Monday, October 4, 2010

Golden Hour

The magical "Golden Hour" of light... This is the all around best time to photograph outdoors. It is also a great time to do some portraits using the natural light coming through a window. Have you ever noticed how the photographs you take during the middle of a bright sunny day typically have either the highlights blown out or the shadowed areas are so dark that they lose all detail? You see this most often in photos taken at family gatherings when “Aunt Edna” just has to have a photograph of the entire family. The pictures are usually accompanied by squinting eyes and frowns as the sun is blaring in their faces. This happens because taking photos in the middle of a cloudless day is just a bad idea (most of the time). Why does it happen you might ask? I mean you remember the scene as beautiful with a ton of color right? It is because your eyes are much more effective than the digital sensor. The human eye can see 11 or 12 stops of light where as the digital sensor can only record 5 or 6. So, you must learn to see how the camera sees in order to become an effective photographer. HDR photography can help some with this to an extent. Take a look at my HDR blog post from a few months back for more details.

So, what is this “Golden Hour” everyone talks about and why is it different from shooting in the middle of the day? The Golden Hour happens twice daily and is about 20min before sunrise to 40min after sunrise and 40min before sunset to 20min after sunset. Why is it different than shooting during the middle of the day? The sun is large compared to the earth it is millions of miles away. This makes it a small but powerful light source. These types of light sources cause increased contrast, very harsh shadows and the washing out of color. During the Golden Hour the light from the sun travels through much more of the earth’s atmosphere causing the light to diffuse (or soften). This lowers the dynamic range (or stops of light) giving the digital sensor the ability to capture more tonal information. It is during these times that photographs often turn out more like you remember. Additionally, this type of light is much more flattering on your portrait subjects.

Take a look at these images shot just an hour apart.  Notice how the one later in the day (2nd photo) seems to have washed out colors, harsh shadows and even areas where the highlights are blown out.  In the end you must learn to see how the camera sees in order to create the photograph you have envisioned.


  1. Hi Jason, that was really informative! I have always noticed that photos near sunset and very early in the morning turn out spectacular but I had never realised why.

    I think this principle must also apply to a certain extent to winter and summer. I remember the first time I visited the Louvre in Paris it was winter and the way the sun hit the stone surfaces was really magical. Visiting again this summer I just couldn't get the same effect.

    Photos taken on a crisp winter's day often seem to turn-out so much better than summer ones (which always seem to have big black shadows at least somewhere in the photo!).

  2. Actually, one of the reasons the light in winter seems better than the summer is because the sun is lower in the sky giving you a bit more of the "Golden Hour" effect in the middle of the day. Great observation!

  3. Jason: Interesting how the camera sees versus what an artist sees! Most artists understand about the "golden hour" and the quality of light. However, in a painting or drawing, those shadows that you describe as harsh are actually wanted. Of course, the painter or drawer softens these areas of shadows and lights to almost re-create the "golden hour." I almost prefer to that harshness because it is like cheating when drawing or painting the scene.

    Must be why I consider my photos "reference," because I just want the subject and cannot care too much about the time and light. If I cared about the time and light, then I would be competing with you - and although that would be fun it is not what I want to do. ;)

    If you get the chance, try to travel north of TN. The light is incredibly different that that of South Florida, even not during the golden hour.

  4. For us photographers it is all about the quality, quantity and direction of light. I don't have the luxury of creating the light's color, or direction so I gotta take what I can get. By understanding the "golden hour" I can stack the deck in my favor.

    I really want to see Vermont in the fall one day... That is a must on my list.