

Chasing the light. It's something most photographers spend their time doing. When that great, vast sky shows us her glory, we give a little squeal of delight and grab the camera.

This edition of The Craft Corner comes courtesy of Em; she thought many of you would be interested to know a little more about shooting what is commonly referred to as golden hour, and asked me to share what I know. I'm no expert and have never read a single word about tips and tricks to use when shooting at this time of day. Everything I am sharing with you has been learnt purely through experience - trial and error, and plenty of practice - whether technically correct or otherwise.

If you missed my earlier post on Photography Tips back in April, you might want to have a read before carrying on here.

While not always true to its name, golden hour refers to the short period of time just after sunrise or just before sunset when the sun hangs low in the sky and the light is softer and more illuminated than any other time of day (though many only associate it with sunset, not sunrise). The duration of golden hour changes throughout the year, and is entirely dependent on the altitude and latitude of your location to the equator. Sometimes it really is an hour - sometimes more, sometimes less.

No matter what I'm shooting, my approach is always the same. I go in with little expectation or plan (occasionally more than others) and trust my judgement and feeling as to what I'll discover once I look through the viewfinder. The same goes for golden hour. I could shoot the sunrise in the same location, every day for a week, and come up with something different each time. While I can become more experienced in anticipating what to expect or what settings work well for my camera during that time of day, I can only see things during that short space of time and capture the way I feel it, in that moment.

The first thing to remember is that we want to let as much light into our sensor as possible. So if you're shooting manually, you want a wide aperture (meaning a low f stop). I like to shoot wide open most of the time, but sometimes the light is simply too bright to do so (more so during the middle of the day), so I need to stop down (meaning a higher f stop) until my camera can manage the desired exposure at the widest aperture possible.

I think shooting into the sun scares a lot of people; it can be so hit and miss. Sometimes I get a cracker, but there are plenty of times where it's all a blown out mess and makes a swift exit to the trash. I continue to experiment, trying to understand what works and what doesn't (I probably should read something.. but feel like I learn so much more by finding my own way that reading rules). Shooting into the sun usually means you need to overexpose your image to keep things looking true to what you're seeing through the viewfinder, and super overexpose if you are wanting your subject to be bathed in light with no concern for blowing out the background. This is entirely a personal choice. Here are some examples of the difference in exposure.

Of course, sometimes we want a different result than what we're seeing with our own eyes. Golden hour is the perfect time of day for capturing silhouettes. To carve out silhouettes in our images, we need to keep the background correctly exposed, not worrying about our subjects. Depending on the light, your subjects may appear perfectly blacked out, or you may still see a little bit of detail. If you prefer to see more detail, then sliding your shadows out while editing will do this for you easily. (This technique also works during the middle of the day when you are struggling to keep both your subject and the sky correctly exposed - focus your attention on the sky to keep clouds/trees/buildings correctly exposed - and then adjust your shadows while editing to bring in the detail in your subjects.)

Lens flare is another, more subtle approach to shooting into the sun. A flare can occur when a bright light is shining directly in an image (image 1 below), or shining into the lens but not in the image (image 2 below). Simply put, it's the pretty flickers of light you see sometimes that make things look all light and dreamy. It can be harder to achieve than you would anticipate, trying to catch just a tiny bit of light in the corner of an image - but only just enough, or the effect is lost. This one is all about practice, practice, practice - moving your feet and/or position of your camera to get those golden rays in just the right spot to cast just the right amount of flare. This is something I have always struggled with and have been practicing a lot lately.

Golden hour doesn't restrict you to ONLY shooting into the sun. While it's all sparkly and pretty, turning your back to the light and facing your subject who is bathed in light, can give you equally lovely images. Alternatively, keeping out of the direct line of the sun can give a warmth and darkness which contrasts beautifully against the lighter images.

Shooting into the light, while your subject covers most of it, can create superior clarity in the smallest of details. Move around your subject and experiment with how the light works for you, and against you. Never stand in the same place and make your subject move - your feet should be moving too.

While most people would know what you meant if you mentioned golden hour, far less would know what you meant if you mentioned blue hour. Blue hour precedes golden hour before sunrise, and follows it after sunset. Similarly with golden hour, its daily appearance is brief - while the sun hangs below the horizon, the residual light casts a noticeably blue hue across the sky. Personally, I much prefer blue to golden. Here's an example of the colour change at sunset just last week.

Perhaps because I prefer my images to be darker with more shade and depth, I love the stronger tones you can achieve during blue hour. Given residual light is not as strong, you will need to raise your ISO to compensate for the low light, and allow your camera a fast enough shutter speed to keep your clarity. Remember ISO is your friend, not your enemy. Yes, when you're pushing it to the higher levels, your images can become grainy (the level of which will depend on the low light capability of your camera) but for the majority, it can only help you - not hinder you. If you're shooting manually and leave your ISO unchanged on 100 no matter the time of day, then set yourself a little challenge to get to know your ISO better. To give you an idea, the first two images below were shot at ISO 800 (sunrise).

Don't take the term too literally. Shooting during golden hour doesn't mean your photos have to be golden! Your location and setting will determine the colour palette of your images. There is no right or wrong tone to your images when shooting golden hour.

Golden (and blue) hour happens twice everyday. Sometimes spectacularly, sometimes unnoticeably. Location and climate will determine this - and whether you will feel the need to grab your camera as the sun appears or disappears for the day. Having an enormous field of wildflowers at the end of your street to dance around in during golden hour would be perfect. But who the hell has that? Your location does not have to be picture perfect to make the most of that beautiful light.

If the thought of shooting into the sun has left you feeling uneasy in the past, I hope this (very!) loose guide to shooting golden (or blue) hour will give you the gentle nudge you need to have another try..


  1. Golden and Blue Hours usually happen when I'm busy sleeping, eating, doing laundry. Occasionally, I do get lucky and score a good shot!

  2. WOW! So much stunning photography in this post. I kept scrolling up and down soooooo slowly to take it all in. Thanks for all the tips and inspiration. Just AWESOME!
    C x

  3. Gorgeousness and inspiring. Thanks Em.

  4. Thank you for this great article with some excellent tips and stunning pictures!

  5. Tahnee is a wonderful photographer and just as good a teacher! Thanks lovely. x

  6. Some awesome tips and great photos - thanks for sharing!


Thanks so much for your words of encouragement, advice and solidarity.

xo em