The Golden Hour – Is it the best time of day to take pictures?

By Ian Middleton

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Golden Hour Photography

What is the golden hour? It is the time, 30 minutes before and after sunrise and sunset, where the light is, as the name suggests, golden. Photographers often consider it the prime time for taking photos. But is it really? I’m often asked if this is the best time of day to take pictures. My answer is usually: “Yes, if you want golden photos!”

Ask any landscape photographer about the best time of day to take pictures and of course the majority will chant the mantra, “golden hour light is the best”. Many of the best and most respected landscape photographers even put a warm up filter on their lens to enhance the golden light produced at this time.

While it is irrefutably true that the golden hour is an amazing time to take photos, other times of the day can also produce great pictures. Even, dare I say, at midday in high summer; typically considered to be the ultimate taboo.

Morning Golden Hour

Sunrise is considered by many to be the best time of day to take pictures. However, getting out of bed at ungodly times for the morning golden hour is never easy, or desirable for many of us. It often involves waking 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 is important too

The best time of day to take pictures can often depend also on 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.

Saint Thomas Church in Slovenia

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.

View from Rantovše hill across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) with the Kamnik Alps behind in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.
View from Rantovše hill across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) with the Kamnik Alps behind in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.
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.

View from Rantovše hill across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.
View from Rantovše hill across to Sveti Tomaz nad Praprotnim (church of Saint Thomas) in the Skofja Loka hills, Slovenia.

Midday is the best time of day to take pictures!"

(Hear the photographers scream!")

If many photographers heard me say that the best time of day to take pictures is midday, I’d probably be stoned! While it’s true it may not be the best, it can often be great too.

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.

Jamnik church of Saints Primus and Felician at sunrise, perched on a hill on the Jelovica Plateau with the kamnik alps and storzic mountain in the background, Slovenia.
Jamnik church of Saints Primus and Felician at sunrise, perched on a hill on the Jelovica Plateau with the kamnik alps and storzic mountain in the background, Slovenia.

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.

Jamnik church of Saints Primus and Felician, perched on a hill on the Jelovica Plateau with the kamnik alps and Storzic mountain in the background, Slovenia.
Jamnik church of Saints Primus and Felician, perched on a hill on the Jelovica Plateau with the kamnik alps and Storzic mountain in the background, Slovenia.

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. Once out, 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. 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. So in order to get these type of pictures, the best time of day really is around midday.

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.

View across the fields of the Ljubljana Moors to the church of Saint Anna (Sveta Ana). Sveta Ana is perched upon an exposed hill overlooking the Ljubljansko Barje (Ljubljana moors) near the village of Preserje.

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.

View of the the church of saint Simon and Jude in the shadow of Storzic mountain, Brnik, near the Ljubljana airport, Slovenia.

Stormy weather

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

View of Krvavec mountain and ski resort (1854m) and the Kamnik Alps as storm clouds pass over in Slovenia

Adergas Church

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.

Velesovo Monastery, a Dominican convent developed around the local church of the annunciation, in Adergas village in the municipality of Cerklje na Gorenjskem, Slovenia.

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

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