Golden hour is the time around sunrise and sunset when the sun is closest to the horizon, creating soft, even light. Coupled with blue hour — the time just before sunrise and just after sunset — you’ve got what’s known as “magic hour.” And as beautiful as magic hour is, it’s just as temporary. That’s why these tips offer insight on the camera settings and techniques you need to capitalize on the most captivating time(s) of the day.
1. Know When Golden Hour Occurs
The easy thing to understand about golden hour is when it happens. With this information, you can just head out on your shoot around sunrise or sunset and probably get some great footage or photos. However, the difficult thing to understand is that golden hour isn’t always a true “hour” — and there are many factors you need to be aware of to harness as much golden light as you can.
Depending on the time of year, your altitude, and your latitude, your golden hour’s duration can vary wildly. In Alaska, it can be up to an hour and a half in the summer, but it can also be nonexistent in the winter. There are several resources available, like golden-hour.com, photopills, and goldenhour.one.
Most of these apps give you the exact duration for any location, elevation, and date, and can even send you reminders when it’s the perfect time to shoot. Since these moments are fleeting, knowing precisely when you need to roll can be the difference between success and failure.
2. Scout Your Location Beforehand
The only way to know what your location looks like during golden hour is to actually witness it beforehand. Go out and scout both sunrise and sunset light to see what looks best. Keep an eye on the sun’s path in the sky and look for any shadows it creates as it rises and sets. Take your camera and look at your settings. That way, you won’t waste any time having to figure out your exposure when you should be shooting.
If you’re not able to reach your destination before your shoot, you can check Google Earth or other 3D tools that actually show you the sun’s trajectory and lighting during a given time of day or year. The more prepared you are ahead of time with knowledge of the sun’s path and strength, the better results you’re likely to come away with.
3. Stick Around for Blue Hour
Blue hour is the time just before the sun rises or just after the sun sets, when there is still enough even, soft light to give you footage that looks great. During blue hour, the sky has a deeper blue and more saturated colors, which can lead to a more dramatic and melancholy feel. This can be great if you’re going for that look, but it can be tough to match the color of other shots in post.
The lack of sun means that you won’t have as much of that direct golden hue, which can also result in a cooler image. Blue hour is also going to be much darker, since there isn’t any sun, so boost your exposure as much as you can before adding noise and/or grain to your camera.
It can be difficult to match golden hour and blue hour shots, so work separately within each time period as much as possible. And, as it is with golden hour, blue hour is fleeting (possibly even more so), so you need to work fast.
4. Keep an Eye on Your Settings
As the sun rises and sets, the color temperature is going to change dramatically. In order to keep it consistent, you’re going to have to constantly monitor your settings. Pull up your camera’s histogram (if you’ve got one) and read the data to see exactly what’s going on with your image, then tweak as necessary.
When you’re adjusting the color temperature of your image in-camera, auto white balance will usually do just fine. However, since there is so much warm light coming from the sun, you may lose some of the skin tones on your subjects (if you have them), because the camera will be adding cooler blue color to compensate.
Daylight, shade, or cloudy presets can also give you positive results, depending on your light, so experiment with those. The key is to not lose your blues. Manual white balance works as well, but you’ll need to keep a watchful eye and make adjustments with the light. As far as your ISO, know what your camera’s native ISO is, because once you go above that, your image can lose quality and add camera noise or grain.
Lastly, opening or closing your aperture to keep adequate exposure can drastically change your depth of field, so if you have a specific look you want to keep, don’t adjust it too much. Work with other exposure settings instead.
5. Get Creative With the Sun
The majority of your shots are going to be one of two things: pointing the camera toward the sun, or pointing the camera away from the sun and toward your subject, using the golden light as your light source. Experiment with other angles by using the sun in more creative ways, like as a rim light right behind your subject, creating a halo effect.
You can use the sun to create a lens flare by simply tilting or pivoting your camera at the right angle to the sun (it also helps immensely to remove the lens hood). You can direct the sun’s light with reflectors or bounce cards, or the sun can even be bounced off a body of water and you can highlight reflections of the sun without actually looking at it. It’s like hot ice: the best of both worlds.
No matter what you do, shooting during magic hour is incredibly beautiful and rewarding when you do it right, and you’ll learn loads about using natural light in your productions. You’ll also learn how to shoot quickly within a tight window, which never hurts.