Sunsets are beautiful. If they weren't, we wouldn't be devoting an entire Dash to them. And it's hard, I know, to turn your back on that beautiful sunset, especially when everyone around you is pointing and saying things like, "Ooh, what a beautiful sunset."
golden wheat during golden hour by Flickr user Ary B
But if you don't turn around occasionally, and accept the fact that you can't always catch that sun as it slips behind the horizon, you're going to miss out on some spectacular photo opportunities.
Yes, I'm talking about golden hour light. This isn't the first time I've mentioned it in this Dash, and it certainly isn't the first time I've mentioned it when writing about photography subjects in general. Also called "the magic hour," the golden hour is that coveted time of day that all photographers worth their salt will seek out in their pursuit of that perfectly-lit, stunningly beautiful photograph. Sadly, it's difficult to effectively photograph the sunset itself while simultaneously photographing other subjects in that golden hour light, so there are times when you're just going to have to turn around and let the sunset pass you by.
Why do photographers love the golden hour?
That question might better be phrased this way: why do photographers dislike mid-day light? Well, throughout most of the day but particularly during those hours when the sun is directly overhead, photographers have to do battle with black shadows and blown-out highlights, which steal detail and make our subjects squint. Mid-day photography also requires tricks and special equipment like fill flash and reflectors, and that means carrying around a lot of extra stuff.
Why does the light stink during these times of day? Well first of all, light that comes from directly above is just unflattering, full stop. How many photographers' studios have you seen that have light kits shining down on subjects from directly above? Uh, zero. Because direct overhead light creates unflattering shadows on people's faces, in addition to making them look dimensionless. It's the double-whammy of unflatteringness.
The second reason is because there's just more light during those mid-day hours. When the sun is directly above, its light doesn't have to travel through very much atmosphere before arriving at its destination—your poor, squinty-eyed, unflattered subject. During the golden hour, on the other hand, the light has to travel through a lot more of the atmosphere. So the light itself gets filtered, but at the same time the blue wavelengths get scattered, which results in a softer light that has more warmer tones like red and orange.
Last stop at Zion, ours and the sun's. by Flickr user CFBSr
Almost every subject is going to be flattered by golden hour light, and if not, then it's a very sad subject indeed. The reason why golden hour light is so flattering is because it creates soft shadows, which helps your subjects look three-dimensional rather than like flat, dimensionless shapes with raccoon eyes.
Is the golden hour really a whole hour?
Not necessarily. In fact probably not even most of the time. The length of the golden hour depends on where you are on the globe. The closer you are to the equator, the less golden hour light you're going to get. Likewise, the closer you are to the poles, the more golden hour light you're going to get.
Golden Hour by Flickr user Princess Stand in the Rain
Now you've been on the sunset Dash for a while now, so you've already heard me say that you need a smart phone app or a similar online tool for tracking sunrise and sunset in whatever location you happen to be in. There are also "golden hour" calculators, which will calculate the exact duration of the golden hour based on how long it will take the sun to travel from the six degree position to the horizon. So if you have a smart phone, definitely take advantage of all the tools that are available for photographers, especially the ones that give you precise calculations for variables you'd otherwise have to guess at. Knowing exactly when the golden hour starts and ends is going to help you plan your shoot and thus give you a better chance at capturing the images you envisioned.
Of course these little tools can only tell you so much, and there are other factors that are going to come into play, too, such as the weather. Clouds are going to shorten your golden hour time—and if there's enough cloud cover, you may not get much benefit at all during those times of the day.
Using Golden Hour Light
You can get a different effect from that golden hour light depending on where you position your subject. There are basically three different ways to do it:
Sunset Rose by Flickr user Jason Paluck
Front light Front light is very even (which may make for flatter-looking images), but during the golden hour it has a beautiful, soft, warm quality. If you're shooting human subjects (or animal ones!) you will also get nice catchlights in your subjects' eyes if you position them facing the setting sun. You may still get some squinting, but since the light is not as bright during the golden hour it won't be as dramatic. You can avoid it altogether by having your subject close her eyes right up until the moment you take the photo.
Photographers expand horizons in 2010 Army Digital Photography Contest 110311 by Flickr user familymwr
Side light Side light is, obviously, light that comes from either side of your subject. Side light produces images that appear more three dimensional because there will be shadows on one side of your subject and highlights on the other. During the golden hour that transition from highlight to shadow will be soft without any discernible edges, which is what you want especially if you are shooting portraits.
Back light The third option simply means placing your subject with the sun behind him. If you want detail in your subject, use your spot meter to meter your subject's face, and then make your exposure based on those settings. If you want your subject to be a silhouette, meter off of the sky instead. Back lighting can create some wonderful effects, including lens flare (the good kind) and "rim lighting," which is an effect where you'll see a golden glow around your subject.
I know, it's hard not to photograph the sunset. We photographers are programmed for it. See sunset, lift camera. But to really experience those sunsets for all they can do for you, you need to step away from them, turn around and make use of all that beautiful light, too. I know that you'll never get to watch that same sunset again, but other sunsets will be just as good, maybe even better. If you don't let a few of them pass you by, then you are missing out on other just as good photographic opportunities.