Golden Hour Photography: A Landscape Photographer’s Guide

Making the Most of the Golden Hour

The Golden Hour refers to the time of day around sunrise and sunset. Not necessarily lasting an hour (depending on the location and season), the Golden Hour is, undoubtedly, the best time for landscape photography. The nature of the light at this time of day is simply stunning. When the sun is near the horizon, sunlight has to travel through more of the atmosphere, reducing the intensity of direct sunlight. The warm hues and low angle of the sun bring a new aspect on everyday views. A softer, more diffused light bathes across undulations, making long shadows and enhancing the landscape. Clouds bring on a new life; sunlight catching the edges in all sorts of purple pinkish tones.

To start taking great photos, you’ll need to bring everything together. Camera techniques: using correct exposures, correct depth of field, and implementing neutral density filters to either bring the sky back to life or create a moody ethereal feel to coastal water. Location hunting: make the most of walks out and about; always be on the lookout for that special scene that will turn from good to great with the right light. Also, using other information such as the Golden Hour Calculator and also The Photographers’ Ephemeris to great advantage to boost your chances of getting great images. You need to get the very best out of the Golden Hour, and this guide will show you how.

Elegug Stacks

Making the most of this magical time is one of the great challenges as a landscape photographer. Light changes very fast during this time; starting off with a very flat and uninspiring light, it improves through and into the Golden Hour. It is important to stay in position until after the sun has set as it can create some great colourful cloud effects in the afterglow. Predicting the ever-changing light is never easy, but being there before it happens will greatly increase your chances of capturing that magical moment. There’s nothing worse than having the best light if you’re not ready to capture it to its fully glory. Researching locations before you go is one of the most important aspects of landscape photography. Not only to find a great scene with great composition, but also to try to predict the light angle and direction. Here’s where online tools and maps come in. Every photographer should have a goal in mind and learn the landscape before you attend your shoot. Also, it is really important that you’re at your location and have set up, as you don’t want to miss anything.

Llanddwyn Island

Envisaging locations and scenes that will work may seem difficult at first, but it will come with time and experience. It’s not uncommon for me to be on the lookout for that perfect composition when I’m out walking somewhere when the light is not at its best. When you find a scene that works, always linger in the same place and think how you can improve the composition of the shot. Changes could be including more features to give the scene more depth. Or, maybe elevating yourself slightly to give a sense of scale; even using natural foliage, rocks or branches as features in the scene to use as lead-ins that can add greatly to your image. I’d always recommend any budding landscape photographer to carry a pocket sized compact camera (or even your camera phone nowadays) to capture any interesting views or scenes you find along the way. Then, when back at base, review these images along with a map to find the correct direction of the scene. By doing this you can then predict if this scene will work at sunrise or sunset. If the answer is yes, then you’re onto a winner! Finding out times for sunrise, sunset, and more importantly the Golden Hour, is made easy nowadays with lots of information on websites, programs you can download, and also phone apps that you can take with you on the move.

Carn Llidi towards Ramsey Island

Firstly, there’s the Golden Hour Calculator. You use this online calculator to find out the times you need to plan your shoot. Magical light can literally last seconds so unless you’re there and waiting to capture it in action, you’ll miss it. Another similar program, but equally just as impressive, is The Photographers’ Ephemeris. This great little program can be downloaded free from this link. Similar to the Golden Hour website, it displays sunrise & sunset times depending on a chosen location. But, in addition to these times, it combines extra information showing the exact angle at any given time where the sun will be. This is extremely useful if you need to determine when the sun will set along the axis of a coastal cove, or when the sun will rise across a lake or valley. Both are extremely helpful in building your action plan for your landscape shooting, and both can also be downloaded as iPhone apps.

Down in the Dale, Wast Water

So, you’ve researched your location, envisaged the scene composition in your mind, got the Golden Hour start times all sorted… so what’s next? Well, here’s the important bit: camera technique. You won’t be able to make the most out of your hard earned location research unless you exploit the most from you camera’s capabilities. You need to manually set the aperture using either Aperture Priority or Manual mode. This is the important part with landscapes, as it’s all about the depth of field. A small aperture of f/16 ensures greater depth of field, whilst a wide aperture of f/4 will deliver shallow depth of field. With landscape images you (most of the time) want everything in the scene in focus, from that little flower a few feet from your tripod to the most distant mountain peak. I always tend to shoot around f/16 for maximum front to back sharpness; manually setting the focus point to about a third of the way into the scene. Correct shutter speed can be found by balancing the aperture and ISO. Always use a low ISO and a tripod when shooting landscapes. Quality and clarity is the name of the game here, so you don’t want noisy shots with camera shake.

Bullslaughter Bay

Step by Step

1. Research. Be it locations or sunset times, use online calculators and maps to give yourself the greatest chance of capturing this magical moment.
Be there before it happens. Get there early, at least half an hour before the Golden Hour starts to give you time to get set up and ready for the ever changing light.

2. Gauging the light levels. On reaching your location and setting your camera to the appropriate ISO and aperture, adjust the shutter speed to suit your desired outcome. Be it a slow shutter to blur moving water or a faster shutter to produce vibrant silhouetted scenes.

3. Additional equipment. One thing every landscape photographer should have in their bag is a set of graduated neutral density (GND) filters. When using GND filters, you always start off by exposing the scene for the foreground, then adding the correct strength filter to keep the sky correctly exposed.
Stay until the end. The light takes on so many different colours during sunset. From punchy reds to cool, pinkish blues after sundown – so it’s important to keep shooting until it’s dark.


Drew Buckley is an award-winning landscape and wildlife photographer based in Pembrokeshire, UK. He's a regular contributor to the very best of wildlife, landscape and photography magazines and has his own books published. Self-taught, Drew has always had a passion for combining the great outdoors with his love of photography. He also runs his own photographic workshops.

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