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Ultimate Guide to Golden Hour Photography | Part I – Shooting

golden hour photography

Golden hour is one of the most beautiful times to photograph as a portrait photographer but it takes some time and practice to master it. This ultimate guide to golden hour photography is dedicated to teaching family or portrait photographers how to capture magical photos during golden hour.

What is Golden Hour?

Golden hour offers the most beautiful soft, golden light and is the optimal time for taking photos. Photographers favor this window of time for the naturally beautiful light.

Golden Hour happens when the sun is closest to the horizon, making prime golden hour about 1 hour after the sun rises or 1 hour before the sun sets. During this time the light is soft, directional and golden, hence the name “golden hour.” This window of time can vary depending on your geographical location, season and scenery.

During Golden Hour, you can achieve a few different looks with this beautiful lighting.

Here are 6 unique looks that can be captured during golden hour.

Because the sun is lower to the horizon, the light is directional, meaning you can use it in many different ways. Here are some examples of the different ways you can use the light during golden hour photography.

1 | Backlighting

This is one of the the most popular ways to shoot during golden hour. Backlighting is a beautiful compliment to moments that involve motion or an action of some sort.

HOW TO SHOOT BACKLIGHTING: The subject is placed between the photographer and the sun. The subject will have the sun to their back. Check out the tips below for mastering backlit photos.

2 | Rim Lighting

When your subject is backlit, the sun can create a halo-like effect. The result is a pretty glowing outline.

HOW TO SHOOT RIM LIGHTING: With the sun to your subject’s back, place them in front of a darker background and position yourself lower to the ground to achieve rim light. As with all backlighting, it takes some trial and error to get it right.

rim lighting during golden hour family photo session

3 | Directional Lighting

As the sun gets closer to the horizon, the intensity gets stronger and comes in from one direction. You can achieve some beautiful, dramatic lighting using the light coming in from the side.

HOW TO SHOOT DIRECTIONAL LIGHTING: Place your subject with the light coming in from the side. This will create a drastic shift between your shadows and highlights.

directional lighting during golden hour for a custom family photo session

4 | Front Lighting

Front lighting can be difficult to use during prime golden hour as the sun can be strong during this time and difficult to look towards. If and when the light is soft, you can shoot some images using front lighting.

HOW TO SHOOT FRONT LIGHTING: Place yourself, the photographer, with your back to the sun and your subject facing the light. Be cautious and aware of any shadows being cast by yourself or dappled light. If the light is dappled, be sure it doesn’t fall on your subjects face.

front lighting during a golden hour photo session

5 | Sun Flares

Sun flares are a unique thing to incorporate into your golden hour photos. They are slightly unpredictable however and require some trial and error to achieve them. They are usually the result of a partially obstructed light source. Some photographers enjoy them and some try to avoid them.

HOW TO SHOOT SUN FLARES: These are a little more difficult to intentionally shoot so they require more trial and error. Try shooting with the sun just barely outside of the frame and continue to shoot as you slightly change the angle of your lens.

sun flare during first birthday photography session at golden hour

6 | Haze

The use of haze tends to be a personal preference for many photographers. Some photographers will embrace the artistic feeling of haze and others will avoid it. Haze can convey a softer, more romantic feeling. Caution has to be used however. If there is too much haze, you will lose clarity in the image.

HOW TO SHOOT HAZE: Haze happens when too much light enters your lens. It’s often easier to accomplish when the sun is a little higher and your lens is angled up towards the sun.

haze during a maternity photo session at golden hour

How to Find Magical Locations for Beautiful Golden Hour Light

There are so many beautiful and inspirational photos from golden hour. Whether you searching Pinterest for inspiration or admiring other photographers on Instagram, there are so many beautiful examples out there.

But how do you find these magical locations for your own golden hour photography sessions?

The sun rises and sets just the same anywhere you go, but not all locations are created equal. You want to look for locations that will have beautiful and picturesque landscapes to shoot towards as the sun sets (or rises) behind them.

Visit each of your favorite locations during golden hour and observe how the sun interacts at each place as it sets. Research other photographers in your area and note how they use golden hour at the various locations.

For beautiful bokeh and warm light, look for natural tree lines or elements can help filter the light.

When you have natural filters, it is easier to use backlight during golden hour. These will allow you to maximize the amount of time you can use the light and also give you some amazing bokeh.

For dramatic and vibrant light, look for locations that have a direct and unobstructed view of the horizon.

For this look, think about the sun setting over a body of water, or perhaps setting (or rising) over a hill or flat horizon. In locations such as this, the optimal golden hour will happen closer to the time that the sun sets. The window of time to use the light in these scenarios is much smaller and you have to shoot quickly!

Don’t forget to scout your location in advance for the best use of golden hour light.

As a portrait photographer, it’s always best to scout out any new locations prior to your sessions. When scouting, always look for the direction of the sun and where it will be setting.

It is ideal to scout at the exact time you will be shooting but this isn’t always feasible. If you need to scout a location earlier in the day, there are various apps to show you the direction and path the sun will take. The SunSeeker app from iTunes works well.

Once you have an idea of the path the sun travels and where it will set, take note what elements exist at the location that can be used to filter the light. Depending on the landscape, the optimal time for the light may vary. Prime golden hour could happen anytime between 30 to 90 mins before the sun sets. This is why it’s so important to scout a location in advance.

How to Prepare Clients for a Golden Hour Session

If you gravitate towards those warm, dreamy, golden hour portraits, you will begin attracting clients that desire this type of photo. As with any portrait session, you always need to prepare your clients for what to expect. When it comes to golden hour, there are a few extra things I like to point out to my clients in advance.

Golden Hour is NOT guaranteed.

In order to achieve those magical golden hour photos, you need to have sun! Unfortunately, this isn’t always guaranteed and depending on where you live, this may or may not be predictable.

Always be sure to convey this to your clients. They need to know that if there is no sun, you will not be able to achieve golden hour photos.

If you have a client that wants this for their photos, block off a few days for their session. When the time gets closer, pick the day that has the highest probability of full sun.

Backlighting isn’t great for direct to camera portraits.

Not every client will want golden hour photos that are backlit. Backlighting lends itself to a more artistic style of photography and this isn’t always desired by all clients. Mix up your session with some clean, front lit portraits along with the those beautiful but artistic golden hour shots.

Do the standard direct-to-camera portraits and clean light images at the beginning of the session. When you begin using the light, encourage your clients to engage more with each other and avoid looking at the camera.

Accentuate Images with Flowing Outfits and Accessories

Encourage your clients to wear flowing outfits and incorporate accessories that will accentuate their silhouette. Golden hour be used as a beautiful story telling element and movement and motion is encouraged. If your clients have accesories that can accentuate this movement, the better the story telling.

Tips for Shooting at Golden Hour

Change your angle.

Shooting at golden hour can be tricky. The key to getting amazing photos is testing the light as you shoot. Change your angle until you achieve the look you desire. The same camera settings and same sun can give you very different looks with a very slight change in how you angle yourself and camera towards your subject.

Avoid letting too much sun into your lens.

The intensity of the light during golden hour can be a be too much at times. When trying to shoot a beautiful backlit image, be cautious about how much light you are letting into your lens.

Ideally you want the edge of your lens to be just cutting off the sun. As in, you want the sun to be just slightly out of frame. You want to capture the rays of light from the sun but not shoot directly into the sun. Continue to adjust the angle of your lens until you achieve the perfect shot.

Avoid shooting UPWARD towards your subject and instead find a way to shoot at a slightly DOWNWARD angle. This will minimize the amount of light flooding your lens and minimize haze.

Use a wide aperture for beautiful bokeh.

Golden hour photography is a beautiful style of photography for any genre and especially gorgeous for portraits. When you have filtered light, this is a beautiful opportunity for bokeh. Open up your aperture to 2.8 or greater for gorgeous bokeh and creamy backgrounds.

Use spot metering to expose your image properly.

Exposing golden light photos properly take some practice. Be sure to use spot metering and meter off of your subjects face which will be in shadow when backlighting. If you can slightly under expose the face, this will help you retain some of the details of the sky and not overexpose your highlights.

You can compensate for underexposing your subject during the editing process.

Keep shooting for different looks.

The closer the sun gets to the horizon, the faster it will seem to move. Continue shooting during this time as the dynamics of the light will continue to change. Most of the time it will surprise you how much prettier it will continue to get.


Ready for some tips for editing golden hour photography?

Ultimate Guide to Golden Hour Photography – Part II: Editing

Capturing the image during golden hour is the first step in creating beautiful golden hour photos. Part II is dedicated to teaching family and portrait photographers some best practices for editing golden hour photos.


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Hi, I’m Danielle Blewitt! I am a photography business consultant and I help professional family photographers market and grow a profitable and sustainable business they can take pride in through a series of simple, easy-to-implement strategies. I will be your biggest cheerleader and most honest coach as we build your dream business together. More about me »

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