Article By Jimmy McIntyre
Twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, the life-giving sun, as it moves towards, and past, the horizon, promises photographers around the world something special.
Appropriately named the ‘golden hour’, these times of day are treated almost with reverence by photographers. We camera-wielding folk lap up those golden rays, as they kiss surfaces around us, and splash pinks, oranges, and if we’re lucky, reds onto the underbellies of any nearby clouds.
On more than one occasion I’ve pushed myself to the point of exhaustion and sickness, sitting in the same spot, sunrise after sunrise, just for that one promise of golden light to actualize.
Is the golden hour really so important?
The golden hour is immensely important, in my experience. But it does depend on the mood you’re looking to achieve in your final image.
Many times I’ve received emails from relatively new photographers asking me to look at their landscape images. They often say that they’re happy with everything but for some reason the image doesn’t have the same finish/depth/quality of other images they see online.
When I get these emails, I’m almost 100% sure that this dissatisfaction will be caused by one of two things; either the subject isn’t a powerful, moody or moving one; or the image was shot on an overcast day, with a blanket of grey, flat clouds in the sky.
I cannot emphasize enough, as a landscape/cityscape photographer, how important it is to shoot during golden hour to get the best possible mood in your landscape images. I have folders full of images of locations I’ve visited where the sky was overcast which I will never publish.
Right now I’m in New Zealand for almost 3 months. But my itinerary is determined almost entirely by the weather. I have to stay at most locations until the light turns right, which usually means waiting for a beautiful golden hour. Once I get a shot I’m happy with, I move on to the next destination.
But why is the golden hour so important?
The answer to this is actually quite simple. You just need to go to Angkor Wot at sunrise to see the thousands of tourists who gather at ungodly hours to watch the sun make its morning journey over the ancient ruins.
Or fight through crowds (especially during a national holiday) at Mount Bromo in Indonesia to witness the first golden rays of morning seep out over the misty landscape.
Or camp on almost any mountain in South Korea and hear the Koreans shouting and howling as they catch the first glimpse of daylight in the morning.
The fact is, the golden hour affects us in a very primitive way. There are different theories as to why it has such an important impact on our mood, but in photography terms they’re not particularly relevant.
Most photography is about capturing mood. Since the golden hour has such intrinsic power over our emotions, simply seeing a beautiful sunset on a small smart phone screen can leave us in wonder.
Therefore, if you want to capture powerful mood in your images, it seems only logical to use arguably the most powerful natural mood-enhancer around – the sun.
Adding to this, the way in which light interacts with our subjects also strongly influences the mood of our images. Our shadows often have their own stories to tell. These shadows are stretched and made even more mysterious by the low-lying sun.
By why are overcast days so bad for photography?
The truth is, they’re not. They’re no worse than golden hour images. However, they elicit in the viewer a very different emotional response. Few people feel good when they look out the window and see a thick, grey sky. And even those who don’t mind seeing an overcast sky out their window would probably still prefer a beautiful red sky at sunrise.
As we mentioned earlier, photography, at its most basic level, is about eliciting certain moods in the viewer. So having an image with an overcast sky will elicit a particular mood, and the same image with a striking sunset will elicit a different mood.
Additionally, overcast skies, by definition, are flat and grey. A sky like this can sometimes sit as just dead space in our image – an uninteresting aspect that adds very little to the scene.
Do we always have to shoot at golden hour for moody results?
We heighten our chances of coming out with something powerful if we shoot at golden hour. But we can capture beautiful images in any weather and under any light.
Our images are more than just the weather. The mood we portray is the result of many different things, including composition, subjects and their relation to other subjects, details, textures, colours, motion and many other things.
Here are just four examples of striking images that weren’t captured during the golden hour:
What if we can’t wait in one spot for the weather to change?
The question is; how badly do you want it?
If you’re happy with the image you took, given your circumstances, then that is all you need. For some people the enjoyment is simply the experience of being at that spot and the adventure leading up to it. For others, the photo is everything.
The weather has worked against me far more than it has for me. That is a reality shared by all landscape photographers. But ultimately, I have to be happy with the images I produce. If I feel an image doesn’t elicit a strong, complimentary mood, then I won’t publish it. But you may be happy to publish things on a different criteria.
We could certainly prepare better before visiting an area that is typically rainy in order to increase our chances of coming out with something we’re happy with. We could look for times in the year when there is less rain, but it isn’t too sunny (we need some cloud cover for a dramatic golden hour display). All of this information can be found on the internet, or by contacting local photographers.
Blue hour is also a superb alternative to the golden hour, which can often offer a much richer, deeper mood than an overcast sky. The great news is that we can regularly see striking blue hours even when the sky is overcast.
Another great way to make the most out of your trip is to time a landscape shoot with a new moon. Should the clouds happen to part, even slightly, you may catch a glimpse of the universe beyond if you hang around long enough. Capturing the Milky Way, through brief windows in the clouds can make for a great image.
Looking at the way in which a beautiful sunrise/sunset affects us on a personal level is evidence enough of the importance of the golden hour in our images. With an understanding of how different weather and light influence the mood of a scene, we can still capture impacting photos without the help of the golden hour. And if we plan as well as we can, and have a little bit of patience, we may indeed capture that less-than-common beautiful sunset/sunrise.