Practical tips to help you capture beautiful golden hour shots every time

Chad Verzosa

In photography, it’s often said that the best time to take photos is during the golden hour—but what exactly is it? And how can scheduling your shoot around it help improve your images?

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

Golden hour happens shortly after sunrise or before sunset; when the sun is barely above the horizon. The bright orange and reddish hues produced during this period make the colors in photos look stunningly vivid and dramatic.

If you want to make the most of the golden hour, here are eight useful tips to help you capture its magical glow:

01. Figure out where the sun rises and sets

Do you ever wonder why sunrises and sunsets look better in some places than others? It mostly has to do with the location.

Photo by Ben Ostrower

Since the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, any place that happens to be in those general directions enjoys more exceptional civil twilights than other areas. That means that just because you’re at the beach, it doesn't guarantee you a sunset photo that’s as beautiful as one taken in Ibiza or Santorini.

Photo by Tom Grimbert

So, before you go out and take pictures, it would help to scout your location first. Find out exactly where the sun rises and sets so that you can determine the best vantage point to take photos from.  

Photo by Graham Holtshausen

Use phone apps such as Sun Seeker or Sun Surveyor to help you pinpoint where the sun will rise or set in any particular location. Once you know where to go, walk around the area and scout for scenic spots worth photographing.

02. Get there early

Photo by Tyler Nix

Photographing at golden hour is always fun, but it’s also a race against time. The golden hour doesn’t technically last for one full hour. In fact, it typically starts 20 to 40 minutes before the sun fully rises or sets. Consequently, that leaves you with a very limited window of time to shoot.

Photo by Tyler Lastovich

To make use of every minute of the sunrise or sunset, you'll need to schedule your shoot carefully and get to your location at least one hour earlier than the sunrise or sunset. You can use the Golden Hour Calculator or other similar phone apps to help you figure out the right time to take photos.

Photo by Spencer Watson

Additionally, you should also allot time to set up your equipment in advance. Remember, the less time you spend preparing at the location, the more time you buy yourself for actual shooting.

03. Choose the right settings

Photo by Jack Cain

Since you’re dealing with light that always changes, you’ll have to use Aperture Priority. Doing so ensures that your depth of field stays consistent even when it starts to get dim. If you’re doing portraits, an aperture of f/1.8 to f/4 will help achieve a blurry background. For landscapes, try choosing between f/8 to f/22 to keep everything in the frame sharp.

Photo by Charlie Costello

Since you’re using Aperture Priority, your camera automatically picks the shutter speed for you. Nevertheless, you will want to make sure that the setting doesn’t go below 1/60th. Otherwise, your photos will turn out blurry because the shutter is open for too long. If it gets too dark, increase your ISO, instead, or use flash to compensate for the lack of light.

Photo by Soren Astrup Jorgensen

As for the ISO, try to set your camera between 100 and 800. It’s ideal to start at 100 because it doesn’t introduce too much image noise. As it gets darker, it may be necessary to choose a value higher than 100. Just try not to go beyond 800, so your pictures don’t turn up too grainy and unusable.

Photo by Nikhil Kumar

If you don’t like adjusting your ISO manually, you can turn on your camera’s ISO sensitivity settings instead. Simply adjust the minimum ISO to 100 and maximum to 800, and you're all set. The camera will automatically select the settings for you while you're shooting, but will never go beyond the parameters you've selected.

04. Review your images

Photo by Jed Villejo

Digital photographers often frown upon 'chimping,' or the act of incessantly checking each photo after taking a shot. However, since light changes drastically during the golden hour, you may need to review your photos every once in a while.

Photo by Randy Fath

If your image looks underexposed, you'll need to change your settings accordingly. For instance, if you started with f/4 at the beginning of the shoot, you should adjust your aperture to f/2.8 or even f/1.8 once it gets darker. Using a wide f-number lets more light into the camera and consequently allows you to create a better exposure.

Photo by Johannes Plenio

If changing your aperture isn’t enough, consider bumping up your ISO. If you started with 100, you might want to move it up to 250, 400, or even 800. Always choose the value that corresponds to the amount of light available. In other words, don’t shoot at 800 when you can get a decent exposure at 400. Otherwise, you'll just be adding unnecessary noise to your image.

05. Be mindful of shadows

Another reason that golden hour is so well known is because of the long, dramatic shadows it produces.

Photo by Anton Darius

Although they appear beautiful, there are times where they can interfere with your shots, so it's best to always pay attention to them. Make a habit of taking a good look at your screen or viewfinder before clicking the shutter. If you find unwanted shadows (or if your own shadow is in the image) consider repositioning yourself.

Photo by Jarrad Seng

Of course, you shouldn’t avoid shadows altogether. When used correctly, they can make photographs look more stunning. Try experimenting with shadows to bring more balance (or contrast) to your composition.

06. Fill light with a flash

Since you’ll be photographing against the sun a lot, many of your photos may end up backlit. If you don’t want your point of interest to end up a silhouette, you’ll need to use fill flash. This technique allows you to fill the dark spots with light, so you can see the features of your subject’s face and body clearly.

Photo by Sonnie Hiles

When shooting with the sun behind your subject, all you have to do is turn on the flash when you take a picture. If the beam is too intense, adjust the intensity accordingly until you achieve proper exposure.

Photo by Allef Vinicius

It’s best to use an external flash unit since it’s better than your camera’s built-in flash. For instance, it features different settings that let you change the beam's intensity and burst rate. Apart from that, it’s adjustable, so you can direct the light in almost any direction you prefer.

Photo by Ajun

Nevertheless, you can still use your pop-up flash if you don’t have a dedicated flash unit. Although it’s small and not adjustable, you can at least change its intensity through flash exposure compensation.

Photo by Christian Blankenship

If you don’t want to use flash, you can use a reflector, instead. Ask a friend to hold and angle it in such a way that sunlight bounces from it on to the subject’s face. The light it reflects isn’t as bright as artificial lighting, but it looks more natural, nonetheless.

07. Create silhouettes

Photo by Jeff Nissen

If you like shooting silhouettes, then you don’t have to bother with fill flash. All you have to do is photograph your subject with the sunlight in the background, and you’ll end up with dark figures in your image.

Photo by Alex J. Reyes

Photographing silhouettes is its own form of art, and you need to develop an eye for it. It’s not enough that your subject looks dark in your image, it also has to be distinct and recognizable.

Photo by Austin Mabe

For instance, if you’re shooting a human figure, include discernible features such as arms, hands, and legs. Be conscious of the compositional placement and even posture of your subject in order highlight their presence in the photo.

08. Add lens flares

Photo by Cristina Gottardi

The light during golden hour is so beautiful, it’s understandable if you get tempted to include it in your photo any way you can. One of the best ways to highlight the sun’s golden rays is by adding lens flares to your image.

Photo by Damar Jati Pranandaru

To do this, you can have your subject slightly turn their back against the sun. Since they’ll be backlit, you’ll need to turn on spot metering. It helps offset backlighting by adjusting the exposure according to the light bouncing off the person’s skin and not their surroundings. However, if your model still looks dark, consider using flash.

Photo by Bryan Minear

Once your subject is in position, move around until the sun’s glare is on your screen or in your viewfinder. After you find your sweet spot, start clicking your shutter while moving sideways and stop only when the rays are gone. It's always good to take several photos considering that it’s hard to achieve the perfect flare all at once.

The golden hour is relatively easy to shoot, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t prepare for it. This spellbinding moment only lasts for so long, so it helps if you know exactly what to do beforehand. Keep these tips in mind, and your photos will definitely leave a lasting impression long after the sun sets.