An intro to shooting during golden hour

Image courtesy of Annette Heck

We’ve all seen them right?  Those photographs that have a dreamy, glowing, golden look to them.  The only way to grab a shot like that is to shoot during golden hour.  Golden hour is the hour or so before sunset and the hour or so after sun rise. (The actual timing is affected by location and its topography.)

Summer offers delicious golden hours, so now’s the time to get out and try some golden hour shooting! With a little help from a lesson from our own Annette Heck in our Members program, we hope to give you what you need to get out and get shooting (successfully) in that gorgeous light.


You may have heard the photography saying “Light over location”. And that is a great rule of thumb since awesome lighting will make even an alleyway look like a palace. So, if you have to choose, always choose the better light locale over a pretty spot that has abysmal light. But what if you are trying to get both? 

Image courtesy of Annette Heck

For the longest time when I would see golden hour photos of this yummy warm light gently surrounding the subject, I pictured a location where the sun was full-on lighting up the subjects. Then, I’d got out and plop my subject in a bare field with that light all around them and wonder why my shots did NOT look like those I saw pictured. Here’s a case-in-point:

Image courtesy of Annette Heck

See how BRIGHT everything is – the long grass especially? They were facing their shadow but all of that strong sun on their surroundings still affected the overall look of the image and not the warm, glowy look I was seeking. ​​

*There’s nothing at all wrong with this image, but it didn’t fit Annette’s vision for the rich, warmth of golden hour.* 

After much confusion and trial-and-error, I realized that most times those lovely golden hour light photos are taken at a location that has filtered light (so little puddles of light are filtered through trees or another obstruction) OR if it is an open area then the sun is VERY low, meaning the last 10-20 minutes before it dips below the horizon. Yup. THAT low.  A little sun goes a long way.

Image courtesy of Annette Heck

While timing for when you shoot golden hour is a huge factor for achieving the look you seek, it is also important to plan for your location and understand how it impacts your yummy golden light.

Observe what obstructions are at your location (trees, buildings, hills/mountains).  When it comes to golden hour and location, here are a few tips:

Mountaintops vs. Valleys

Keep in mind that your altitude since golden hour on a mountaintop (or even a tall hill) will occur at a different time than golden hour in the valley.

Obstructions like tree lines will also add another layer to this since a valley surrounded by a dense and tall tree line will have an earlier golden hour than an open valley with a minimal tree line.  If your valley is very wide and stretches with minimal obstructions, then you may be able to shoot golden hour there at a later time, closer to sunset.

Image courtesy of Annette Heck

Forests vs. open plains

Beautiful golden hour light streaming through a forest can produce a dramatic image. Catching golden hour there will most likely be far earlier than one would think. All of those lovely trees block light efficiently so if you hope to photograph in a densely wooded forest, scope out the light and realize that you may have to be there 2-3 hours before sunset to catch the light before those tall trees fully block out the light.

On the other hand, an open plain will have little to no obstructions which means that you will have a lot of light for longer time. This also means that unless you have some filtered light (hay bale or tree or shrub) then you will be shooting at that open plain just before the sun sets so that you can get softer light.

Image courtesy of Annette Heck

A tree line (at any location)

Regardless of where you may be (your backyard, a field, etc.) look for filtered light through trees. You will literally see little puddles of light on the ground and that will tell you that you are in the right spot.

Image courtesy of Annette Heck

One last quick tip…
With any location, if you are shooting through sunset then you can shoot with the sun behind your subject (backlit) for part of the session prior to the sun setting. Then as that sun sets and the light dips, flip your subject to face the setting sun to eek out just a few more shots before you call it a wrap.  Also remember to experiment with different lighting angles (like side light), too.

We hope these tips help you to get some wonderfully warm and glowy golden hour shots this summer. 

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