What is ‘Golden Hour’?

Online dating headshot photographed during golden hour by NYC portrait photographer, Kelly Williams

If you have ever done a shoot with me, you know that I am always advocating to shoot during ‘golden hour’ – but what is it exactly and why is this time of day so important? Simply put, golden hour (a.k.a. ‘magic hour’) is the time just after sunrise and just before sunset when the sunlight is at its best.

High Line engagement photo shot during golden hour by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

Why is ‘Golden Hour’ the best time of day to shoot?

There are several reasons why golden hour wins out over any other time of day for a photo shoot. First, the light produced during golden hour is soft, meaning it has less contrast than that of the middle of the day. Your shadows will be less distinct, and you won’t have as many issues with squinting if you are asked to look directly into the light because the sun at that time is located just over the horizon.

Second, golden hour produces warm light. That is to say, there is a yellow-toned color cast to the light during this time. If you are shooting in an urban setting like New York City, a warm glow can add a nice dimension that separates your subject from the harsh architecture of the city landscape.

Online dating headshot photographed during golden hour by NYC portrait photographer, Kelly Williams

Third, light during golden hour is directional on account of the sun being very low in the sky. With the sun at its lowest, your shadows are cast longer. It’s almost as if you get an extra character for your shoot with the added dimension that the sun brings to the photos. Compare the shadows being cast to the side during golden hour with shadows that occur when the sun is directly overhead. At noon the sun is creating shadows directly downward, which means extra shadows under your eyes and chin (and no one needs extra dimension in these areas).

A Washington Square Park wedding, photographed by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

When is ‘Golden Hour’?

The general rule of thumb is that the first golden hour of the day begins just before sunrise and continues for an hour. The second golden hour of the day begins an hour before sunset and continues for one hour afterwards. I found a terrific website here to help you calculate the golden hour for your given location. Very handy link when you need to find the perfect time to schedule photos.

Online dating headshot photographed during golden hour by NYC portrait photographer, Kelly Williams

 Scheduling concerns during ‘golden hour’

A word of advice: when you are scheduling, say, bride and groom portraits during a wedding, you need to account for both set up time and warm up photos. That is, plan to start the shoot at least fifteen minutes ahead of golden hour so that you can set up your camera, find the perfect spot, and then take several warm up photos. Everyone needs to take a few shots before the really good photos begin. Time your shoot so that you get these issues out of the way, and can devote all of your time to golden hour. You also need to take into account the time of year you are shooting. In winter (or when you have excessive clouds obliterating the horizon), the sun goes down much faster so you may have even less time for photos.

Online dating headshot photographed during golden hour by NYC portrait photographer, Kelly Williams

 ‘Golden hour’ in New York City

In New York City, the trick to taking full advantage of golden hour is finding shooting locations where skyscrapers and overhead buildings will not obliterate your access to light. Shooting along the waterfront (as I did with these online portraits taken in the Meatpacking District) or in large open spaces (Central Park, for example) take full advantage of golden hour. This is why I always check out my venues around the exact time of day when we will be shooting. Depending upon how the sun hits a building or obstacle, you’ll either get great light or huge shadows. I always like to be prepared to know exactly where to place my subjects (and when) so that we can get the best light possible.

Online dating headshot photographed during golden hour by NYC portrait photographer, Kelly Williams

 Photos using ‘Golden Hour’

Golden light offers several options for photos. The best use of golden light is to have the subject face the sun directly. With the sun low on the horizon, you cut down on squinting. Backlighting is also an artistic option as the subject is silhouetted with just a rim of light separating the hair from the background. Finally, don’t be afraid of sun flare. Using a lens hood will cut down on the worst of the flare, but the little spots of color that show up in the photo add a unique dimension to the portrait.

High Line engagement photo shot during golden hour by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

High Line engagement photo shot during golden hour by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

High Line engagement photo shot during golden hour by NYC wedding photojournalist, Kelly Williams

With spring approaching, it’s time to schedule some shoots! Make sure you get out there and put that golden hour to good use.


If you would like to see more of my photos, such as these ‘golden hour’ portraits, please visit my website.

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