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Perfect lighting makes perfect photos. Achieve a natural & magic look during Golden Hours.
For many passionate photographers, Golden Hour is a hallowed time where fantastic photos are created as if by magic. With a little knowledge and practice, the warm tones and soft light can yield incredible results on almost any type of subject. Let’s first define Golden Hour shooting and then explore some tips for getting the best images out of this short period of time. Plus, if you miss Golden Hour, you can still achieve the look afterwards using Luminar.
The time of day just around sunrise and just around sunset is referred to as Golden Hour. Depending on the season, location and your distance from the equator, the exact time and duration varies, but suffice to say it’s when the sun is low on the horizon, producing a reddish warm tone. Scientifically speaking, the sun rays need to travel through more of the Earth’s atmosphere, producing less intensity. At sunset, the time after the sun has disappeared below the horizon, or twilight, is often called Blue Hour.
Photos shot during the Golden Hour take on an extra soft and warm tone that makes a scene and any subject look great. Plus, it imbues in the photo a certain dimensionality that can help make it more magnificent.
In the case of shooting people, you can even instruct them to look in the direction of the sun, and because the lighting is gentle, they won’t have to squint. When shooting mid-day when the sun is overhead, the light can be harsh and produce hard shadows and blown-out highlights. Not something you want in your environmental portraits! The answer is to shoot during Golden Hour when the contrast is diminished and those shadows and highlights are tamed. Keep in mind that some shadows - long ones or those at an interesting angle - can add a magical dimension to your images.
The soft warm light yields great results for almost any subject. Landscapes, western-facing coastlines and environmental portraits are popular genres, though many photographers also like to play with shadows and tones in their cityscapes and other urban settings. Romantic photos are always a crowd favorite, with the low-angle warm light flattering any couple.
Also, keep in mind that under the right conditions you can even take advantage of the Golden Hour to create gorgeous natural lighting scenes indoors - think about sunlight streaming through a window, throwing light on your subject!
1. Get there early and be prepared
Though you can shoot for a while around Golden Hour, the optimum time can often be as short as 10 minutes. If heading out in the wee hours of the morning, set that alarm clock to give yourself plenty of travel and set-up time. If possible, scout the location ahead of time and ensure that if you’re shooting a portrait that your subject also arrives ready to rock. You may also want to make a checklist so you don’t forget important items like a tripod, remote trigger, flash, reflector or whatever else makes up your personal kit.
2. Pay attention to exposure
Even though the contrast is often low, the tonal range between highlights and shadows can still fool your camera. A good practice is to spot-meter for the subject and let the highlights do what they will - even if they blow out a bit, it can produce an intriguing image. If you want to control the scene more, consider bracketing the shots and using software like Aurora HDR 2017 to merge them to a single image with a spectacular dynamic range. Another technique, particularly with a strong foreground subject (e.g. a person with a sky or landscape scene back-lighting them), is to use a fill flash or reflector to light them and balance things out. You can also try shifting their orientation so that the soft light hits them on the side - an interesting effect!
3. Shoot wide open
By using a wide aperture on your lens, you can create a beautifully shallow depth of field. This is great for portraits if you want the background to take on a magical bokeh.
4. Color temperature
Many photographers set their camera to “auto white balance” and never touch it again. However, during Golden Hour where conditions can shift within minutes, this auto setting is not your friend and can fool your camera. Since warm tones dominate the scene, your camera will compensate by adding more blue to the image.
Two tips come to mind:
In the screenshot below shown in Luminar, you'll see that the photo shows the "As Shot" setting for white balance.
The photo in the next screenshot has been changed (in Luminar) to use the "Cloudy" setting, and you can see how it takes on a nice warm tone. If you used the Cloudy white balance setting on your camera, you'd have similar results.
5. Stick with it
The very best Golden Hour shooting may only last a precious few minutes, but the times well before and after can also yield some amazing results. Our advice: keep shooting. You’ve taken the time to get up early (or wake up early from your afternoon nap!), so why not make the most of the effort?
6. Fun with long exposures
Consider trying out long exposure photography techniques right after the sun has fallen below the horizon, known as Blue Hour. Long exposure is exactly what it sounds like: keeping your lens open for an uncommonly long time to allow maximum light to hit the sensor. When the light is nearly gone, you can crank up your ISO and set your shutter speed to many seconds - even up to 30 seconds - to get a great shot. Most cameras also support a “Bulb” mode where the shutter will stay open as long as you want - best to have a remote trigger for this.
Want some extra fun? Try long exposure shooting on things that move such as waves, a rushing waterfall, cars and more. In the case of water, it can get very soft and almost “fog-like.” Cars with their headlights and taillights on will leave amazing streaks in the air.Image by Jim Nix, Nomadic Pursuits
Of all the post processing software solutions available for photographers, none are so easy-to-use as Luminar - after all, the app has an actual filter called “Golden Hour”!
If you have Luminar, simply open up a photo you’d like to take on a nice soft warm tone. Add the Golden Hour filter to whatever Workspace is open, then adjust the amount to suit your taste. See, we told you it was easy! If you'd like more inspiration and want to see this filter in action, consider watching our Golden Hour Workflow video by Pro photographer Derrick Story.
Golden Hour and its cousin Blue Hour are really magical spans of time at which to shoot. The conditions are relatively easy and can produce truly memorable results almost effortlessly. Every photographer should know, try and ultimately fall in love shooting during these times.
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