My Top 5 Tips For Nailing Golden Hour Photography (And A Little Lesson In Atmospheric Physics)

Golden Hour

Golden hour…

The oranges.

The yellows.

The reds.

The few intense photogenic moments on either side of the day where the sky explodes into a splash of colour.

Golden Hour

For those who’ve seen my work, it’s pretty quite obvious that it’s my favourite time of day. I very rarely shoot during any other hour, the lack of colour, textures, and patterns in the sky during daylight hours just doesn’t excite me.

But, to be honest, that’s pretty much standard for most “scape” based photographers, right?

What makes golden hour so… golden?

Before we dive into the little tips and tricks that I find helpful, I wanted to quickly run over why the sky and clouds change colour during golden hour and give us that amazing pop of colour. After all, it’s great to photograph something, but it’s equally interesting to understand it as well.

And bear in mind, I’m no meteorologist or atmospheric physicist. This is my understanding of the process.

Nerd alert in 3… 2… 1…

The sun emits what we perceive as white light, which is a combination of our entire visible colour spectrum. During regular daylight hours, it appears yellowish to the naked eye because of the way the light disperses throughout the atmosphere, bouncing off of atoms that are smaller in size than the wavelengths of light. This process is called Rayleigh scattering.

Different coloured wavelengths are dispersed at different points when passing through the atmosphere, based on their size. Indigo and violets, for example, have the shortest wavelengths, so they scatter right at the point of entering the atmosphere. Yellows, oranges and reds, are the longest wavelengths, they don’t scatter until much lower in the atmosphere. Blue, however, sits right around the middle in size and, although it scatters before the warmer colours, it overpowers them with a higher frequency which is why the sky appears to be blue.

Golden Hour Photography Tips

Clouds on the other hand, almost always appear to be white during the day. This is because the water and ice that they’re made up of are much larger than atmospheric atoms and molecules and equal to the size of light waves, which allows them to capture the full-colour spectrum. This form of light dispersion is called Mie scattering.

Now, during golden hour, this changes slightly as the light has to travel much further through the atmosphere which means there is a higher number of atoms for the light to scatter against. Because of this, blues and violets are scattered much sooner, away from your line of sight thanks to the spherical shape of the earth, which removes the appearance of a blue sky. This leaves just yellow to red lightwaves which continue through the atmosphere and give us the perception of a warmer coloured sky. Clouds during this time also appear orange rather than white because the shorter lightwaves no longer reach them.

Pretty cool right?

My top 5 golden hour photography tips

With that little bit of fun out of the way, here are my favourite tips to help nail those golden hour shots.

1. Turn around – The quickest tip of the all

It’s not always about what’s in front of you. Sometimes it’s about what’s behind.

While logic might tell you to point your camera in the direction of the rising or setting sun, sometimes you just have to turn around to see the magic.

2. Adjust your in-camera white balance – Don’t use AWB

Although shooting in RAW makes this kind of redundant, since you can change it in post, it’s still helpful to adjust your white balance to retain the warmth of the image. It’s especially important if you’re shooting in JPG rather than RAW.

Although the automatic white-balance feature in most cameras does a decent job for everything else, it’s rarely worth having on during golden hour. It will attempt to neutralize some of the warmth in your image, giving it a lighter or bluer hue – the opposite of what you’d be trying to achieve.

You’re best off setting a custom white balance that suits the light and colour of the scene you’re shooting. Otherwise, most DSLRs have a “Cloudy” white balance setting, this is what I’d recommend you use if you’re not keen on setting something custom. It will naturally add a bit of warmth to the image and retain the natural warmth.

Sunrise Photography

3. It really can last an hour

Contrary to the name, golden hour, in reality, is generally considered to be the few minutes just before and after the sun falls below or rises above the horizon line. Or, if you want to be technical, it’s really only the few moments after sunrise and before sunset. The other 2 periods are known as blue hour, the period when the light is far more diffused and even.


It can last a lot longer than just a few minutes.

In fact, it can live up to its name and, well, last an hour.

When I first started out I’d always pack up and head back to the car once It looked like the show was over and the light subsided. I’d lost count of just how many times I’d missed out on the perfect shot. There were many instances where I’d started driving off only to see a resurgence of light and a cluster of clouds catching fire in the rearview mirror.

In other words, it’s worth sticking around for just a little longer during sunset. Or, if it’s a sunrise, get out there a little earlier.

In most cases, this is more important on days where the air is thicker or when there’s smoke around since this means there are more molecules for light to scatter against. Additionally, thicker air means that light could bend and travel at a slightly different angle, also known as refraction. To give you an example, the refractive index of air is 1.0003 while a diamonds is 2.419. Have you seen the way light bends and changes direction when it passes through a diamond?

During sunset, for example, this can be the cause of the deep red colour you’ll sometimes see catching on the clouds even after the sun has dropped below the horizon.

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I use a Sirui W-2204 coupled with a K30x ball head. Check it out on Amazon.

4. Take multiple exposures – Bracketing

The brighter the sky, the darker your shadows.

One of the issues you’ll often face is that you’ll either blow the highlights in your sky when exposing for your shadows or underexpose your shadows when exposing for the sky. This can be particularly bad when you have a close foreground element such as a person or building.

You can mostly overcome this by using graduated neutral density filters, but your other option is to bracket your shots. Bracketing is the process of taking multiple photos of the exact same scene but exposing for different elements.

In most cases, you’ll be able to get away with three separate shots. One exposure for the highlights, another for the mids, and a third for the shadows. However, depending on the scene, you could require a couple more. Once you’ve got your three images, you’ll want to open them in Lightroom or Photoshop (most alternate applications will have a similar function), select your sequence and then use the Photo Merge/HDR function. The outcome will be a single perfectly exposed image.


Here’s a little-known trick that you can use if you’ve forgotten to bracket your shots. Fake bracketing! Duplicate your image, and then edit one copy, adjusting the exposure for the highlights, and in the second, adjust for the shadows. Once merged, this will give you a pretty similar result to bracketing.

5. Bump up that exposure time

Who doesn’t love a long exposure!

Golden hour is the ideal time for long exposures. The change in colour intensity and the variation of warm colours can create beautiful natural gradients that you won’t really get to experience in a shorter exposure.

Since it’s still going to be relatively light, it’ll be difficult to open the shutter long enough to capture movement in the clouds, water and other elements. You’ve got three options:

  • Use an ND filter (ND6 is a good option) to limit the amount of light reaching the sensor
  • Take multiple shorter exposures and stack them in-camera – Available in some cameras
  • Take multiple shorter exposures and stack them in post – Here’s my tutorial on this.
  • Each method will give you an equally amazing result.