Ahhhhh yes. The Golden Hour.

I find writing articles about photography difficult for two reasons:
1. There are more exceptions than rules.
2. There are so many people so much more knowledgeable than I am, and I’m worried they’re reading this.
I make myself feel better by remembering that this same truth faces the vast majority of photographers.  If you are one of those few at the top of the heap with no one above you: go poke around somewhere else. . . or give us all some tips.

With that out of the way, here goes.

What is the golden hour?  It’s one of those “rules” that is wrought with a million exceptions.  It’s the verbal manifestation of an idea and an ideal.  It’s “real nice light.”  Why is it called the golden hour?   Well, because we’re speaking english here, and most of us live within two bands of latitude in the northern and southern hemispheres where things look different for about an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.  See?  Exceptions everywhere:  It’s really two hours, and that’s probably somewhat unique to where you’re sitting.

Let me explain.  The Golden Hour (henceforth referred to as the GH) might occur, starting about an hour before sunset here in Toronto.  That’s assuming it’s a clear, sunny day.  Why does it happen?  Well outdoor photography is a giant physics experiment with forever changing variables, one of which is light.  As the sun changes its relative position in the sky, the angle of light incident to the ground changes.  This means the colour temperature changes too!  Light at noon is hard.  It is bright, overexposing highlights and casting deep shadows, and the balance is on the cooler side of things.  It’s bluer.  Makes sense, that’s when the sky is at its brightest blue as well, which will actually act as a blue reflector and even fill shadows with blue light.  This is more obvious in photographs after the fact, your brain usually colour corrects this for you in real life.As the sun lowers, it’s shining more diagonally.  The blueness of the sky decreases for reasons I won’t get into, but also the sun shines through more of the atmosphere.  It’s now shining lengthwise from the horizon to you, not through the relatively thin layer it was shining through onto the top of your head when you were eating your filet of fish at lunch.  This scatters the light differently, and a lot of the shorter, bluer wavelengths get absorbed (whoever it’s noon for now is getting those where they live), and the redder ones make it to us.  This reddish tinge bathes things in a golden light.  Aha!  The GH!

Makes sense right?

But wait, this is so much more than an hour.  What also happens here is that the light is more indirect, and much softer.  The atmosphere is doing a lot more scattering and diffusing, so shadows get filled more than they would during midday, relative to the highlights.  So while everything’s darker, the range is smaller – this is good news for your camera.  While this is happening, the shadows are also becoming bigger, because now the light is oblique and stretching shadows out, and this gives depth to images and texture to surfaces.

See the texture? Also, note the blueness of the shadows. This comes from the sky acting as a fill light.

Here is the combined effect that makes it so appealing to photograph, and indeed to look at (duh).

Here’s where it goes beyond the boundaries of an hour.  Latitude controls the sun’s relative path to the sky.  If you’re above the arctic circle, would you expect a GH?  Depends on the time of year.  If you’re on one of the poles, you will get months with no sun at all, and then months where the GH would last almost all day.  This is part of what makes arctic photography so sublime.  On a recent romp through the wildernesses of Greenland I was shooting in light that mimicked Toronto’s GH from about three in the afternoon till 11:00 at night.  A golden afternoon. In the morning (3:00 sunrise) the same would occur for a few hours. At the equator things are different.  The sun takes a straight path down into the sea, you may find yourself with between 20 and 45 minutes depending on the time of year and whether there are hills around.  “But what about the air?”, you ask.  If a lot of this is diffusion by the atmosphere, couldn’t this all happen any time of day, any place?  Pretty much!  I’ve seen it happen at noon on canoe trips in the relative south, just because the wind blows in smoke from a distant forest fire.  Once, working in New Zealand, I witnessed smoke from an Australian brush fire blow in 1500 km and bathed the whole fjord in yellow light just after lunch time.

This image is not altered, this was the filtering effect of the bushfire smoke

Places like India (particularly in the north) and Beijing, China have so much haze and smog that it looks like the GH almost all the time.  It gives photos from these places a distinctive quality, and you can often pick them out from a distance.

Pimpin’ your GH – accessorizing light.

Things can happen in various combinations that make the GH extra special.  Rain is one of them.  After it rains, saturation of colours is deeper as the light transmits through a wet layer on leaves, pavement, and other surfaces.  The humidity in the air after rain events helps the light scatter and exaggerates the diffusion/glow effect.

Notice the scattering of light by the mist.

Clouds partially covering the sky can make this dramatic as well, for example if the sun sets and shines through a gap in the horizon, lighting storm clouds from beneath you will get a reflection of these oranges and reds, rather than just diffusion. You might even get lucky and have a sun shower at the GH (we won’t get into what you might name that)  and then the raindrops themselves will catch the light and scatter it, making the air literally glow.  What if you’re in a hazy city, at sunset, after a rainstorm with some lit up storm clouds in the sky and rain still falling?  Well – then this would happen.

Sometimes all the elements can combine for an exaggerated effect.

In outdoor photography it’s about reading the environment.  When you see any of these elements converging, it’s time to get your camera out and shoot.  Sure, you might get some great shots in the hard light of noon, but when the sun gets near the horizon, be vigilant, you could get a keeper.