Complete Guide To Golden Hour Photography

Portrait and landscape photographers both know that the golden hour in photography gives images a warm, reddish tinge. If you’ve never shot during the golden hour, you should give it a try.

Complete Guide To Golden Hour Photography

Since it can give your photos a glow that is superior to and more natural-looking than any filters or other effects.

Golden hour photography is very limited as you only have a set window of time to get your shot. However, the planning and the effort involved is definitely worth it when you obtain those beautiful and warming images. 

If you are new to golden hour photography then you are in the right place. We have created this simple guide, to provide you with all the steps and tips to be able to achieve golden hour photography yourself.

What Is Golden Hour?

The two hours in total shortly before sunset and just after sunrise are referred to as the “golden hour.” The sun’s rays need to travel further  as well as pass through more atmosphere at this time of day, which results in a redder “color temperature.”

When dawn or sunset happens will differ through the year. Thus, it is always good to double-check when this is going to occur when you decide to participate in golden hour photography (see also “What Is Blue Hour Photography?“).

Local weather forecasters will be able to provide you with this information.

How Long Do You Have To Take Your Picture?

You have two options as mentioned above to try out golden hour photography. This can either be at sunrise or sunset.

However, this issue with golden hour photography is that you don’t have very long. You may have at most an hour to take your image.

It is also worth mentioning that it is known that during the winter that a sunset is much shorter, yet it will produce much more golden hues.

However, due to being a shorter sunset, this will mean you could have even less time to get the right shot.

Why Is Golden Hour Photography Popular?

Golden hour is a really popular form of photography. It is loved for the golden and soft colors that the sun produces. It is a kind of sight that you can’t create by any other means.

In addition to this, golden hour produces various different kinds of light which you can experiment with. 

Blow we have broken down the different kinds of light that golden hour produces, which is why it is so loved by many photographers

Warmer Lighting

The warmth of the light is a key factor in why photographers like to be outside during the golden hour.

The light is typically whiter during the day than it is throughout the golden hours. This gives your subjects an entirely different and usually better ambiance. The golden hour light practically gives your subject a warmer appearance. 

Soft Lighting

The fact that the light softens during the golden hour is one of the key factors contributing to its popularity among photographers.

As a result, you won’t need to shoot in the strong midday light with its stark contrasts. Instead, a gentle and delicate light will be provided while you are working. 

Directional Light

The sun will be low in the sky during golden hours. This implies that choosing which direction to photograph in might significantly alter the appearance of your photos. 

You need to consider if you wish to have the sun as a prominent light source in your photograph? Alternatively, do you want sidelights to illuminate your subject(s) as it enters your frame?

With harsh daylight, you won’t have many options, but during golden hour, you can have a lot more fun with the light. You have the option of backlight, side light and front light. We go into more detail on these different lighting options further on in the article.   


During golden hour, the sun can become quite low in the sky. As a result of this, it will cause extremely long shadows. You can use these shadows to your advantage.

A long shadow can add contrast and emphasize the significance of the subject(s) that the warm sunlight is hitting in your photographs.

Steps On Golden Hour Photography

There are many factors to keep in mind when it comes to golden hour photography.

To make everything much easier for you, we have compiled all the steps you need to keep in mind when you plan your next golden hour photography trip. 

1. Planning Is Key

Choose a place in advance, and then use an online calendar to see when the sun will set and rise in order to determine exactly when the golden hour happens. Plan to arrive in place 15 to 20 minutes prior to the start of the hour. 

It might require an early morning start, but the beautiful dawn landscapes you can photograph will make it all worthwhile. Without a plan, it’s unlikely that you’ll get the shot you’ve been longing for.

2. Set Your Camera Up 

It is important that you arrive at your location in plenty of time. Alongside this you need to make sure that your camera is set up ready to be able to capture these shots.

These settings are just guidelines, as you may have to adjust them to suit the environment and the shot you wish to achieve. 

Filters– If your lens typically has an ultraviolet (UV) filter on it, remove it. This type of filter has the drawback of somewhat lowering the clarity and contrast of your photographs.

You’ll then need to choose a specific filter or an assortment of filters, depending on the message you want to express with your photo:

  • Non-metallic reflections are reduced to none or are enhanced with a circular polarizing filter (CPL). You can use it to boost saturation and contrast.
  • By uniformly reducing the light that reaches the sensor, a neutral density filter (ND) forces you to use slower speeds.
  • A graded neutral density filter (GND) gradually lessens the intensity of the light that is directed toward the sensor.

Stabilization – Once you have decided on a filter, you can add this onto your camera and attach the camera to a tripod, if using. If you are using a tripod, we would recommend that you turn off the stabilization on your camera. This is since sometimes a camera can become confused and try to reduce non-existing vibrations. 

RAW – For some people they are never sure whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG. Well for golden hour photography, we would advise RAW. All the photo data that the sensor recorded, and you want is included in the RAW file.

Key Tone – You can choose the exposure via the key tone with the help of the metering mode. The key tone is the area of the scene where you need to understand the type of lighting you have, and the settings required to properly expose the photo.

It’s alright if you don’t succeed the first time. Take a few test shots and try again until you achieve your goals.

If you’re going to use the polarizer, install it and turn it around till it polarizes the part of the frame you want to polarize for the desired effect.

Meter the key tone after that without using any GND or ND filters.

Focal Length – It’s time to choose the focus length. Select a focal length that fits your framing by turning your lens ring gradually more or less. If the focal length of your lens is fixed, you should reposition the tripod and secure it in a stable location.

3. Continue To Take Shots

Once you are in position, get shooting as soon as the lighting and conditions are good. This is because you only have a brief window of opportunity. Also, the weather might change quickly. 

As the sun moves, the light will shift drastically, so keep shooting pictures during the hour. You will be able to achieve a wide range of different shots, with different lighting which you can play around with.

You can have the sunlight either in front or behind you, each way it will create unique images. 

4. Landscapes Require A Tripod

To ensure everything is in focus when taking landscape photos, it’s necessary to use an aperture of around f/22. However, since the light isn’t going to be as strong as it would be in the middle of the day, you’ll need a tripod to keep everything in focus.

In addition to this, a tripod can help keep your landscape shot as stable as possible. Although, this will mean that you are slightly more restricted on how much you can move the camera around.

5. Wide Aperture Is Better For Portraits

By using a wide aperture of f/5.6 at first and last light, portrait and macro photographs will have a more ethereal, dreamy golden vibe.

As a result, your subject will remain sharply in focus, and any small sources of light in the backdrop will help you produce a bokeh effect.

6. Use Flare

When sunlight shines on the front of your lens, it causes “flare,” which skews the image and introduces sunspots or rays to your photograph. The good thing about this technique is that you can intentionally employ it to add drama to a picture. 

Adjust yourself to ensure the sun is somewhat hidden if the subject is in your line of sight with the sun. Then you can try to produce a sun ray effect.

7. Play Around With The White Balance

To keep the colors accurate, turn off automatic White Balance. Instead, select “cloudy”, as this will help you to keep all the vibrant colors that golden hour provides you with.

You will end up with much more vibrant and detailed images that pick up every hue. 

Many professionals set their white balance from 6000k to 7500k, as this will enhance the oranges in your image. If you do leave the white balance on automatic, this isn’t the end of the world, but the final image may have to be adjusted later on. 

8. Experiment With The Sun And Silhouettes

To achieve a striking, silhouetted effect when photographing people or any object, try positioning them right in front of  a setting sun. This effect can also be produced by distant wildlife.

For example, like birds flying away from the sun, but are positioned right in front of it. 

Alternatively, if your subject is looking dark, but you still want to preserve the detail in them, compensate by increasing your exposure by a couple of stops. This will prevent losing their features.

9. Think About The Details

Attractive ring lighting surrounding your subjects can be produced by low skylight. This highlights the delicate shapes of flowers and plants in close-up photographs particularly nicely.

What Can You Take Images Of In Golden Hour?

When it comes to golden hour, you may wonder what you should take an image of. If you have a location in mind this may help you make a decision, or it could make it harder.

It is important that you first consider a location where you would like to be at golden hour. This will then limit down your possible images.

Then, once you have decided on a location, you may want to scout the area out during the day to see what is there. You may become inspired on what to take a picture of at golden hour. 

You can decide to travel away from home or stay nearby, but there are lots of options in which you can photograph. We have compiled a couple of ideas, which will hopefully provide you with some inspiration.

1. Coastal Areas

Locations near the coast are usually ideal. A rock in the foreground can reveal their texture by side lighting, while cliffs can appear warm and inviting. 

A rock will take on the golden hues of golden hue, but each rock will look slightly different as the light hits them. 

Thanks to reflections in the water as well as wet rocks and sand, you may also take advantage of any color that appears before sunrise or after sunset along the coast.

2. Urban Landscapes

You don’t have to travel out of your city if you don’t have to. Just ensure that you can get to a place which is high enough to see the entire city. Then once golden hour hits you will be able to capture a truly beautiful image.

A city landscape has many buildings which are all different heights and constructed in different ways. This adds a lot of interest into your image, as each building may look different or be affected by the rays of golden hour differently. 

You may enjoy seeing your hometown from a different perspective. 

3. Hills Or Mountains

In the golden hour, nearly any landscape looks good, but some places seem to be particularly well-suited to this lighting. When side-lit by golden light, rolling landscapes and stretches of mountains or hills can look very attractive.

By rotating between bands of light and dark, this can produce a sort of “layered” look that gives the piece depth. When in more isolated rural areas, search for single objects to silhouette, such as trees, tors, or buildings.

4.  The Sun

It may seem simple, but you could use the golden hour as the perfect opportunity to take a gorgeous image of the sun. The sun itself will look like a huge ball in the sky which is surrounded by hues of yellow, orange, and red.

5. Portraits

One of the ideal times of day for portrait photography is during the golden hour. You can position your subject practically anywhere you wish thanks to the gentle lighting.

This is your time to get really creative in how you use the lightning and where you position your subject in relation to the sun. 

This could be a great option for family pictures or to take a portrait of your pet.

6. Wildlife

It is completely up to you what kind of animal you wish to photograph. However, you can tell a simple story of any animal when the image is taken during golden hour. In fact, it can help to make any animal seem softer in the glow of the light. 

With that being said, when you are taking images of animals in golden hour you need to be careful to not spook the animals. Therefore, you need to be as quiet as possible and keep still.

You could easily play around with taking images of animals in the light and having them as a silhouette as well.

Compositional Tips To Keep In Mind

Composition is important no matter what type of photography you are undertaking. When it comes to golden hour photography, you need  to think about your composition even more.

As mentioned above, golden hour provides you with directional sunlight, thus you have a lot of compositional options to play with. 


With the backlight, you will have your back facing the sun. Thus, the object or subject of your image will have the sun on their front/face. This is much more manageable, as everything is properly lit up. 

A lot of photographers will use this when they are doing portraits as it allows you to see the person or animal’s face much more clearly. You are able to pick up every detail since no shadows are being cast. 

Side Light

You aren’t going to have to cope with the jarring contrasts caused by the sun if you choose this option. The subject of your photograph will be bathed in a wonderful warmth, and the setting will be much more harmonious. 

You might get a lovely glow at the frame’s edge if you can manage to be at the appropriate angle with the sun.

Shoot At The Sun

You need to be careful when you are shooting towards the sun. The sun will often be in your image in some way.

You’ll need a compelling focal point to draw the audience in; however,  your subject can be lost in the background. If you don’t handle the scene’s dynamic range correctly, you’ll get a lot of underexposed pictures.


Golden hour photography can be a lot of fun, but it does require planning to ensure that you are prepared for the short window of time that you have to take images.

With that being said, golden hour provides you with a vast amount of different creative opportunities that every photographer should give a go.

We hope you have found this guide helpful. Now you ought to have a better understanding of golden hour photography and how you can achieve this yourself.

Frequently Asked Questions 

What ISO Is Best For Golden Hour?

You may have to experiment to find the right ISO for our image, but usually anywhere between 100 and 800 is great. Since 100 doesn’t add a lot of image noise, it’s the best place to start.

It could be necessary to select a value greater than 100 as it grows darker. Just be careful not to exceed 800, so your photos don’t come out too grainy and useless.

Do You Need To Use Flash During Golden Hour?

Depending on where the sun is, you may need to use an external flash to highlight your subject’s face and details. The lower the sun is, the more you will need to use a flash.

If your subject is facing away from the light, then this is another instance where you will need to use a flash as well. 

What Is The Secret To Sunrise Or Sunset Images?

Underexposure is the key to capturing a sunrise or sunset in a shot. This is because the camera attempts to balance out the exposure across the entire spectrum. Thus images of sunrise and sunset are frequently overexposed.

Laura McNeill
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