What Is Golden Hour?

Golden Hour is a phrase portrait photographers use to describe the hour just after sunrise or right before sunset where the outdoor natural light gives off a soft, warm, dreamy look in the photos. This is typically the best time of day for portrait or engagement shoots. The sun is angled low to the horizon which eliminates any harsh shadows under the eyes and produces smoother looking skin tones. 

Why Choose Golden Hour For Portraits?

People look their absolute best with soft lighting. Sure, you can still find soft natural light at any time of the day. But doing it at golden hour will give you the most wide spread amount of quality natural light to work with. If your concerned about the climate being too hot this time of day might be a bit cooler . On wedding days we always suggest using that last hour of the day to capture the most important photos. This can easily be done for engagement or portrait session but a wedding day can be a completely different scenario. We created a free wedding day timeline to help get the best photos but still take advantage of the beautiful golden hour light.

Here are some awesome tips we’ve learned over the years to help you nail your next golden hour portrait session:

Look Up Your Sunset Time

Start by figuring out what day and time the sun will be setting in your city. We use www.sunrisesunset.com to figure that out. Once you know the exact time the sun will be setting you can work back an hour from that to determine when to begin your portrait or engagement session. 

Scout The Location

If you’re unfamiliar with the location try to scope the area close to the date and time of your shoot. This will give you several good ideas to work with and calm your nerves going into it. Pick out several potential spots that you could navigate to during the portrait session. Don’t just rely on one spot. Anything could change on the day of your shoot so you want to be prepared. 

Arrive 30min Early

Anything could happen at the location that you were unaware of so make sure to arrive early before the client arrives. That way you can figure out a secondary plan if something doesn’t work out how you anticipated. 

Choose The Right Lens

We love using the 50mm f/1.2 for our golden hour portrait sessions. We use several other prime lenses but this is usually my go to lens for the majority of a sunset shoot. I like to remain close to my subjects throughout the shoot but not too close.

Back Light Your Subjects

For the majority of our golden hour shoots we’re using the sun as a back light. Meaning we’re shooting into the direction of the sun rather than away from it. We hardly ever have our clients face the direction of the sun. The only time we don’t is if the sun is blocked, it goes below the horizon or we’re trying something unique. Using the sun as a back light will produce a beautiful golden flare behind your subjects which makes them pop.

Expose For The Skin Tones

Don’t let your camera decide what to expose for. Set the camera to manual mode so you can control the exposure. We try to adjust our settings so the skin tones have an even exposure. Having the camera set to spot metering mode helps us to quickly get an exposure reading from their face. Sometimes we even use the palm of our hand to quickly get an exposure reading. Not too dark and not too bright. Usually that means starting at f/2.0 with 400 ISO then manually adjusting the shutter until it reaches a speed that has the look we’re going for. We like to keep our ISO set to 400 during golden hour because it gives us a faster shutter speed to work with. And because we usually don’t have to touch ISO for the entire shoot until the sun drops behind the horizon. The great thing about manual mode is once you dial in the settings nothing will change unless you change scenes or the lighting shifts. Otherwise the majority of all your frames will be the same which makes editing a breeze. 

Use Objects To Block The Sun

At the start of a sunset photo shoot the sun is a bit higher and more powerful. During that time It helps to use objects like trees or buildings to block the sun. Doing this will allow for soft even lighting. Make good use of your lens hood during this time. It will help give more contrast to your photos. 

Look For Shadows

As you walk around examine where the shadows fall on the ground. Try to avoid shade that has gaps in it. You want to look for even shade. Even shade means soft even light. If you see a straight shadow line on the ground use it. Have your couple stand just behind the line and walk in and out. Look at their hairline and face to examine where to stand. Usually 6” behind the shadow line is perfect. If they stand too close – the light will flood their face. If they stand too far back – the shade the rim light around their head will disappear. 

Find Neutral Surfaces

Have your subjects stand on neutral looking surfaces like sidewalks, roads, sand or gravel. By neutral we mean white, grey or a light tones. This will allow the backlight to wrap around them better and produce a fill light on their skin. This will also help to balance the background light with the foreground. Not having enough fill light will cause your background to be more overexposed than it needs to be. 

Change Your Angle 

Before moving the client try moving around yourself. Be patient before moving on too quickly from a location, especially if you’re noticing nice quality light. Change up the angle and direction you’re shooting from. You can get completely different looks by simply adjusting where you stand. Bring a step stool with you as well so you’re not shooting at the same angle of the sun. Being a little higher will reduce light from flooding the frame. 

Change Shutter Speed For Different Looks

Just as the sun is about to set below the horizon we like to get a few different looks. During this time the sun is usually looking more red. We love seeing that red flare in our photos. So we aim to get a few different looks. Some where are subjects are evenly exposed, just under exposed and another where the sky is evenly exposed. We do this be making our shutter speed faster. For instance we could go from 1/250 to 1/2000 then 1/8000. All depends how bright it is at the time we are shooting. We find using live mode helps us the most. That way we can see a preview of what the photo is going to look like before actually shooting the right shutter speed. 

Shoot In The Opposite Direction

Once the sun has set behind the horizon we like to turn our couples around and shoot from the opposite direction. This is the only time (except when its overcast) where everything will be evenly lit. Meaning the sky and your subject should all be at the same exposure. You might have to continuously bump up your ISO to maintain a fast shutter speed. Keep a close eye on your settings as the light will be dropping really fast. 

Silhouette Your Subject

Finally, after the sun goes down now is a great time to get some silhouette shots. We like to use the 16-35mm lens for a more wide landscape look. Again, we use live view to dial in the exposure we want on the sky. Our aim is to make the subject blacked out so only the sky shows in with rich color. Make sure you’re shooting into the direction of where the sun was setting. For this we like to get lower our angle or position our subjects on a hill. Typically we’re shooting mostly the sky and having anything in silhouette be toward the bottom of our frame. To pull this off right you want to see the profile of your subjects with slight separation. That way you can distinguish who’s who without getting them lost in the shadows. 

We hope your able to take advantage of these awesome natural lighting photography tips at your next portrait session. Let us know in the comments if you have any further questions.