The Golden Hour is a phrase that comes up a lot when talking with photographers. It refers to the period of time directly after sunrise or sunset, where the light emitted from the sun appears in the sky as a soft orangey red colour rather than the bright blue seen throughout the rest of the day, giving your photos a warm, golden glow that flatters skin tones and adds beautiful colour to landscape images.
The Golden Hour is caused by the sun being much lower in the sky and the rays of light needing to travel through a greater depth of Earth's atmosphere to reach us, scattering the blue light so that more of the opposite end of the spectrum is visible. As this happens, it also reduces the lighting ratio between direct light from the sun and ambient illumination, creating softer shadows and highlights that are far more flattering than the hard contrasts of midday sun.
Although referred to as an 'hour' of time, the actual length of the Golden Hour depends on both the time of year and your location. Those living closer to the equator will have less time, whilst those closer to the poles could potentially have 'Golden Days' during some season. Shooting very early in the morning of later in the evening takes some serious dedication, but if you're up for the challenge, here are some tips to help you make the most of the Golden Hour.
Formulate A Plan
With golden hour limiting your shooting time, it's important to have a plan of action firmly in place before you set off on the shoot. To start off with, you'll want to find out exactly when golden hour will be on your chosen shoot date.
There are a huge range of apps and websites that can help you work out when Golden Hour will be, or if you'd prefer you can work backwards from sunset and sunrise listings. I use an app on my iPhone called Golden Light, which allows me to set the exact GPS location and date for my shoot, plus set a reminder alarm to make sure I'm up and out in time for the shoot.
Storyboard your shoot
It's also a good idea to put together a storyboard of your ideas, which will help to keep you focused during the shoot and also give the whole team a strong visualisation of your imagined concept before the shoot commences. Think about the poses you want to create, as well as the composition of the shots and any props or styling you may require.
Pack in Advance
Realising you've forgotten a vital piece of photography gear whilst in the middle of nowhere is quite possibly the most frustrating experience ever. Avoid this by creating a checklist and packing everything in advance. It's usually the small things that get forgotten, like flash triggers, spare batteries and extra memory cards.
To make sure you don't lose any precious minutes of golden hour, aim to arrive on location with plenty of spare time to allow for getting stuck in traffic, wardrobe malfunctions and make up alterations (if working with a model).
When working on these particular shots with Ruby Deshabille and purebred Spanish stallion Reducto W (Red, for short), the team aimed to arrive on location at 6pm, with golden hour starting around 8:30pm. It meant the whole team could be relaxed in getting ready, plus a couple of hours for Red to walk over to the fields and acclimatise to his new surroundings and having a showgirl on his back.
As it was, we were out in the fields by 7:30pm and managed to get a second series of images in the early evening sun before our main shoot started.
Pack a Tripod
As the sun begins to fade, you might want to adjust your camera to a slower shutter speed rather than cranking up the ISO. Using a tripod and will help you to maintain sharpness, especially if you drop below 1/60 of a second. Tripods are also great for making sure your horizons are level and will save you time in post production.
Using a wider aperture such as f2 will give you a lovely shallow depth of field in your images, setting your subject apart from the background. Wide apertures will also let much more light into the camera's sensor, allowing you to work longer into golden hour without the need to rely on other light sources. Plus, giving you the opportunity to capture some lovely bokeh effects.
Know Your Kelvins
Whilst the Auto White Balance feature on your DSLR may have its benefits, shooting at golden hour is one of those times when you'll really benefit from knowing about colour temperature and how to find and set custom colour temperatures on your camera. Colour temperature is measured in Kelvin - or K for short.
During the day, natural light has a blue tone and usually reads somewhere around 5000K, whilst during the golden hour the light will change progressively from yellow to orange/red (hence being called the 'golden hour') and will range between 3500-2000K. The Kelvin adjuster slider is usually located in your White Balance menu, however if you'd rather go for something a little simpler (or your camera won't allow you to set a manual Kelvin number) try the Cloudy or Shade white balance presets.
Use the Sun as a Backlight
Shooting into a light source can create some incredible results, including lens flares and rim lighting - where the light source creates a rim of light that makes the edge of an object appear to glow. Rim lighting is a very effective way to separate the subject from it's background, especially when both are similar in tone and contrast. Both these effects can be seen here in these images of Ruby and Red. However, shooting into the sun should be done with great care as it poses a risk to your eye health. Stick to the golden hour when there is far less blue light. Never look through a lens at the midday sun.
Need more light?
Using a reflector will help to throw a little more light onto your subject matter, especially if you're shooting directly into the sun and your main light source is behind you. Alternatively, you could use flash with a CTO (Colour Temperature Orange) gel attached to cast warm light onto your subject instead.
Whilst shooting Ruby and Red, we used an Elinchrom Quadra head with a 135cm Octa and gold deflector under the white diffuser panel to cast a warmer light source onto Ruby.
During the golden hour, changes in light happen so quickly that it is vital to maintain a decent pace throughout the shoot. Take time before the golden hour begins to brief your model/team and keep interactions whilst shooting short and sweet. If you know you'll need to move things around, bring an assistant to help you.
If a client requests to be present on a shoot and give feedback throughout, try tethered shooting so you can keep snapping away whilst they look at a screen, rather than handing around your camera body. Those few extra minutes could really make a difference.
Bring a Torch
Although you'll be shooting the light, there will most definitely be a period before/after your shoot where you'll find yourself struggling to see what's around you. Invest in a decent torch or head lamp to help get yourself to and from your shoot location in one piece, as well as preventing you from leaving any camera gear behind!