The Golden Hour – Shooting at Sunrise or Sunset

When talking to a photographer or cinematographer, you may hear them talk longingly about the golden hour or magic hour.   This time refers to the first and last hour of sunlight each day.  This is often considered the best light by many, and really offers a unique look that can be very attractive.

©Richard Harrington | When shooting at sunrise, you’ll need to let some items fall into silhouette.

The lighting during sunrise and sunset tends to be softer and nicely diffused.  The hue is often warmer with nice rich shadows as well.  The best feature is how the skies can become quite dramatic with varied colors and nice glows.  If you’re shooting landscapes, sty skylines, or nature, this is a great time

Position is Everything

So the question is, are you shooting to capture the sunrise and sunset (such as a beautiful shot of the sun cresting over the ocean’s edge) or are you just trying to shoot at a time where the sun is the only light you have.  In either case you need to know where the sun is.

  • Shooting a sunrise: A sunrise is much trickier to catch if you’re up early.  The entire horizon may start to glow, but choosing exactly how to compose the shot is tricky.  I rely on my compass and SunPath calculator to show me the sun’s path.  This makes it easier to compose a good shot where the sun rises in my frame, I generally choose to center the sun.
  • Shooting a sunset: With sunset, things are pretty easy.  Just follow the sun as it goes down.  If you’ve lost track of the sun setting, look west.
  • Shooting a subject during this time: Try to keep the light in front of your subject (and to your back).  You may need to turn or rotate as needed.  Eventually, the light may become so diffused and soft that you’ll be able to let it backlight your subject.

Be Prepared for Fast Changes

©Richard Harrington

Keep in mind that the golden hour may not be an actual hour.  This type of light is determined by the altitude of the sun.  The closer you are towards the equator, the shorter the time will be.  While the further away you get, the longer the time can last. In fact, during certain seasons (like Winter) you may have no golden hour at all.

Also, realize that the posted sunrise and sunset is when the sun actually crosses the horizon.  This great light will often start before the technical sunrise and go slightly longer than the setting sun.

In all cases, I’d have a fast lens attached to the camera and be ready to change aperture settings.  If you’re shooting a sunrise and don’t have much to focus on, make sure the lens is set to the infinity setting for focus distance.

Determine your golden hour and shoot in it.  You can visit to help determine the best shooting time.


About Richard Harrington

Richard Harrington is the founder of RHED Pixel, a visual communications company based in Washington, D.C. He is the Publisher of Photofocus as well as an author on Rich has authored several books including From Still to Motion, Understanding Photoshop, Professional Web Video, and Creating DSLR Video.

Posted on January 6, 2012, in HDR, Panoramic, Time-lapse. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I did a “first light” photo shoot the other day and was very pleased with the results. The golden glow of the early morning sunlight really exaggerates the reddish hue of Arizona’s desert. But what I liked most is the way the light fell on certain subjects, especially in the first few minutes after sunrise. For once, I timed I perfectly.

    As a helicopter pilot, I often do aerial photography flights with fine art photographers. The most experienced ones ONLY shoot during the Golden Hours at sunrise and sunset. To get on point at the right time, we’re usually in the air before sunrise or after sunset. I consider that one of the perks of my job: experiencing first or last light in beautiful places from the air.