You know those photos that look snapshots of a memory instead of an actual person or place? The ones that seem to glow, and everything in them seems rimmed with a halo of light? The ones with stunning flares of light that look like the subject’s soul is exploding out of them and dust clouds that look like magic suspended in air? Well, most of the time that wasn’t just coincidence — those photos were taken during what’s commonly known as the golden hour, also known as the magic hour.
“Hour” is figurative here. The golden hour refers to the period just after sunrise or just before sunset, and its length depends on where you are, what time of year it is, and the weather conditions. Also, while the terms are nearly synonymous, the golden hour actually has a definition based on the measurable angle of the sun to the horizon, whereas magic hour is a broader term that sometimes incorporates both the golden hour and the blue hour — another measurable time based on the sun’s angle to the horizon. In this article, we’ll use them interchangeably. Regardless of season or location — or what you call it — it’s a special time for photography. But why, exactly?
Light. Light is the most important photographic element. The light just after sunrise and just before sunset is unlike any other light and it can’t be replicated, no matter how hard you try (well, you could cheat if you have photo-editing software, but it doesn’t beat the real thing or feel as rewarding). There are a few things about this kind of light that make it unique and beloved.
What is the golden hour?
The golden hour is all about light. The temperature of the light during this time is, as the name suggests, in the yellow range when it comes to the light spectrum. Without delving too deeply into your AP Chemistry textbook, light has a spectrum of temperatures that correspond to different colors of light. Remember ROY G BIV? On one side of the spectrum you have high-temperature blue light, and on the other end, you have low-temperature red light. During the golden hour, the temperature is in the yellow range, which gives the light that coveted, golden hue.
When the sun is near the horizon, its light has to travel through more atmosphere than at other points in the sky. That atmosphere acts as a giant diffuser, thus reducing and softening the intensity of direct light. This creates a more even light, so the difference in correct exposure between your darks and lights is less, meaning it’s far easier to capture a more evenly exposed photo. It’s as if the whole sky is one giant light box, only better. Furthermore, all that atmosphere the light has to travel through filters out the blue light and makes the light appear more reddish.
When the sun is very low in the sky, its angle is more drastic in relation to the earth, making shadows longer and softer. Having long shadows in your shot helps show all three dimensions of the world when you’re trying to capture them in a two-dimensional space. Also, because your exposure is more even, the sky and whatever else is in the background, your middle ground, and the foreground can all be clearly defined and properly exposed, which creates a greater sense of depth. You can also use the direction of the sun to create specific effects and to highlight textural details.