What Time Is Golden Hour (And How To Photograph It)

What time is golden hour is one of the most important questions you could ask when you want to level up your photography. These short moments after sunrise and before sunset are especially popular with portrait and landscape photographers, and probably the best time to take photos outside.

Even if you have no idea what the golden hour is or how to use it, we’ve got you covered below.

Read on!

What Time Is Golden Hour?

Roughly speaking, the golden hour is the first hour of light after sunrise and the last hour of light before sunset.

So, there are actually two golden hours every day.

However, this is just an approximation. Depending on the season and your location the golden hour might be a lot shorter or longer.

For example, if you are close to the equator where the sun rises quickly the golden hour might only last a couple of minutes. But if you are far north and the sun doesn’t rise very high during the day you might be able to enjoy this great light the whole time.

When Is Golden Hour Exactly?

If you want to know exactly when Golden Hour is for a specific location there are some handy tools available online and as smartphone apps. Just enter a location and time and they will give you a plethora of information to plan your shoot.

You can also use this handy sunset and sunrise calculator to get a rough estimate of what time the golden hour will be in the morning or evening. Then the first golden hour of the day will start just before sunrise for about an hour. The second golden hour starts around an hour before sunset.

Pro Tip: If you’re out shooting somewhere and want a rough estimate about how long it will take before the sun will set, just use your hands to figure out how much time is left before sunset.

Figure Out How Much Time There If Left Before Sunset With your Hand And Fingers

A Bit More In-Depth

When the sun sets in the evenings and rises in the morning it passes through several light phases. Depending on the elevation of the sun, we call them:

  • Daylight (above 6°)
  • Golden Hour (6° to -4°)
  • Blue Hour (-4° to -6°)
  • Twilight (-6° to -18°)
  • Night (below -18°)

As you can see, the exact definition of the Golden Hour is the period where the sun lies between 4° below and 6° above the horizon, so it even starts a bit before sunrise in the morning and lasts a bit longer than the sunset in the evening.

This also explains why your location and the seasons have such an influence on what time Golden Hour is.

During summer the sun rises almost straight up from the horizon. As this means it has only a short distance to “travel”, these transitions between night and day happen pretty fast. For example, around the equator during the equinoxes, it only takes about 50 minutes for the sun to move all the way from 6 degrees below the horizon (twilight) to 6 degrees above it (daylight).

In the same way, during winter the sun takes a lot longer to pass all the phases which leads to a longer golden hour.

As you know, during summer within the polar circles the sun never goes lower than 6 degrees below the horizon. This means the golden hour might last the whole night there.

What Is The Golden Hour?

The golden hour in photography is quite a big thing, especially for those who like to use natural light in their photos. In that case, it’s one of the best times to take photos outside.

But if you’re wondering “what is the golden hour and why is it so great?”, here’s what makes it special:

Warm Colors

The Golden Hour gets its name from the bright orange and red colors that are present during this period of time. This warm color temperature bathes everything in a “golden” glow.

This is very flattering for portraits and creates a warm and cozy look. It also brings out other colors and makes them more vivid and dramatic, making it ideal for landscape or cityscape images.

A Golden Hour Landscape

The reason for this golden color cast is simple:

When the rays from the sun travel to earth, they collide with small atmospheric particles such as water droplets, oxygen, nitrogen, and dust. This makes them “scatter” in all directions.

The blue and violet wavelengths get scattered more than the warmer wavelengths. That’s why we see the sky as blue during the day.

During the Golden Hour, however, the sunlight needs to travel a much longer path through the atmosphere to reach the earth than during the day. This means the blue and violet light gets scattered more and almost filtered out, leaving mostly red and orange light to reach our eyes.

Further Reading: Red Sky at Night: The Science of Sunsets

Diffuse & Directional Light

Because the light from the sun has to travel through more atmosphere, it also becomes more diffuse while still remaining directional.

All the collisions with the small particles in the air (water, oxygen, nitrogen,…) act as a giant diffuser, softening the intensity of the direct light and lowering the contrast. Moreover, the deflected light bounces off the ground and clouds adding even more to the diffuse effect by filling in the shadows.

Since the sun is “lower” than the clouds at this point, the reflection of the golden sunlight from underneath them is also what leads to the sky lighting up with a soft, warm orange light.

The loss in contrast makes it easier to correctly expose your images and means you need a lower dynamic range without dark blacks or blown-out highlights.

Contrary to daylight coming from everywhere when diffused by the clouds, the light during golden hour still has direction as it’s only coming from one side. This in combination with a lack of strong shadows or harsh lighting makes the golden hour the ideal time for landscape and portrait photography.

Golden Hour In Photography, And How To Use it

Now that you know when the Golden Hour is and what it is exactly, let’s go over how you can use it in your photography.

The special quality of light during the golden hour will help you create beautiful photographs for any type of outdoor images. While mostly used for portrait and landscape photography, it also works great for architecture, travel, nature and lifestyle images among others.

General Tips

Plan

Obviously, “what time is golden hour?” should be your first question, whether you’re going to photograph in the morning or before sunset.

Just use one of the methods we discussed above.

Ideally, you’ll also want to have an idea what the shooting location looks like and where exactly the sun will rise or set. This way you will be well prepared and be able to utilize every moment of the golden hour.

If possible try to find out what the weather will be like. You don’t want to arrive at your location and discover the sky is fully clouded, or have your “hour” cut short.

Couple this with some ideas about your vantage point, shooting angles, poses,.. and you’ll be able to make the most of this small window of time with great lighting.

Be On Time

The golden hour in photography is important but short. Make sure to arrive at your shooting location well beforehand to set everything up. Even if that means you’ll have to get up quite early.

You don’t want to be messing with your equipment and miss some precious lighting moments when the golden hour starts. If there is a model involved, make sure they are all ready on time.

Golden Hour Photography Settings

As the light has to travel through more atmosphere, the light is less bright during the golden hour.

This means you might have to use a larger aperture or higher ISO than during the day to get enough light in.

Another option is using a tripod with a long exposure when shooting landscapes.

Since the light intensity will constantly be changing as the sun rises or sets, you might want to use Aperture priority mode.  This saves you from having to adjust the settings all the time while keeping your depth of field the same.

Keep Shooting

During the golden hour and especially during summer the sun will move pretty quickly. This means the lighting will change fast and everything can look dramatically different every couple of minutes.

And as we saw earlier, the golden hour doesn’t end when the sun goes over the horizon but lasts a bit longer.

So stay for the entire golden hour and keep shooting to capture every variation.

Now you know when the golden hour is and how to use it in your photography. Go out during this best time of day to take pictures and create your own “golden” images!