How to get the most out of magic hour to take those perfect photos.
Magic hour. All photographers know that if you want to take the best photos you do it in magic hour.
If you’ve never heard of magic hour before (it’s also known as golden hour), this is usually the hour after sunrise or the hour before sunset, and it is when the sun is near the horizon bathing everything in a gorgeous golden light. Photography is all about manipulating light, and using magic hour is the best way to illuminate a subject and to get very soft diffuse light making everything look beautiful.
Think of it this way – when the sun is directly overhead during the day, a lot of a person’s face is in shadow. When the sun is low on the horizon, it is like shining a light directly on someone’s face. All of a sudden those shadows are gone meaning you don’t lose any of the details in the dark sections on a photo. Less shadows = more detail = a better photo.
Getting technical, during magic hour the light travels further through the earth’s atmosphere. This means that a lot of the blue spectrum is taken out, as are a lot of the harsh tones. What you’re left with is a beautiful flattering warming glow, one that your model will thank you for!
When it comes to shooting, here are some top tips on how to get the most out of magic hour to take those perfect photos:
1# Find the right location
Often when you’re out and about, especially when you’re on holiday and travelling, you might walk past the perfect location at the wrong time of the day. Take a mental note of where it was, or even take a photo of it so you remember, and return just before sunset. Finding the right location for a photo is everything and you’ll be amazed in the difference between the two photos.
2# Decided between sunrise and sunset
A lot of photographers will say there’s a lot of difference with the light between sunrise and sunset. Personally, I don’t think there’s any difference – the sun is the sun. It’s job it to pump out light and that doesn’t change. What does change is the setting you’re trying to capture. If you’re in a city or at a popular tourist site, it’s almost guaranteed to be a lot busier with people at sunset than at sunrise, because let’s be honest here, who really wants to wake up at 5am? If you are looking for clean shots without anyone else in frame, sunrise is the one for you. Means you’re going to have to wake up a little earlier I’m afraid!
3# Check the weather and when the sun rises and sets
Before deciding on what time you should set your alarm for, check the weather forecast first. If it’s very cloudy or rainy, more often than not you’re better off staying in bed. Also, check what time the sun actually rises. If you’re on the equator, the sun rises and sets very quickly and magic hour only lasts 20 minutes. However, if you’re somewhere like Scandinavia during summer, magic hour can last half the day. There are some really good apps like Magic Hour on iOS or Golden Hour on Android for telling you when the sun rises and sets so look into getting one of those to help you out.
4# Don’t be late
If you’ve found the perfect location and you’ve found out the sun rises at 06:14, don’t set your alarm at 06:00 because it’s very unlikely you’re going to be up, ready and in location with everything set up in just 14 minutes. Make sure you factor in enough time to get to your location and to set up all your equipment. If you only have a small window during magic hour to take photos then make sure you maximise it.
5# Beware of clouds
If it looks like it’s going to be cloudy then factor this into your day. With clouds, they’ll always gather on the horizon meaning the sun can dip behind them 20/30 minutes before then sun actually sets. If you’re taking landscape photos, clouds can give really nice back lighting, so even if you lose the light it doesn’t mean you can’t take amazing photos.
6# Use rim lighting to create a back glow
When the sun is hanging low in the sky, you can use it in two ways. One, to illuminate a subject and bathe it in golden light, or two, as a back light. If you position the sun directly behind a subject, it will create a bright outline. It is a cloud’s silver lining. This effect in known as rim lighting, and it looks especially good when shooting people.
7# Change your auto-white balance (AWB)
Ideally, you should be setting your AWB in most situations, but this is particularly important for shooting in the magic hour. When it comes to setting the AWB, choose ‘cloudy’. This makes most of the natural glow available, otherwise you risk neutralising the beautiful light and making it look flat. Play around with a few settings and see which one you like the most.
8# Shoot with a wide aperture
To really maximise magic hour and the light in it, shoot with a very wide aperture; this is usually between f/1.4-4.0. Not only does this make background light very soft, it also gives you a longer window to shoot in. As you lose light, you lose time. To get to most out of magic hour, having a wide aperture means you can get more light onto the sensor meaning you can shoot for longer. Simples.
9# Bring a tripod
When shooting in magic hour, it’s always a good idea to bring a tripod along (a good sturdy one like the Manfrotto 190 CF tripod will work in all situations). As the light begins to fade, your shutter speed becomes slower and slower, so to ensure you get nice crisp images then use a tripod. Also, if you really want to play with the light, try putting a ND filter on and taking some long exposure photos.
10# Use shadows to your advantage
It’s easy to forget but photos are 2D images of the 3D world. When taking a photo, it’s important to showcase as much of the 3D world as possible. Shadows help emphasise that fact so use them to your advantage. Shadows really highlight the fact that it’s sunrise or sunset too helping tell the story in your photo.
There’s a reason why photographers consider magic hour the best time of the day to take photos – for using natural light it’s hard to beat, and it really does add an ethereal almost dreamlike quality to your photos. Also, if you wake up especially for sunrise to capture the light, then there’s no better way to start the day!
Next time it’s magic hour, use some of these tips to make the most of it and to take those perfect photos. Now go capture the magic!
What are your top tips for shooting in magic hour? Are there one or two tricks you use to maximise magic hour? Share the love and let me know in the comments below!