When the sun is on the horizon, just after sunrise and again just before sunset, it casts a delightfully warm light. Photographers affectionately refer to this usually brief period as the golden hour (or the magic hour). You may have witnessed this phenomena many times, and might very well have taken some very interesting images, too. Do you plan your photographic excursions during this time?

How it works

When the sun is overhead, the light strikes through our thin atmosphere with very little interference. When on the horizon, however, the light must travel through many miles of dense lower air to reach our eyes. In so doing, blue light is scattered, leaving behind yellow and orange.

The journey through the atmosphere also diffuses the light somewhat. Examine a shadow under the mid-day sun. It is sharp and distinct. Look at a shadow when the sun is on the horizon. The line of the shadow is softer and some ambient light falls into the shadow area, making it less dark. These soft shadows and the reduced contrast make the golden hour an ideal time for natural light portraiture. This diffusing effect can be achieved by other means, such as a thin overcast sky, but the warming effect is only achieved with the sun on the horizon.


The "hour" part of the golden hour is a misnomer. The length of time depends on how long the sun plays on the horizon. That changes by the time of the year and the latitude. Near the equator, the golden hour lasts but a few minutes as the sun moves relatively quickly. Closer to the poles, the golden hour can last for hours.

The quality of the light during the golden hour can be dramatically different from what comes before and after. The difference in time can be just a few brief minutes, so be prepared.

This photo was taken at about 5:09 in the afternoon. Although his body is in partial shadow, his face is well lit with a very direct light. This image was taken at 5:19. Note the beautiful warm tone. The sunlight has changed dramatically in ten minutes!

Choosing your subjects

I find the golden hour most pleasing for portraiture, particularly if your subject is winsome. The warming rays enhance skin tone. Architecture looks very good, too. Blue subjects, on the other hand, look rather odd under the golden light. Some people find the warm tones of the golden hour rather distracting, so it can come down to personal preference.

Just a hint of golden color can be seen on the Jefferson Memorial dome near sunset. The Lincoln Memorial has one of the most dramatic golden hour treatments at sunrise.
Sunset is an ideal time for an informal family portrait. It's also ideal for a more glamorous image.


The best weather to experience the gold hour is when the air is clear and cloudless. Areas with heavy air pollution or low cloud may produce a beautiful sunset, but these suspended particulates can diffuse the sun so much that you do not get the glorious wash of light on your subject.

Be alert to the fact that some automated imaging software may attempt to reduce the warm tones of your image.

When the sun is a bit higher in the sky, you still get beautiful light, and this is an excellent time to shoot, but the light quality is different than the golden light. When the sun is just below the horizon, you get a different sort of light as well. Again, this is not the same quality of light as golden light.

Note the distinct warming tones on the young men's faces in this snapshot. Only a few minutes later, the sun had set. Although still warm in color, the light has a very different quality.

Do not think of sunset photos as golden light photos. In this situation, you are photographing the sun directly, not taking advantage of the unusual light quality of a subject lit by the golden hour sun.

When you plan a photo excursion, try to shoot around the golden hour. You will have an opportunity to capture your subject under one of the most interesting lighting conditions available.