The golden hour, that precious moment 30 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset. The photographer’s prime time; or is it? I’m often asked if this is the best time to take photographs. My answer is usually: “Yes, if you want golden photos!”
In the days of film, many of the great landscape photographers would even put a warm up filter on their lens to enhance the golden light produced at this time. Many will tell you that this is the best light in which to get out and do landscape photography. While I agree that it is a great time to catch warm golden light, great light can also be found outside of this time. Even, dare I say, at midday in high summer; typically considered to be the ultimate taboo.
Too early for some
Getting up for the sunrise golden hour can be a huge problem for many. It often involves getting up, especially in summer, at 2 or 3am in order to not only travel to your location, but get to the actual place you need to stand. This could mean hiking a hill or a cliff. It could also mean scrambling over rocks in the dark along the coast.
One morning when I went to photograph Saint Margaret’s Bay near Dover at sunrise, I had to clamber over wet rocks in the dark with just a head torch, carrying my tripod and heavy camera backback. As careful as I was, I still managed to slip and fall flat on my chest, thankfully on a flat rock, but with the full weight of my backpack knocking the wind out of me.
For some, this simply isn’t an option. They are not physically able, or less inclined to take such risks. If I had broken my ribs or worse, hit my head, who knows how long it would have been before someone discovered me?
While I am, thankfully at the moment, still fit and agile enough to do this, my problem now is having two young children. This makes it much harder for me to get out for early morning photo shoots. Sunsets can also be a problem because much of the year they occur around the time I have to help put the kids to bed.
So since the kids were born I’ve found myself more and more heading out late morning, well after the golden hour, after dropping them off at playschool. Other work commitments have also meant that sometimes I could only get out at midday or early afternoon!
But rather than let these restrictions impede my photography, I initially utilised the time to scout locations, but soon found that you can still get some great light during the day, and even at midday. Modern technology and advances in Photoshop tools also help us to cope with extreme lightning conditions. So, I began not only to explore locations, but also explore the light, weather and seasons.
The time of year
While it’s a well-known fact that in summer when the sun is further north and high in the sky the light invariably becomes far too harsh even an hour or two after sunrise. In autumn, winter and spring this isn’t so much the case, and the sun is still quite low in the sky at mid morning. Weather can also play a part.
As my family live in Slovenia, I spend much of my time in this wonderful country. It certainly helps having such great landscape on your doorstep. Most locations are within an hour’s drive. Two such places are the Church of Saint Thomas (Sveti Tomaž) and Jamnik Church.
Sveti Tomaž nad Prapotnim
The church of Saint Thomas is a classic viewpoint and has been photographed by almost every Slovenian photographer, and most other pros. It’s a morning shot, captured best when the sun rises in winter from the south and first hits the church, hilltop and mountains behind from a low angle. At the right time of year the soft early golden hour light from the low sun floods in through a gap in the hills. Early morning fog in the valley and around the church also adds to the atmosphere. Throughout last year I only managed to get there once for sunrise, and got a beautiful golden shot.
However, most mornings I couldn’t get there until mid morning. But one time in October when the sun was further south and not so high, I got my favourite non golden hour shot.
With the help of a polarising filter and some diffused light and shadows created by the scattered clouds, I got some equally great photos. In the photo here, taken at 10 o clock, scattered clouds were not only diffusing the light but also casting shadows across the landscape. Waiting patiently resulted in a similar moment when most of the hill was in shade and the hilltop and church lit. The scattered light has also spotlighted a church on a distant hill at the top left and the plateau on the right Also, the later morning light has brought out the rich green colour of the hilltops, which at the golden hour wouldn’t look so green.
Never shoot at midday! – I beg to differ….
Perched on a hill on the Jelovica Plateau with the Kamnik Alps and Storžič Mountain in the background, the church of Saints Primus and Felician in the little village of Jamnik, is one of Slovenia’s most photographed views, and rightly so. Whether you are religious or not, you cannot deny that being up here makes you feel closer to God. The early Christian saints and missionaries certainly knew where to build their churches for maximum peace and inspiration. A view like this could convert even the most fervent atheist.
The church sits at 831 metres atop a bare green hill surrounded by forested hillsides, and commands panoramic views of the Ljubljana Basin to the south, Kamnik Alps to the east, Karavanke Alps to the north and the Julian Alps to the west. Like many churches in Slovenia, it’s a great location for sunrise photos, especially when surrounded by morning mist or like here in the spring when the sun rises from behind the mountain peak. A great golden hour location.
Now the advantage to photographing mountainous areas is that more often than not mountains are surrounded by cloud. In this case it was close to midday in September. I used a polarising filter to cut out the haze, and set the white balance to shady to act as a warm up filter (the digital alternative to sticking a warm up filter on your lens). But most important of all, a good layer of cloud had diffused the strong light. Mother Nature is the best softbox.
Mad dogs and parents go out in the midday sun
Now anyone who has a baby or toddler understands when I say that getting them to sleep during the day is one of life’s greatest challenges. But taking them out in the car never fails. Both my kids would be fast asleep within five minutes. Of course then you have to keep driving around. So I often found myself out and about around midday or early afternoon.
Lit from above
Of course it’s not just light that dictates how our image looks, but also the angle of lighting. So I soon discovered that when the sun is high, scattered clouds can look quite dramatic as they are lit from above. They have a totally different shape and dimension. With the aid of a polariser and the highlights tool in Photoshop, I began searching out scenes and waiting for dramatic cloud formations while my daughter was sleeping soundly in the car. The Ljubljana Moors (Ljubljansko Barje) is a large area of wetland 160 square kilometres in size just to the south of the city. This photo was taken at the end of May around 1pm. The church of Saint Ana sits on a hill overlooking the moors. I usually hike up to the church itself and photograph it from close up, or the view from it. But when I’m confined to standing next to the car, I look for views of it.
Churches and Mountains
Slovenia is abundant with mountain views, even from just outside the capital city of Ljubljana. The Ljubljana airport is just a 15-minute drive away, and from the surrounding area the Kamnik Alps are clearly visible, and even the distant Julian Alps if it’s clear enough. I’ve discovered many great telephoto viewpoints here that are easily captured from beside the road.
From the right angle, the Church of Saint Simon and Jude in the village of Brnik sits perfectly in the shadow of Storžič Mountain.
On days when there is thick but scattered cloud that is fast moving, the combination of light and shadow paints the landscape, often in quite dramatic fashion. In the photo here, the shaft of light breaking through the clouds has highlighted the church and tractor, while the shadow has kept the foreground and background trees in the the dark, helping to enhance these subjects. A great image, even at 2pm in May.
When storms come it doesn’t matter what time of day it is. Storm light is at its best just before or after the storm. In this photo the storm was passing over the Kamnik Alps, but where I was standing beside the car there was no rain. Taken at 3.00pm in August, a 6 stop ND filter, coupled with the multiple exposure feature of my Canon 5dm3, has captured some very dramatic effects as the storm moved over
The Church of the Annunciation in Adergas village is a beautiful parish church built around a former Dominican convent. Again, there is a great view from the roadside in which the church sits underneath some hills and a mountain peak of the Kamnik Alps.
Here the scattered, fast moving cloud produced dramatic lighting effects and with patience and timing resulted in a great moment at 11am in April. Not only has it spotlighted the Adergas Church, but also lit the top of the hills and the bell tower of another church on the top left hilltop. In this image I also used a 6 stop ND filter to capture some cloud movement.
So in future, don’t worry if you miss the alarm and oversleep, or if you are someone who simply hates getting up at the crack of dawn. Despite what some might tell you, there is a world beyond the golden hour that is equally, if not more, photogenic.
This article was first published in Landscape Photography Magazine
For a more comprehensive look at photography, check out my book here