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I've heard that as a photographer, I should be taking advantage of time near sunset and sunrise called "golden hour".

  • When exactly is golden hour?
  • Why is it important in photography?
  • What is the history behind golden hour - e.g. where does the name come from?
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3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The golden hour is the period of time (roughly an hour) immediately either side of sunrise/sunset. At this time the sun is very low in the sky. As a result the light passes through much more of the atmosphere. The result of this is that:

  • the high frequencies (blues) are filtered out giving a very warm light

  • the light is diffused by particles in the air, softening the light for softer shadows

  • the lighting angle is very low which gives great sculpting light, and long shadows

  • the intensity of direct sunlight is much reduced, allowing you to shoot into the sun without silhouetting.

All of this means you can grab images like this:

The reduced intensity of the direct sunlight means the light from the rest of the sky is brighter by comparison, this provides a great soft fill in light, allowing the direct sunlight to be used as a back/rim light to accent shapes.

The term "golden" partially refers to the warm colour of the light, and partially to the fact that everything you shoot turns to gold during the golden hour!

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4  
+1 for a perfect image of the golden hour that's not a landscape! –  Nicholas Smith Oct 3 '11 at 12:22

The golden hour occurs around sunset and sunrise.

Its duration is not exactly an hour and depends on location and date. Typically, it lasts between 30 mins (usually in the winter when days are shorter) and 2 hours (usually in the summer when days are longer). However, close to poles it may not happen, or it may last much longer when it is close to a solstice.

There may not be an exact definition, although I use Civil Twilight for my calculations based on experience. The main point is that during that time the brightness of the sky should balance with the reflectance of naturally illuminated objects. In other words, during the golden hour, the contrast between foreground and background (sky) is lowest. This is precisely why it is important in photography since this lets the most details be captured throughout a scene.

The second half of the morning and first half of the evening golden hour is characterized by warm light (golden) which is a result of the low angle of illumination of the sun. This is where its English name comes from.

The French, call it L'Heure Bleu which means Blue Hour from the first half of the morning and second half of the evening of the golden hour which is characterized by a deep blue sky resulting from indirect illumination of the atmosphere. It is more pronounced in the East in the morning and in the West in the evening.

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6  
I went to Iceland this summer, and the golden hour was actually about 6 hours long :) –  dpollitt Sep 28 '11 at 20:24
    
Indeed, I've been wanted to make it there for the solstice. Maybe next summer :) –  Itai Sep 28 '11 at 20:45
    
@dpollitt - Were there two 6h golden hours or does it fuse into a single one? –  Itai Oct 15 '11 at 3:57
    
It was never completely dark, so it really was a solid 6 hours of awesomeness surrounded by daylight. –  dpollitt Oct 15 '11 at 19:23
1  
Just came back this week and, yes, its pretty cool to see sunset at 11:30 PM and sunrise at 3:30 AM with pink and orange sky in between. –  Itai Jul 27 '12 at 19:35

For a geeky explanation, think of a rainbow. The red, orange and yellow bands make up the outside bands, while blue, indigo and violet are inside. This indicates that the light wavelengths that make up the outside bands actually bend less than the inside bands. So as the Sun sinks lower on the horizon, the blue components are not hitting the earth where you are observing. So the light hitting you has proportionately more red, orange and yellow. As for why the first half of the morning and second half of the evening is more blue, I'd suggest that as the light isn't hitting the earth directly, perhaps the bluer components reflect off the atmosphere more readily than the redder components.

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