One of the main goals of photography should be to communicate an emotion.

Well.  Thats my opinion anyway.

Its about an experience.  A feeling.  That moment that hits you and makes you gasp. Be it a beautiful plate of food, a stunning landscape or the face of a child, what many photographers seek to do is take the feeling of that moment or place and manifest it for others to experience.

Key to communicating that emotion in photography is the proper use of light. For outdoor photography, where you seek to communicate the feeling of the landscape or the animals that inhabit that landscape the best light is the warm, soft, colorful and shadowed directional light that comes at the “magic hour” or the “golden hour of photography”.

golden hour photography

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, USA

Because of the shorter days, winter time is perhaps the best time to take advantage of the magic hour. The magic hour isn’t actually just one consecutive hour. There are actually two magic hours each occurring in half-hour periods in the morning and evening. The first “golden hour photography” is the half hour after the sun rises in the morning and the half hour before the sun sets in the evening. This is the best light for amazing landscape shots.

golden hour photography

South of Bodo, Norway

Why? It has everything to do with the way the sunlight lays low on the horizon and filters through the atmosphere. The light is warm and saturated with less white light than you get during the day. Changes in tones are very gentle. This light is also soft and creates shadows. The low-angle directional nature of this light accentuates textures, folds and shapes in the subject. The second part of this “magic hour” is the half hour before the sun rises and the half hour after the sun sets.

Why? Intensity of colors. With the sunlight needing to travel further through the atmosphere and thus scattering blue light waves. This light only illuminates the clouds given that the sun is below the horizon and so the rest of the landscape is in shadow. This light is soft but with very warm and deeply saturated colors.

golden hour photography

Cerreto Guidi, Tuscany

The second chunk of  golden hour photography is a little trickier than the first. If you have heavy cloud cover, the light will be so diffused as to be unhelpful. If there are no clouds at all it can be challenging to take advantage of the un-reflected light. That said, generally this is your moment for those great sunrise or sunset shots.

golden hour photography

Kagal, Kumta, Karnataka, India

The key to success here is planning. There are numerous smart phone apps that will tell you exactly what time the sun rises and sets in your area to help you plan. Often times I will just sit and watch for several days to see exactly how the light works with the landscape before deciding exactly how and when to take the shot. Next, postpone dinner. Or bring a beer.  Tell the family to keep a plate warm for you since you’ll be home a bit late. If it is morning, fill a thermos and pack a snack.

Before taking the shot, compose it and then decide which magic hour light you’re aiming for. Key to success is thinking it through before hand so that when the moment is right, you’re ready. Get to your location ahead of time to get all set up. And then wait. Wait for just that right moment.  AND…if you’re not having fun, then its just not worth it.

golden hour photography

Taos Mountain, New Mexico, USA


  This article origionally appeared in the Taos New Mexico Winter Guide 2013-14, published by the Taos News

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  1. Comment by Taos Rag

    Taos Rag Reply January 27, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    great advice!!!

  2. Comment by Lisa @chickybus

    Lisa @chickybus Reply January 27, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Lovely photos–all of them–and a great explanation of the ‘golden hour’! I’d read about it and noticed how beautiful the light was around sunrise and sunset, but never understand why. Now I know. Thanks!

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply January 28, 2014 at 8:40 am

      Thanks Lisa! I hope you are feeling better. Although honestly…considering you just came from Jamaica I dont feel too terrible for you.

  3. Comment by Karen Hoppes

    Karen Hoppes Reply January 27, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Great article

  4. Comment by CheyAnne Sexton

    CheyAnne Sexton Reply January 27, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    You know your light and you said it right “If your not having fun, then it’s just not worth it”. I adore those magic moments in the evening especially when I look up and everything is just all aglow.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply January 28, 2014 at 8:40 am

      I was thinking that when writing the guide to photographing lightning. So many people expressed frustration with it and I just felt like…if you’re not having fun then you’re not doing it right!

  5. Comment by CheyAnne Sexton

    CheyAnne Sexton Reply January 28, 2014 at 12:00 am

    perfect and sooooo true

  6. Comment by Corinne Vail

    Corinne Vail Reply January 28, 2014 at 10:07 am

    These are gorgeous! Golden hours are my happy hours!

  7. Comment by Jim O'Donnell

    Jim O'Donnell Reply January 28, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    I agree Corinne. The hours in between are just to be endured! 🙂

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  10. Comment by Jolma

    Jolma Reply November 23, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    Yes. Totally. Photography is form of art, and it should to communicate an emotion, feeling, and, of course, an EXPERIENCE! Thank you for the excellent advise, Jim.

    • Comment by Jim O'Donnell

      Jim O'Donnell Reply November 24, 2014 at 7:20 am

      Thanks Jolma! And thank you for the hunger your food photos caused me! 😉

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