What is the golden hour?

The chances are that you've heard of the golden hour (or magic hour, it's sometimes known as that, too), and you know that photos taken during this magical time slot are blessed with a sizzling, glowing quality that gives them a spectacular edge. But when exactly is it? And what makes it so special? This week's Photography Fundamentals is here to explain all!

When is it?

Early morning oranges iii

First up, golden hour can last between 45 and 90 minutes, and it happens twice day, around sunrise and sunset. The closer that you are to the equator, the shorter the period it lasts. Yes, it does mean that at the Poles, at certain times of the year, the Golden Hour can last nearly all day, too. I suppose that the 'Golden 90 minutes to three hours, or sometimes even all day' doesn't sound quite so catchy, does it?

Why does it happen?

When the sun appears to be closest to the horizon, its lightwaves have to travel further than when they're overhead, as happens during the middle of the day. This softens and diffuses them, as they bounce around more and don't hit their subjects directly. You're left with gorgeous soft lighting, gentle, long shadows, and less chance of over-exposing your highlights.

Golden Hour light is typically much warmer in hue, too. The blue light waves are scattered further, leaving your subjects to pick up more of the red and orange tones, and bask in their warmth.

Winter Rose

All of this means that just about any type of photography you can accomplish outdoors will benefit from the Golden Hour: portraits, landscapes, architectural, and street.

What's its effect?

Portraits will take on gorgeous, even skin tones and there won't be any harsh shadows appearing beneath your subjects' eyes and nose, which is never really an attractive look, I'm sure that you'll agree.


Landscapes sizzle with soft light, unusual shadows, and saturated colours.

Buildings look as if they're glowing during the Golden Hour, especially stone ones. It appears that rather than reflect harsh midday light, they absorb the softer early morning or late afternoon rays.

Tower wide-angle

You won't benefit from just the glowing stone of the Leaning Tower of Pisa if you capture it early in the morning, you'll avoid the crowds, too.

And somehow, during the Golden Hour, even the most insalubrious of streets can appear a touch more charming than they really are, whilst anyone or anything in them will be flattered by the sun's golden tones.

To help you go forth a shoot beautiful, radiant images, there's even a handy golden hour calculator.


  • The golden hour happens twice each day, around sunrise and sunset
  • It lasts roughly 90 minutes
  • As the sun is at its furthest point from the earth, its light is softer and more diffuse, having had to travel further
  • Photographs take on a warm glow and shadows are softer during the golden hour

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