a10 April 2013

Tutorial: Golden and blue hour explained

Quite often I receive questions about two terms closely related to photography which I use commonly on my blog as well as on my Facebook profile. They are:
  • golden hour,
  • blue hour.
So in this short post I will try to explain both terms as if you're serious about landscape, architecture or portrait photography it is very important you know them.

Golden hour, often referred to as magic hour, is the first and the last hour of sunlight during the day. It means that there are two golden hours in fact: morning and afternoon. It's often explained that morning golden hour starts with the sunrise and ends about 1 hour later. Similarly afternoon golden hour starts about an hour before sunset.

However, you will quickly find out that in fact morning golden hour often starts a couple of minutes before sunrise and that the afternoon golden hour often lasts a few minutes after sunset. During my journeys I came up to a conclusion that my favourite light is about 2 - 5 minutes before sunrise or about 10 minutes before sunset.

During golden hour the light is very soft and very warm (almost golden hence its name; but it can be even almost red resulting in some very dramatic shots). Also shadows are very soft, often almost non-existent (great for portraits!). In such conditions architecture, landscape and portraits look the best. Why shadows are almost non-existent? It's because light is no more directional (it's very diffused) due to the fact it has to travel through large amounts of particles (like dust, sand) which are gathered mainly just above the horizon.

The light during this hour is so beautiful that many landscape photographers say that you SHOULD NOT take landscape photos during any other time of the day (maybe apart from the blue hour described below). Although I'm not that radical I really really recommend trying to take photos during that part of the day as it will make any subject shine.

Below you will find a HDR photo taken during golden hour in Rome.

Blue hour in turn is an hour just before morning golden hour and just after afternoon golden hour. It's a period of day when there is no sun but it isn't completely dark yet. The name comes from the fact that the light has blue (or sometimes purple) hue. It produces magical and sometimes surreal atmosphere. Also the sky often have deep blue colour during this hour.

Although it can be used both for landscapes and architecture I think the latter makes the best use of it. City lights are often orange or yellow. Provided the sky is blue you will get great complementary colours increasing both the clarity, contrast and quality of the photo. As for landscapes it's the best time of day to capture long exposure photos, to smooth water etc. There is so little light that you won't need to stop your aperture to f/22 or use ND400 filter in many cases.

Moreover, during blue hour there are no shadows at all. It's because there is no light source present in the scene.

One more tip. If you're shooting morning blue hour remember that it's often the coolest time of day (until about 30 minutes after sunrise). So warm tea and warm clothes might be a really good idea.

Below you fill find a HDR photo taken during blue hour in Madrid. The Debod Temple depicted in this image was lit with some orange lights what resulted in great complementary colours. Addition of reflection in front of it added even more complementary colours to the scene:

Bear in mind that golden and blue hours might be much shorter than an hour (the term is very loose). They might last just a few minutes or they even might not exist under certain conditions (eg. overcast sky)! Also the light isn't consistent during neither golden nor blue hour. It changes all the time. To get the very best photo you need to keep shooting as otherwise you might miss that very spot of the best light. Unfortunately the best light during the day often lasts for a few seconds to just a 1 - 2 minutes.

One last thing: how to find out what time the blue and golden hours occur? There are plenty of tools, one of them is available for free online: here. It's a golden and blue hour calculator. Just select your location, date, click on the Submit button and you will be shown exact time and duration of both golden hour and blue hour. Very useful.

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