As photographers and videographers we always have to work with the light that’s available. Sometimes that’s a full lighting department with fancy lights and modifiers but, most often, natural light from the sun is all we have. Although there’s no such thing as “bad” light, some kinds of natural light are easier to work with and lend themselves better to different purposes.
One of the earliest pieces of advice photographers get is to take pictures during the hours either side of sunrise and sunset. This time each morning and evening where the sun is low in the sky is called "the golden hour," as there is a soft golden light that’s flattering for most subjects and easy to work with. While the sun is below the horizon, the light takes on a blue colour and, for the time enough light remains to work with, it’s called "the blue hour."
In this tutorial I’m going to look at what causes the blue and golden hours, why they’re so good for photography, and how to work with them.
What Causes the Golden and Blue Hours
Photography and videography, more than almost any other art form, are driven by physics. The earliest photographers were all scientists. What light does and how it behaves are entirely down to physical properties. The golden and blue hours are a result of how light interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere under different circumstances.
Light from the sun contains many different wavelengths of light. The human eye is sensitive to the difference in wavelengths of light, and we experience each different wavelength as a sensation of colour.
When all the wavelengths of light are present in roughly equal proportions we see this as white light. However, if the proportions change we begin to see the light as the colour of the dominant wavelength. Blue light has a wavelength of around 475 nanometers (nm), yellow light has a wavelength of about 570 nm while red light clocks in at 650 nm. All the other colours on the visible spectrum have other wavelengths.
The different wavelengths of light interact differently with the earth’s atmosphere. Light with a shorter wavelength (violet and blue light) is scattered more easily than light with a longer wavelength (yellow, orange and red). At midday when the sun is high in the sky this doesn’t matter so much as the light’s path through the atmosphere is at it's shortest, however, when the sun is low in the sky the light is entering the atmosphere at an angle it matters a lot. When the sun is low the light has to travel a greater distance through the earth’s atmosphere to reach you and whatever you’re photographing; the more atmosphere the light passes through the greater the effect it has on the shorter wavelength light.
At sunrise and sunset the blue light from the sun is scattered into the atmosphere while the yellow, orange and red light is largely unaffected. This reduces the amount of blue light reaching you directly and creates the beautiful golden light. While the sun is below the horizon, however, the longer wavelengths of light pass straight through the atmosphere and out into space. The shorter blue light that’s scattered through the atmosphere is reflected back down to earth and causes the blue hour. This reflected light is why we can continue to work even after the sun sets.
How to Work During the Golden Hour
Light during the golden hour is some of the easiest to work with and is flattering to almost any subject.
During sunrise and sunset the dynamic range of most scenes is narrower than it is at other times. This means your camera is more likely to be able to capture both highlight and shadow detail in a single frame. The overall reduction in light levels keeps the highlights in check while the low angle doesn’t create the harsh, dark shadows typical of direct sunlight.
During this time the light levels can change rapidly, falling by a stop or two in as little as ten minutes. If you aren’t careful and constantly evaluating your camera’s settings it’s easy to end up with over-exposed or under-exposed images. One way to counter this is to work using aperture priority mode.
The overall light levels can also be quite low during the golden hour. Although your eyes can see clearly, your camera may struggle to get a proper exposure. Using a slower shutter speed, wider aperture or faster ISO than you would otherwise during the day can help.
In his course on environmental lighting for video, Jordy Vandeput looks at a variety of natural lighting scenarios. The free lesson from the course below covers working during the golden hour.
How to Work During the Blue Hour
During the blue hour there is still plenty of light to work with as long as you move fast—like the golden hour, the overall light levels will change quickly. While it’s not ideal for portraits, some of the best landscape, and especially seascape, images are shot during this time.
To capture great images during the blue hour, it’s best to use a tripod and longer shutter speeds. If you want to shoot hand-held you will need to raise your ISO.
With the low light levels, the blue hour is the perfect time to take long exposure shots. Even without a neutral density filter, you can get shutter speeds of over ten seconds just by using a moderate aperture and low ISO. At Envato Tuts+ we’ve explored long exposure in quite a lot of detail. Kevin Gater’s tutorial on on using intervalometers will get you started. One of the best subjects for long exposure photographs are moving water and Marie Gardiner has a great tutorial that covers the basics. I’ve also written about using your smartphone to control your camera which is perfect for long exposure images.
- TimelapseTrigger Time: Intervalometer Basics for Time-Lapse and Long ExposuresKevin Gater
- Long ExposureA Beginner's Guide to Shooting Long Exposure WaterMarie Gardiner
- Long ExposureTime-lapse and Long Exposure Control With Your SmartphoneHarry Guinness
As the light continues to transition to night, you don’t necessarily need to stop photographing. If you’re interested in working at night you should check out Anthony James’s tutorial.
Avoiding the Clichés
One of the problems with working during the golden hour is that it’s so popular; there are a lot of bad clichéd sunset and sunrise images. The most important rule for avoiding clichés is to make sure your image has a subject. If it’s just another photo of a red sky and the sun near the horizon, it will never stand out from the crowd. Rather than taking a picture of the light, use it to create something that tells a story.
Simon Bray has written a tutorial where he goes into a lot of detail on why sunrise and sunset photos appeal to us, and, most importantly, how to avoid the clichés.
Faking the Golden Hour
Just because you miss the golden hour when you’re photographing, it doesn’t mean you can’t add some of the qualities of the light to your images in post-production. Whether you’re willing to or not depends on what level of editing you do to your images. Sometimes you’ll need to capture what appears to be a sunset photo for a client but because of circumstances outside your control you’ll be unable to. Others you might just want to make a portrait more interesting.
It’s possible to fake the golden hour in Adobe Photoshop but I prefer to use Knoll Light Factory, which I’ve covered before. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for adding lighting effects to your images.
The golden and blue hours create some of the most interesting light for photographing. When the sun gets low in the sky the longer path through the atmosphere causes the blue light to scatter. While the sun is still above the horizon this means you get direct golden light; once it’s below the horizon the scattered blue light is what dominates the scene.
Working during the golden and blue hour is all about maximising the opportunities in a short window of time. The low dynamic range and flat lighting make for very pleasing images. The light levels, however, can change very quickly so you need to be prepared to adjust your camera on the fly. Also, the overall light levels, especially during the blue hour, can be very low. This is great for long exposure images but means you need to increase your ISO if you’re shooting hand held.
Sunset photos can be a bit cliché. Rather than taking pictures of the light source during the golden hour, work with the great light and another subject. If you can’t capture the golden hour in camera it is possible to add in some of the characteristics of the light in post-production.