Golden Hour Photography: How to Work with Light and Shadows

From lenses, to reflectors, here are a few different things to consider before heading out for your next golden hour shoot.

There’s truly nothing like golden hour. Aside from the stunning images this time of day produces, even just walking around during golden hour makes you feel like you’re in a movie. While some of the aspects of this unique window of time are indescribable, there are a few defining characteristics that we can break down into a science. So, that being said, let’s take a look at how to take advantage of golden hour in every way possible to capture the perfect image.


Be Safe with Longer Lenses

One of the first things you might hear from any videographer or photographer is the importance of a wide lens. Well, they’re not wrong. You should always have some type of wide lens, from 24-50 mm, so you can feature as much as possible. Because the sun is so low, almost touching the horizon, you’re going to get super long shadows everywhere. This helps your images look more dynamic, and it yields a softer, less-contrasted shot.

However, I’ve often found that you’ll accidentally get your shadow in the shot, specifically if you’re facing away from the sun. There have even been times when I didn’t realize my shadow was in the shot till later on in the editing process, and I pretty much wanted to throw my computer out the window. So, be sure to keep everything 50mm and longer, just to be safe.

Bring a Reflector for Portraits

One thing about golden hour that gets misconstrued is that the magical warm, tungsten-y light is all you’ll need for your shoot. Often, you just want to run out into the field or near a cool-looking building and just start firing away. Well, the problem is that the sun is super directional, meaning many areas around you will be in the shade — specifically anything facing away from the sun. So for your next portrait shoot, make sure if your model is facing away from the sun that you bring some kind of reflector to bounce light back up on the side of their face. You can use white cardboard or an actual reflector; just make sure the color temperature matches the rest of the light in the shot.

Try Shooting Interiors with a Tripod

Image via Jelena990.

When you think of golden hour, you think of the outdoors. The warm 3500k light hitting all the leaves and grass, illuminating your surroundings cinematically. But, one aspect of golden hour that you should also explore is the lighting it creates inside buildings. As with the outdoors, the warm light can create some truly stunning imagery. This is a style of photography that I need to try more often.

Taking photos indoors is not something that comes naturally to most photographers, so I’d recommend keeping a tripod on hand. Even if you’re shooting at 1/60th shutter speed, there will be darker parts of the house that are in complete shadow, so exposure might be a little tricky at first. It’s better to be safe if you’re shooting in a building you’re not familiar with. So, experiment a little with over-exposing by a stop or two just to get your bearings right.

Turn Around

Okay stay with me. This might sound too simple, and it is. Once the sun has started to set, you really can’t help but aim your camera at the fireball in the sky, capturing those sweet lens flare effects as the warm light on your lens creates that iconic cinematic effect that we all know and love. But while properly exposing one of those shots can be tricky, it’s important to note that everything that golden hour light touches is giving you absolute gold.

The oranges and pinks and reds are not something you can create in Lightroom. So turn your back to the sun and start shooting.

Scout Beforehand — You Really Have No Time

Judging how long golden hour will last is pretty simple. There are many apps you can use, and almost all of them are pretty accurate. The hard part is making good use of the time. So there are a couple of things I like to do beforehand. First, I scout my location. This is something everyone should be doing before any shoot (especially if you’re getting paid). I also try to arrive an hour before golden hour. Even if your app tells you that it starts at 6:30, the good light for you might start at 6. You don’t have to shoot only exactly at golden hour. If the light looks good, shoot!


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