How to take gorgeous golden hour photographs


Every photographer will tell you that when it comes to shooting incredibly beautiful photographs, the best time of the day is that magical time we call golden hour. It’s pure music to our ears! For those of you who haven’t heard the term, or are curious to learn more about it, it’s the time of the day when the sun is nearest to the horizon. The hour just after the sun rises, or just before it sets. It's that time where you can’t help but slow down when passing an illuminated forest or seeing the sun set over the ocean during this time. The beauty of that light makes it all completely glow. We’ve gathered a few of our best tips on how to use golden hour to your advantage as photographers and videographers. A lot of Shutterstock Custom briefs specifically ask to shoot during golden hour, so these tips can be applied to those projects.

What's the difference? Why shoot at golden hour instead of during the day?
Any photographer will tell you that taking photographs mid-day while the sun is at it’s peak is incredibly difficult. It creates a lot of shadow, with limited depth and interest to your photographs. That harsh light, whether directly pointed at you or above you, frames your subject in an unflattering way compared to a more diffused, less head-on version of the light. This is sometimes called hard light (mid-day) or soft light (golden hour).

Hard Light vs. Soft Light
Golden hour produces a soft, diffused light whereas during the day, the sun is overhead and casts a really bright and harsh light, creating shadow. This is referred to as hard light. For soft light, you want to shoot during the first and last hours of the day, when the sun is at it’s lowest angle and closer to the subject you are trying to shoot. Shooting with soft light creates longer shadows vs. shorter shadows, bringing depth and interest to your subject. 

Should I shoot at sunrise or sunset?
Both sunrise and sunset create stunningly beautiful light, but lately we’ve preferred the rise. The light tends to create this almost fog-like softness to your photographs. Evening light tends to be a bit warmer, while most sunrises light is slightly more diffused making it a bit more manageable. Another bonus to shoot at sunrise? There's generally less crowds so you get some really stunning locations all to yourself.

That being said, sometimes golden hour doesn’t happen. There’s cloud cover that limits what you can shoot. Clouds can be okay too! The weather diffuses the sun and makes the light a lot more soft, which you can always pop the colours open in post-production. 

What should I have my camera settings at?
Our suggestion most of the time is to shoot with a wide aperture, letting as much light as possible into the camera. This captures small details against softer backgrounds and can allow you to create bokeh or blurred light. 

Although some photographers choose to shoot in auto white balance and post-produce it afterwards, we suggest to change your setting to “cloudy”. This setting will allow you to make the most of the natural glow golden hour creates.

You can also use a graduated neutral density filter to help with any sunrise or sunset photography. The filter is clear at the bottom, and gets increasingly darker allowing you to correctly expose the sky and foreground in a single photo. No more compositions required!
Another technique? Backlighting your subject
An awesome way to use golden hour to your advantage is to backlight your subject. This is especially great for portrait photography. It’s a difficult technique to master, but in the right conditions it can make your subject completely stand out. 

How can I create a lens flare?
Flare happens when light bounces around in your lens, creating streaks and rainbow glows. Usually, you don’t want flare, but at golden hour it can create some really stunning shots. This usually happens when you backlight your subject so they are only partially covering the light, and move your angle of the camera around to create a well placed flare. You can also create a flare by moving your frame so that the sun is just outside the frame in an upper corner so your flare reaches down to your subject instead of coming out of it. 


It’s absolutely worth the wait to get the best light, or the early morning wakeup if you’re shooting in the morning. Most weather apps will tell you exactly when that sunset or sunrise is set to take place. Our suggestion is to aim to be at your location at least an hour prior to that time to get the best light possible. There is also an app built for this, aptly called Magic Hour that will tell you exactly when that time is happening in your area. There’s a reason why golden hour is often referred to as the magic hour. The pictures are proof in themselves. 

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- Shutterstock Custom Contributor Community Team