Definition: Golden Hour; Magic Hour

Definition: Golden Hour; Magic Hour | Glossary entry

Golden Hour; Magic Hour

In photography, the golden hour or magic hour, is the period of the first and last hour of sunlight.

Golden hour sunlight has great photographic significance. It takes on a different quality to other times of day. Five properties of sunlight in the golden hour change…

  • The shadows are longer as the sun is near the horizon and illuminating from the side.
  • Light intensity is reduced as the light travels further through the atmosphere and is scattered.
  • The light is softer, more diffused.
  • Light intensity is reduced; light travels further through the atmosphere and is scattered more than other times of day.
  • Blue light is scattered by the atmosphere. Red light is not scattered and imparts a reddish golden hue.

Long shadows help the photographer because the only way we can see something is by the contrasts in light. Shadows provide the contrast. Soft, diffused light and long shadows with a big contrast between light and dark are very effective at defining shapes and forms. Our Eyes are well tuned to this situation. When the golden colour of the light is added the appeal seems to draw the eye.

It is the warm colour of the sun that is sought-after by photographers. The golden glow imparts a lightening of the mood and a more intense emotional context. These are largely subjective ideas. However, this time of day has been used to create emotional and aesthetic appeal so often the positive impact can hardly be denied. In the popular photographic context images from the golden hour are more likely to be effective than if taken in the harsh, hard light of the mid-day sun.

The ‘Golden Hour’ is the approximate time that light from the sun takes on the special properties mentioned above. Typically, the properties outlined above begin to take effect when the sun is below ten degrees, and more intensely below six degrees from the horizon. The time may vary around a hour depending on the weather, location and season.

Mountains or weather may prevent the golden hour effect locally. The terrain or clouds can prevent observation of sunlight as the sun approaches the horizon.

To help you to get the right shot at your location, you can use various tools on the Internet to calculate light, sun position and other things. The Photographer’s Ephemeris – helps you plan outdoor photography in natural light. See how the light will fall on the land, day or night, for any location on earth. It is the best way to check the lighting you need to bring out the best in your shots. It is free on the web. There are apps you can download for phones too.


By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.