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Food For Digital Thought: Shooting In The Golden Hour

Taken during the beginning of the "Golden Hour".

Taken during the beginning of the “Golden Hour”.

I would safely say that in my forty-five year career as an advertising and corporate photographer 90% of every photo I’ve ever taken has been during the Golden Hour. What is that some of you might ask? Here’s how I explain Golden Light  to my online students with the PPSOP, and in my “Stretching Your Frame of Mind” workshops I conduct around the planet:

Golden Hour is usually just that. The first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. I say “usually” because the time will vary depending on where you are in relation to the equator, and the time of year. Here’s an example: I live in Houston, Texas and next Fourth of July, 2013, I want to go out and take some photos down at Discovery Green ( a park in downtown Houston).

The first thing I’m going to do is find out the exact time of sunrise, which I do this by using my Sunpath chart. So, on July 4th, 2013 the sun will officially rise at 6:26AM. Now most people will tell you that you have about an hour of good light, but most people don’t know why that is. The reason is that during that first hour, the sun will be a little over ten degrees (optimum for Golden Hour) to fifteen degrees above the horizon. In my Sunpath printout it shows a graph of where the sun will be from the time it comes up until it sets, and the altitude it will be at all day.

When the sun is this low (either at sunrise or sunset) it will travel through more atmosphere, the angle the light travels to the Earth is longer, and there’s more water vapor that scatters the rays of the sun. This in turn warms the different hues (colors), minimizes contrast, elongates and renders the shadows light, and also keeps the highlights from becoming too overexposed. That being said, I know I have until around 7:15AM (approx) to shoot as much and as fast as I can.

Ok, now let’s say that I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I want to shoot on the same day. This time sunrise will be at 5:32AM. That puts the same ten to fifteen degrees at 6:45AM to be shooting in the Golden hour. What about shooting in another season, say on New Years Day?

In Houston, on New Years Day, the sun will rise at 7:17AM. This puts the end of golden Hour at 8:30AM, and in Minneapolis Golden Hour will end at 9:19AM. So you see, Golden Hour is not a constant so you need to know where you are, where your going, and when you’ll be there to determine Golden Hour.

By the way, have you ever noticed that sunsets are usually more colorful? Want to know why? First of all, the same ten to fifteen degrees applies to shooting the Golden Hour at sunset and the reason the sky can be more dramatic is because of dust, debris and pollution that’s had time to build up during the day. You and I help with both!!! Just people walking around causes the dust and debris to rise into the atmosphere and as far as pollution goes…we all know the answer to that…right???

Now for a couple of tips when you decide to finally bite the bullet and get up to shoot some of the best light of the day; and begin to take your photography a little more seriously, and what I refer to as “Up a Notch”:

First of all give yourself plenty of time to get to a location and set up. I’m usually there thirty minutes before the actual sunrise to shoot in the dawn light, the glow in the sky before the sun hits the horizon. When I say “hits the horizon”, I mean that literally because during this time of day it’s moving fast and when the sun moves this fast, the light changes by the second. FYI, I will have a shot list already in mind so I’m not standing there wondering what I should shoot first. I do this by scouting beforehand to determine just where the sun will come up.

Second, take a flashlight with you so you can make camera adjustments in low light situations. I find that a small mag light held securely between my teeth works. If you don’t have any more teeth left that you can count on, get a small light that’s attached to a headband. This will also free up your hands.

Third, take warm clothing with you in the mornings, especially gloves (the kind where you can remove the tips so you can use your fingers). There’s nothing worse than standing there waiting for the light and wishing you were back in your warm bed!!! A thermos of coffee feels mighty good going down when you’re cold.

Fourth, If you don’t take a tripod, you might as well stay in bed. Depending on your subject matter and what you want to be in focus, you’ll be making long exposures.

Fifth, be sure to bracket. This is soooooo important.

If you follow my advice, you’ll come away with one of those illusive “OMG” photos we all yearn for. I can tell you from experience that’s there’s absolutely nothing that feels better than standing there knowing that what you’re taking a photo of is going to make you feel great later on. It’s just like “putting the medicine where it hurts”.

Visit my website at: www.joebaraban.com and check out my new 2013 workshop schedule at the top of this blog. Come shoot the Golden Light with me sometime.

Be sure to send me a photo and question to: AskJoeB@gmail.com


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    { 16 comments… add one }
    • Valeriano December 22, 2012, 11:56 am

      “In Houston, on New Years Day, the sun will rise at 7:17AM. This puts the end of golden Hour at 8:30AM, and in Minneapolis Golden Hour will end at 9:19AM. So you see, Golden Hour is not a constant so you need to know where you are, where your going, and when you’ll be there to determine Golden Hour.”

      How do you determine how long is it gonna last the Golden Hour, if it’s not 1 hour past sunrise and 1 hour before sunset?

      • Joe December 26, 2012, 10:17 am


        It’s not so much the “hour” as it is in degrees. As I said, I find that when the sun gets up more than fifteen degrees, the light changes dramatically…at least for the way I like to shoot it does. Remember this part of my post where I said,

        “When the sun is this low it will travel through more atmosphere, the angle the light travels to the Earth is longer, and there’s more water vapor that scatters the rays of the sun. This in turn warms the different hues (colors), minimizes contrast, elongates and keeps the shadows light, and keeps the highlights from becoming too overexposed. That being said, I know I have until 7:15AM (approx) to shoot as much and as fast as I can.”

        Well, when the light becomes harsh, the contrast becomes too great between the different colors, the shadows become shorter, and the highlights become too far away from the rest of the elements in my composition, It’s time to quit. As the Sun gets higher it goes through different wavelengths (the blue and violet ones which creates the blue skies). After all these years, I can tell when it’s time to go back to bed or to have a glass of wine and think about all the good stuff I had just shot.


        • Valeriano December 27, 2012, 6:38 am

          Ok now it makes more sense to me. Thus the boundary is when the sun hits 15 degrees; at that point you’ll start to ask yourself: is this light good or too harsh for the subject I’m shooting?

          How about silhouettes? Let’s say we are still on “Golden Hour” timing, but sun is a little higher than 15 degrees. Would you just pass it, or would you keep shooting?

          • Joe December 27, 2012, 8:10 am


            For me, it’s the other way around. It seems that when I know/see/feel the light getting too hot and harsh, it always seems to be when the Sun has reached that point in the sky. Sometimes I wonder if the term “golden hour” is more of a romantic expression rather than a practical phrase.

            silhouettes are another matter, and a different approach to image making; silhouettes can be effective anytime. When the quality light is gone, and I don’t necessarily want to quit, I’ll look for a silhouette. A silhouette is basically the outline of someone or something against a lighter background. Since I don’t want any detail in this person or thing, I can underexpose a harsh background by several stops and use the silhouette almost like Negative Space to crate something interesting. One point here is to make sure the silhouette is the center of interest, and not just part of the composition.


            • Valeriano December 27, 2012, 12:53 pm

              I understand, thanks.

    • Gary Thursby December 22, 2012, 12:52 pm

      This is a very nice photograph indeed Joe!  You got close to the subject, or center of interest, and provided the essential details to give us viewers a sense time and place! The desert, camels, Arabic men, their clothes, and late or early morning sun are all incorporated into this photograph correctly and effectively! 

      Getting close to the man, giving him more strength, means you had to cut some of the camel in half.  But that’s fine we clearly see the camel and do not want him to over take the photo. There is also a little Bresson geometry in this photo As well. Three men looking at you form a triangle, and the three camels loosely form a triangle as well. The warm sun really adds to the people’s skin, camels, and desert sand. That is just the perfume to the image though because this awesome shot would be to hard to pass up whatever time of day you saw it at. Just shoot it in black and white.

      Joe this photograph has me seriously considering your September workshop in Napa. 

      Just a couple of quick questions, where was this shot taken? Looks exotic like Northern Africa or the Middle East(Somewhere I would love to travel to!) Also was this photograph cropped or posed? That is a big no no in the principals laid out by Bresson. I mean why go all the way over to where these people live, to document how they live, just to set up a shot. The great Gene Smith would embed himself in the lives of his subjects to get all those great shots of his. Not to mention what he went through to get those stunning WW II photographs. Anyways I am starting to ramble, but know I love this picture and these are the type off photos I to create when I am out shooting.

      • Joe December 26, 2012, 10:07 am


        In my classes and workshops, we work on ways to create perspective. The type of perspective that creates Depth. By “anchoring the subject” close to the lens, I’ve created what I refer to as “layers of interest”. I also teach people how to use the six principles of Gestalt (I wrote about them in one of my posts). One of the principles is called “closure”. What this refers to is not showing all of something in the frame, like the entire camel. I leave it to the viewer to fill in the rest of him. By doing this, I make the viewer work harder, and by doing so, he’ll stick around longer…just what we want him to do.

        The shot was taken just outside Cairo and next to the Pyramids of Giza. It was one of several I took for Apache Oil and Gas Annual Report. The photo was taken during a rest period of a larger shoot. I had hired these guys to go out at sunrise and pose for me. The company wanted me to get a flavor of the people of Egypt through environmental portraiture. We all became friends and raced down the sand dunes with the Pyramids in the background; an amazing experience. I knew through my Sunpath and compass readings exactly where the sun was going to come up. I had scouted this location the day before and this photo was part of a shot list I created.

        Btw, In my forty-five year career, I’ve never cropped one of my photos…NEVER! When people crop in the computer, they will never learn where the edges of their frame are…or the corners. I always tell people to use the edges of their frame as a compositional tool.

        I would love to shoot with you at my Napa Valley Workshop and private wine tasting. It will be a rare opportunity to shoot at these great vineyards during the harvest. For further questions and information, send me an e-mail directly to mt at: joe@joebaraban.com


    • Gary Thursby December 22, 2012, 1:38 pm

      Lol try to create!!!!! Darn auto correct!

    • Tim December 31, 2012, 5:15 am

      Hi Joe
      I read your blog with great interest, with the intention of eventually attending one of your PPSOP courses. 
      Since you mentioned Sunpath I have tried to start making the most of the golden hour. An application that I downloaded to my Iphone that I find useful is Mr Sun. This is a free application that is quite easy to use. I have added a link to it below. It shows both the direction and elevation of the sun. By the way, I have no ties to the application so this isn’t a sales pitch 🙂
      Thanks again for your great advice and guidance.

      • Joe January 2, 2013, 11:30 am


        There’s several apps you can get for the iPhone. I like the one called “Golden Hour” and there’s one called “Sunrise and Sunset”. If you really want to stretch your ability to think, and pull out your hair, check out “The Photographer’s Emphemeris”…it’s way above my pay grade. It seems like everyone wants to write an app! I don’t use any of them because you have to rely on something that needs a battery or an internet connection or even a GPS. I print out a piece of paper with all the readings on it and take it with me anywhere in the world. I also take a hand bearing compass (Morin2000) that doesn’t require batteries. I bring it up to my eye because it has a viewfinder. I know exactly where the light will fall as well as the shadows….to the degree. Nothing else can do this.

        I’ve looked at (and tried) all the different way to determine exactly where the sun will come up and go down and where it will be all day. None of them are as precise as the way I do it, and the way I’ve been doing it for as many years as I can remember. If there was a better way, I guarantee I’d be all over it.

        Thanks for your feedback and suggestion, and I hope you keep reading!!!


        • Valeriano January 8, 2013, 12:03 pm

          I totally agree. I’ve attended to both your classes at PPSOP, and the “bearing compass” it’s a great tool I’ve added to my gear.
          Especially cause I’m one of those guys whom like planning for photography and I always try to imagine how a certain scene will look like under the “right” light conditions, when scouting around.
          It certainly makes you look like a fool when using it in a crowded place… LOL!
          The tool I’m still missing is the freaking SunPath software, that’s cause they haven’t yet made the version for Mac Os X 10.7 and above.

          • Joe January 8, 2013, 12:20 pm


            I just talked to David at Sunpath and he said he’s working on it. In the meantime, you can always send me an e-mail for any dates you want and i’ll send them to you.

            As far as looking like a fool…I think it’s just the opposite. People come up to me all the time and ask what I’m doing and when I tell them they are duly impressed.


            • Valeriano January 13, 2013, 10:43 am

              that would be very kind. If you can email me a sunpath report for next week (Rome Italy) it can be really helpful cause I’m scouting some locations here.
              Regarding looking like a fool when using a bearing compass: here where I live people are a little less open minded. They just judge at first glance. I don’t care, what matters to me is the result I am gonna get.
              I’m also looking forward to be in your new class about Gestalt, but I think I will sign-in for it later this year.

            • Joe January 13, 2013, 1:13 pm

              Exactly!!!!! Who cares what people think????????????????? I never have!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


            • Joe November 4, 2013, 1:59 pm

              Nice photos Laurie…thanks for the credit.


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