Golden hour is truly the holy grail for portrait photographers. The magic that can happen in that final hour of light before the sun sets in the evening, or in the first hour after it rises in the morning is really quite something. The light is softer than when the sun is high in the sky, creating less contrast and harsh shadows, and this the angle of the sun means you avoid filling eye sockets and underneath noses with dark shadows. Also when backlighting the subject you can create a dream-like, hazy glow around the figure, whereas in harsh sun you will either get a silhouette or a completely blown out background.
I aim as much as possible to shoot in this light, but it’s not an easy thing to accomplish when you live in England! Even on a beautiful Summer’s day the sun often sets behind a bank of cloud that builds up on the horizon. The light goes from being too harsh to disappearing completely without any of the golden magic. It’s easier in Winter when the sun is low in the sky all day, and especially with young children the time frame is much more achievable. This as one of my favourite family shoots with three month old Alfie at 8am on a November morning. I have also had good luck with golden hour in Spring and Autumn. This shoot was one of the most magical mornings I’ve ever witnessed, with the early morning fog adding so much to the drama and creating those amazing beams of light.
Golden hour is not only perfect for portraits but it breathes life into the scenery. Poppies are never as captivating as when there is warm light flowing through them. Intense greens are diffused and broken up by the light, meadows full of long grass are transformed into shimmering seas of gold. Earlier this year I photographed a lovely family in the bluebells woods during the magic hour (you can see that one here), and you can see the way the light brings the flowers to life, and captures anything floating in the air. You can almost believe there are fairies dancing amongst the sunbeams.
As lovely as these times are there is something very special about Midsummer. The longest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, when in parts of the far north the sun barely skims the horizon and then rises again. In the Midlands where I live, it is light until 10.30pm easily, and then the sun rises again at around 4am, meaning magic hour is a tricky thing to be around for, especially if your chosen subjects are little! Last year on midsummer night I stood in a ripe field of barley photographing a a beautiful couple who were expecting their first baby a few weeks later. It was such a peaceful, serene evening it’s been an ambition of mine to get to photograph my own kids during the midsummer magic.
This year as midsummer approached the weather had been truly awful. So much rain, and very few fine evenings. However on the longest day the clouds cleared at about 5pm and we had beautiful blue skies going into the evening. I see loads of kids still out playing in the park at 8 or 9pm, but my two honestly don’t cope well with late nights. They are still asleep before 8 pm most days and on holiday or on travel days when they miss out on sleep they tend to wake up even earlier and we all pay the price the next day! However on this occasion my youngest had been snoozing all afternoon on the sofa and my eldest was really excited at the idea, so I decided it would be a good time to go for it and we would have our “late night adventure”.
I packed drinks, snacks and camera and off we toddled to a lovely spot 10 minutes drive away. We were out by 7.15pm because if we’d stayed at home longer they would have wanted to go to bed, and really the light was still way too strong. The boys loved it though, running up and down the sides of the field laughing and playing in the evening sunshine. We strolled and played for half an hour or so, and then I picked up the camera and started shooting.
In an ideal world I would have waited until 9pm to start shooting and by then the light would have been truly perfect, but the kids were home and tucked up in bed by 9.15 and they were very tired by then. We had a lovely evening though and it was a great opportunity to take more shots of my eldest, who I feel like I rarely get the chance to photograph these days. Precious memories and a we truly caught a little bit of midsummer magic. I’m hoping to get more opportunities to do this with my boys through the Summer, as already the sun is already setting that little bit earlier.
Golden Hour Tips
I shot these images in RAW with my Nikon D610 and Nikon 70-200mm 2.8 lens. They are edited in Lightroom, where I desaturated and altered the hue of the greens, to enhance the golden glow. I find when shooting towards the sun I have to position the sun behind a tree or other object otherwise the subject of the photo is engulfed by sun flare. It’s fun to play around with though, trying different angles between yourself, the subject and the sun and seeing what works best, and thinking about how the light works on the face of your subject.
If your position your subject so they look into the light, this soft golden light is very flattering and they can do so at this time in the evening without squinting. My favourite way to work with this light though is to backlight the subject. You can achieve a gorgeous glowing rim light (look again at the bluebell shoot here and see the way the hair is highlighted). This is where the fun begins, play around with exposures and angles and see how you can get semi-silhouettes, sun flares and try (if you like some light still in the eyes like I do) to experiment with angles and reflectors to keep those lovely catch lights in the eyes. I intend to one day soon experiment with a little fill flash, I’ll let you know when I do!
If you shoot in RAW format you will have far more control in editing over the highlights and shadows in your images. This allows you to reduce the contrast if necessary and preserve far more detail than you would if you were working with a JPEG which automatically has a level of compression to the file.
Finally be ready and in position! The golden hour begins very quickly and can be over in a matter of minutes. Even if you hit lucky and it continues for an hour, the light changes rapidly and produces different effects as the sun lowers. If you’re anything like me you will take hundreds of photos during this small window of opportunity!
Good luck in finding the magic,