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If you got a shiny new camera over the holidays and aren’t lucky enough to live in the tropics, you've probably been despairing over the endless gray days and early sunsets of winter. We certainly have, up here in the Northeastern U.S.
But there's some good news on the way. First, winter is on its way out. Second, this weekend marks the beginning of daylight saving time and the sudden gift of an extra hour of daylight.
Perhaps the best thing about the changeover (and the perfect salve for your wounds over losing an hour of sleep Saturday night) is that you'll probably get home from work on Monday in time to enjoy the day’s last hour of sunlight—known to photographers and cinematographers as the “golden hour” (or “magic hour”).
What is so special about this time of day? Well, the lighting gives shots a warm, inviting glow. Because of the sun’s altitude relative to the horizon (in the ballpark of 10 degrees or less), light has to travel through more of the atmosphere before it gets to you. This has a number of knock-on effects: the light is softer and more diffuse, it’s colored by the dust and other particles in the atmosphere, and the blue wavelengths are scattered.
Know exactly when the golden hour begins. The exact timing of the golden hour varies by your geographical location and the time of year. But you live in the age of the Internet, and that means you have access to useful tools like The Golden Hour Calculator. Use it!
Use a tripod. You won’t always need one, but the closer you get to sunset, the longer your exposures will be. If you’re shooting landscapes in particular, bringing a tripod will let you capture all the rich color of the golden hour without sacrificing sharpness.
Shoot some landscapes with the sun at your back. The diffuse light of the golden hour more evenly exposes the ground and sky, and tends to unify their colors. (This works particularly well if you’re shooting across a body of water.) It’s a technique that can create some truly spectacular shots that you can’t get at any other time. Just be careful not to get your shadow in the shot! You can always set a timer and move out of the way.
Try backlighting your subjects. In addition to enhancing colors and making exposure easier, the soft light of the golden hour means you can position your subject directly in front of the setting sun. This creates a beautiful corona around hair and skin, without completely blacking out your subject’s face. If you find your subject is too dark, try using center-weighted or spot metering—but be careful not to blow out the sky.
Use flare to your advantage. Flare is usually thought of as a defect in a lens, but creative photographers can harness it as a force for good. When shooting during the golden hour, the angle of the light means you can shoot almost directly into the sun. Try shooting portraits with the sun just behind and to the side of your subject, and see how the colorful circles of lens flare add interest to the shot.
Don’t be afraid of the shadows. Closer to sunset, blacked out foreground objects against a brilliantly colored sky can create an interesting shot. Similarly, the long shadows created by the oblique angle of sunlight can add drama to just about any composition.
Shoot until the sun sets—and after. Throughout the golden hour, the light changes by the minute. You can get completely different looks from the same subject, just five or 10 minutes apart. Even when the sun has gone down, there are still creative possibilities aplenty—photographers call this the “blue hour,” but most of us know it as twilight.
The golden hour happens twice a day. All of the above also applies to the hour after sunrise, if you can manage to drag yourself out of bed at such an early hour. (Try it on a weekend.) The colors you get at sunrise are slightly different, probably because there’s not as much dust being kicked up into the atmosphere overnight, and of course the light strikes everything from the opposite direction. Bonus!
Photos: Ben Keough