If you’ve read any beginner photography book or taken any courses, you’ve probably had the importance of the ‘golden hour’ drilled into you.
Golden hour light, right around the time the sun is rising or setting, is a beautiful, soft, reddish-orange light that makes people look great.
If you’re shooting portraits I think it’s a good idea to plan your portrait sessions during this time of day if you can but many photography books will make you feel like you HAVE to shoot at this time of day and only this time of day, which I think is the wrong way to think about it, especially for photography other than portraits.
If you want to go and make images outside the golden hour, then you should do it, especially if you’re just practicing when you’re new to photography.
This is a relatively simple landscape sunset image shot from a beach but it is executed well. The photographer could have done the obvious (and likely more predictable thing) and just isolated the sun in the middle of the frame and excluded the hut/deck thing.
But including the hut and the people on it in the frame provides context and interest to the shot. It makes you wonder, who are the people? What are they talking about?
Hiding the sun in the frame behind the hut is a good touch because if you include the sun directly it’s just going to be a completely blown out ball and probably blow out other highlights in the shot.
All the footprints in the sand on the beach are nice too, indicating that there was a fun day on the beach. Note how the light casts a golden/reddish glow over the scene.
This is a more abstract image of a mountain range shot during the golden hour as the sun sets in the left side of the frame. This shot doesn’t really have a central focus point but it still works, partly because of how nice the scene is.
The pattern of having mountain after mountain that fades into the distance is a pleasing effect.
This is one of those Henri Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment” shots. I’m assuming the photographer shot this from another boat not unlike the boat these fishermen are on, which makes it all more impressive to have caught this image considering it was probably a somewhat unstable place to shoot from.
We don’t know if the photographer knew these subjects or not but I don’t really care considering how iconic of an image it is.
The sun in the distance and the fisherman throwing the net are featured pretty much dead center in the middle of the shot. This kind of goes against one of the unwritten rules of photography but in this case, I think it works perfectly. It makes for a grandiose, larger-than-life shot that could only be captured in a split second.
This is an image of the National Museum of Spain from the Placa de España in Barcelona. You can see that the sun is setting in the right-hand side of the frame, as the brighter light is hitting the right side of the building and falling off into darker light and shadow on the other side.
This places the building dead-center in the middle of the frame. Again, like the previous image, it’s not always the approach you want to take in photography (although architectural photography is probably one of the types of photography that breaks this rule the most) but in this case, it works great.
Buildings shot from a low angle like this with the center of the building in the center of the frame makes the building stand out and gives it an epic and maybe even intimidating look. It reminds me of Wes Anderson movies and the symmetrical framing that he uses.
This golden hour image of a leaf on a grassy ground shows that you can photograph practically anything and benefit from golden hour light. You can tell from the angle of the light that the sun is outside the frame in the upper left-hand side.
It’s a nice touch how the photographer focused on the leaf but left a lot of headroom that is essentially white space because it’s all out of focus. I do like filling the frame with a subject or multiple subjects but it’s not always called for and this is a good example of that. The fact that the leaf and the grass that it’s sitting on are in focus and the rest is blurred out makes it so that your attention is drawn almost exclusively on the subject. The photographer got this shallow depth of field look by using a wide aperture and placing the sun (around sunset) behind the subject and out of the frame for the soft and warm backlighting.
For me, the image conjures thoughts of summer turning into fall, cool weather, and the holidays starting.
I’m not sure what type of plant this is but I like how there are just a couple parts of it in focus. The rest of the plant is out of focus but you know what it would look like if it was in focus so you can just place your focus as a viewer on a couple of important parts of the plant. The plant behind it with purple buds is visible enough that you can make out what it is.
The sun is coming in through the back of the photo but it’s not so overbearing that it blows out the entire frame. It casts a nice, soft, warm light over the scene.
If you’re out shooting during the golden hour, your first instinct might be to shoot the landscape of wherever you are with the sunset in the background. But why not just focus in on the sunset and the sky? Sometimes, the most obvious shot could be staring you in the face but you miss it because you were too tunneled on a wider shot or something else.
You can see even in a shot of the sky how much of a golden glow is cast on everything during the golden hour as you can see the golden light on the clouds.
This scene without the sheep could probably work on its own as a standalone image. But with how basic and flat this landscape is, the addition of the sheep really makes this image.
This photo seems to be many things at once: an everyday scene on a farm, bizarre, intimidating, calming, and even funny. The look on the sheep’s face makes you second guess whether it’s a simple-minded creature or an all-knowing being.
The photographer framed this with the sun basically in alignment with the sheep’s body, which I like. It casts a golden glow from behind the sheep and casts dramatic shadow in front of the sheep.
This photo may not have the most defined focus, so it’s more of a general landscape scene. Although your eye is drawn to the largest tree in the front of the image.
The sun is out of the frame to the right and casts a golden/yellow glow across the mountain and makes the trees look even more yellow than they probably are. It looks like it was shot in autumn just before the season turns truly cold, although it is cold enough that the mountain top has some snow on it.
This shot is a good example of a couple of things. First, it was shot at the very end of the golden hour when the sun was just about to go down. Just a few minutes after this photo was taken there wouldn’t have been enough available light to get the shot.
Second, the photographer made an artistic choice to isolate the small wave crashing to shore, which works really well. Either that, or they were forced to because they needed to use a wide aperture because of how dark it was. Regardless, it makes for a cool photo from a unique perspective.
The photo has a relaxing effect looking at it from the waves calmly washing up onshore.
I like how the photographer isolated a section of the Manhattan skyline in this shot. They included some water in the foreground and some “headspace” at the top of the image to include the entire tallest building, the One World Trade Center, and gave it some room to breathe so it doesn’t feel claustrophobic.
The golden hour light cast from the left side of the frame makes for some pretty cool golden light that hits the glass buildings.
This is a good example of what you can do with golden hour light for portraits. As you can see, the sun is off-camera from the right side and is casting light on the woman’s backside and hair, which makes for some really nice golden highlights in her blonde hair.
Since the sun is to her back, that means her face is in soft shadow. The shot works like this but if you wanted a different look, you could have an assistant hold a reflector to the model’s left to illuminate her face. You could also use a flash in a similar way.
In this photo of the Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, you can see that the photographer shot it during the golden hour with the sun from behind and from the left, as the light is hitting the left-facing parts of the building. I like how it was shot at a time when the sky was nice and blue but still had some clouds, giving it some texture.
This photo in a hayfield shot during the golden hour looks like it was also about to storm based on how the clouds look. It’s very bright on the left side of the frame and very dark on the right side with dark clouds.
It makes for a really dramatic shot that’s warm on the left side of the frame and cool on the right, which is not something you see very often. I like how the photographer framed the shot and filled the frame with the hay bales. It’s shot from an angle so that the bales are basically on their own layer in the shot.
In this image, golden hour light is cast on structures, buildings, and water for a very cool effect. I like how the photographer filled the frame with the bridge. It was taken at a time when the sky is calming yet dramatic at the same time.
The central focus of this image is obviously the bridge but it’s framed in a way that makes my eyes wander from each element of the frame to explore it all, which I think is what you want to achieve as a photographer.
This is an example of combining the golden hour with this decisive moment of this woman feeding a seagull a worm or some other type of food. The sun is slightly hidden behind the sign, which has a couple of small birds on it which I think is a nice little detail of the image plus there would be more blown-out highlights in the image if it weren’t for this sign.
The elements of this photo are nicely spaced throughout the frame and there is a really nice light from the sun cast on the water that leads from the sun to the bird in the front layer of the photo, then the sign, and then the other birds and the woman.
The skyline of this photo is framed really nicely, showing about a third of the image as water, including a few boats. Then the second layer is the skyline and the third layer is the sky. However, the golden hour light is really the subject of this image, which I think was a really good way to approach this image.
The sun is out of frame from the right-hand side of the image and casts this massive amount of golden light. The angle that it’s shot from makes the light cast on each layer of the image; the water, the skyline, and the sky.
In this golden hour image, you have a person on a bike wearing leather boots and the sun in the upper right part of the frame. I think a lot of photographers’ first instinct would be to photograph the person riding the bike with the sun setting in the background, which the shot might call for, especially if you’re doing portrait or modeling photography obviously. But if you’re shooting a more artistic shot (or if, say, you were doing a shoot for whatever company makes these boots), then zeroing in on one aspect of the frame like this could be the way to go.
Placing the sun between the bike rider’s leg and the tire makes for a nice burst of light. And the spacing of everything throughout the frame is well-done too. It’s cool that you can see enough detail to know that parts of the bike are aged and rusting.
I don’t necessarily know why, but this photo has a sad look to it, like the model is looking out into her future after losing someone important to her. Maybe it’s a frequent trope in movies I’ve seen. Either way, it’s a beautiful photo that shows what it looks like when you shoot directly into golden hour light. You can tell that the light is hitting the front side of this woman’s body, which is why her back is in shadow.
I like how the light is illuminating some of the plants in the frame.
As you can see, there is some chromatic aberration and flare in the photo, which is hard to avoid when shooting into direct sunlight.
This is just a close up of some stalks of wheat in a wheat field but it’s executed so well. Your focus is brought mainly to the wheat plant that’s left of center and then also a bit on the one that’s right of center, as they’re in focus and everything else is either out of focus or slightly blurry. You get enough context from the foreground and background to see that it’s probably an entire wheat field and not just a few random plants.
It’s pleasing to the eye how each layer blurs into the next. I also like how the frame slides into blown-out sky, which kind of looks like a mirage and adds some mystery to the shot.
This landscape image was caught at just the right time as the sun was setting or rising. A few minutes later and the sun would have set, leaving the photographer with too little light, or if it was at sunrise, it would have turned into harsh midday light soon after.
This photo is a great example of the soft golden light you get from shooting during the golden hour. The gold/orange light that hits the mountains and is reflected in the water of this pond really makes the shot pop.
The golden hour light in this image really adds to the sense of this location being a tranquil little oasis.
The trees and vegetation in the foreground act like a frame within the frame, which makes you focus in on the water, the floating log, and the shore/peninsula to the right with the trees on it. The small branch from one of the trees in the foreground looks like it’s reaching out to the tree on the far shore.
The rays of sunlight coming in from the left-hand side of the frame have a heavenly look to them.
The contrast between the green and orange/warm colors in this photo are really striking. It looks to me like the sun is setting behind the photographer to right, which is what is casting that glowing golden hour light on the upper half of the frame.
Your eyes are led up the stairs and down the pathway in the frame, which creates some intrigue and mystery as to what’s at the end of the path.
This is an epic landscape image that makes use of the golden hour.
I like how the golden hour light is hitting the mountains in the upper right side of the image but isn’t reaching the lake and bottom left side of the frame, which creates a strong contrast between the two. I also like how the sun is just peeking over the mountain top and you get a bit of sun star cast on the mountain to the left.
It really stands out to me how crystal clear and blue the water from the lake is. I also notice how the image fades into more mountains, indicating there is still a whole range of mountains behind this small slice of it.
You don’t really see the subjects’ faces in this image but I think it works because they’re looking out over such a nice landscape from a high vantage point. Their light sweatsuits indicate comfortable, cool weather. It’s a peaceful, relaxing shot and looks like the type of place where you can get some peace of mind and reflect, or just totally clear your mind.
Including the entire sun in your frame doesn’t always work, but in this case, it does because the left side of the frame needs that open space so you can see what the subjects are looking out to. You can see the reddish golden hour light from the sun being cast on the mountains and some on the subjects sitting on the bench.
If you like the way the light looks in these golden hour images, then you’ll like the results you get by shooting during the golden hour.
Many photographers swear by it and scout locations and come back to shoot there during the golden hour. I don’t think you have to exclusively shoot during the golden hour. There’s a whole spectrum of light that we live through during our day-to-day lives that ranges from extremely dark to very bright, harsh light and I think those times of day should be represented through our photography too.
Certain types of photography probably benefit more from shooting during the golden hour, such as landscapes and portraits, for example.
Brandon Ballweg is a photographer from the Kansas City area. He is the founder of ComposeClick.