Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long Photography

The Golden Hour: Why it is the Best Time of Day for Photographs

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long PhotographyWe’ve all seen it – that dreamy, soft, warm, golden light that can literally transform a scene into something absolutely breathtaking… It’s affectionately known by photographers as “the golden hour” – the last hour of daylight before the sunset and it is, without question, the best light of the day for outdoor portrait photography.

But before we we get too excited, we have to remember that such short-lived beauty comes at a great price… the rest of the sunny day, particularly closer to midday is actually some of the worst lighting imaginable for portrait photography. Yes, midday Sun with its hard shadows and very high contrast presents the worst outdoor light one can encounter for portraits. And while creating great images in this light is certainly not impossible (I’ll show you some examples of how it can be done), we’ll generally want to avoid putting any really important outdoor photographs for your wedding or family session anywhere near midday if at all possible. Instead, we’ll want to schedule your portraits as close as possible to the golden hour!

Why the Golden Hour?

Why can’t we just get those awesome warm, dreamy, sun flare photographs any time of day? What’s so special about the golden hour? Why is the golden hour the best time of day for photographs and why (in contrast) is the light at midday so terrible for photographs?

First of all, the golden hour actually happens twice per day – the hour immediately after sunrise and the hour immediately before sunset. It is marked by redder, softer sunlight when compared to other times of day when the Sun is higher in the sky.

Just an fyi…. Here in Snoqualmie, WA, sunrise is as early as 5:09 am in the summer, so we generally just focus on the golden hour that happens just before sunset, when everyone is more inclined to have their photographs taken. 🙂

This image below was captured towards the end of the family session during the golden hour. Diffuse sunlight was coming through the trees and subtly illuminating the sister’s hair.

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long Photography

Why is the light better during the golden hour?

The reason the light is so much better at the very beginning and end of the day is because during the golden hour, the sun is really low in the sky, forcing the sunlight to pass through more of the Earth’s atmosphere on its way to the surface, greatly lowering the intensity of the direct light. At the same time, there is more indirect light from the sky reaching the Earth’s surface as well, creating a nice soft “fill” light. Indirect sunlight is sunlight that has been scattered by the atmosphere, essentially bouncing around a little and taking the long, indirect path to us and lighting up the sky in the process. As the light coming directly from the Sun passes through the atmosphere, much of this light is scattered. And since shorter wavelength blue light is scattered more than longer wavelength red light, the sky near sunset can appear a brilliant blue and the Sun itself will look redder.

Without delving into further scientific detail, the end result is a golden hour with a much softer, warmer light where the shadows are less dark and the highlights are less bright. And when it comes to creating photographs on a sunny day, the difference this makes is absolutely astonishing!

I love the beautiful halo of rim light around these couples!

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long PhotographySeattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long PhotographyThe image below was taken during the golden hour, but with side-lighting, which highlights the face of the bride-to-be as she gazes out at the ocean. The side-lighting also brings out some colors well as it highlights the greens surrounding the couple and the red color of that famous bridge in the background… oh yes, the Golden Gate Bridge! 😉

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long PhotographyBelow, the golden hour light beautifully creates a soft golden backlight glow around the couple, which really helps them stand out beautifully against the darker trees in the background. I love this kind of lighting!

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long Photography

Fun fact: Winter has the best light! That’s right, in the winter, the Sun stays relatively low in the sky and almost every hour of the day can be like the golden hour (provided it is sunny of course)! For example, here in Snoqualmie, WA, on and around December 21 (the shortest day of the year aka winter solstice), the Sun reaches a maximal angle of only 19.1 degrees above the horizon. Yep, beautiful light all day! This is yet another reason why winter is my favorite time of year! 😉 In contrast, on June 21 (the longest day of the year aka summer solstice), the Sun reaches a maximal angle of 65.9 degrees – uggh! Farther south, like LA for example, this angle is nearly 80 degrees!!!

So what’s wrong with midday sunlight?

When the Sun is directly overhead, the sunlight passes through the least amount of the Earth’s atmosphere on its way to the surface (since the light waves would be perpendicular to the atmosphere as they pass through). For this reason, midday sunlight is much more intense. This is why you can get sunburn very quickly during midday (especially in places closer to the equator). In just a few minutes of exposure in Los Angeles, CA in the summertime for example, you’ll get hit by far more UV radiation at midday than you would in the last few hours of daylight combined! You’ll also get several times the solar radiation that you would compared to the same time of day in Seattle, WA, again because of the difference in angle of the incoming sunlight (65 degrees in Seattle vs. nearly 80 degrees in LA)!

And since midday Sun passes through less of the atmosphere, less light is scattered and thus, there is (relatively) less indirect or “fill” light. So when it comes to photography in midday Sun, you’ll also see lots of harsh shadows, squinty eyes, super bright, and super dark areas of photographs… In a nutshell…. NOT GOOD! The higher the Sun is in the sky (in other words, the greater the Sun angle), the worse the lighting for outdoor portraits.

All is not lost in midday Sun…

It’s true, without a crazy amount of lighting apparatus to effectively overpower the Sun and artificially create the golden hour, the same photograph taken at midday will NEVER look as good as it will during the golden hour (all else being equal). And that’s a hard truth to realize, especially when we’ve (mistakenly) been conditioned since we were kids to think that bright sunshine = good light.

But even in that dreaded bright midday Sun, you can still get great photographs. You just need to realize some limitations, plan a little, and adapt. I’ve photographed outdoor weddings in midday Sun in CA where the Sun angle is over 75 degrees (in other words, almost directly overhead)! It’s a challenge because you have to know just how far you can push your camera to capture things in the best way possible, avoiding blowing out highlights and at the same time, avoiding lost detail in the shadows. You have to capture the scene correctly and know what to do in post-production.

For the image below, you can tell by the short length of the shadows that the Sun is nearly directly overhead. And while this light doesn’t lend itself well to portraits (lots of harsh shadows), it can work wonders for bringing out color in dramatic fashion! Yes, midday sunlight makes colors pop!

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long PhotographyThe image below was created during midday sunlight. It was a challenge because not only was it super hot (over 100!), it was that dreaded midday Sun too! I used the high contrast light to really bring out the colors in the trees, flowers, and the bride’s beautiful lehenga, and I positioned the couple such that there would be no harsh shadows on their faces. The flowers covered up the parts of the ground that were super bright and would have presented a distraction in the photograph (if I were to have show the ground). The result is a beautiful, natural-light portrait of the couple created with nothing but harsh, midday light.

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long PhotographyFor the image below, it was mid-afternoon and very bright! Here, the flower petals on the ground provided a little bit of fill light and I made sure that my in-camera exposure allowed me to capture all of the beautiful, colorful details during their celebratory walk down the aisle!

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long PhotographyThe image below was taken mid-afternoon, when the light was starting to get a little better, but still full of hard shadows. By shooting at this angle, I was able to fill in the shadows a little with the Sun’s reflection off of the building to the right. Then, with the appropriate editing in post-production, the image shows the celebratory mood even though some faces are in shade and others in bright sunlight – normally a nearly impossible situation to capture well without losing details in the highlights or the shadows!

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long Photography

What about cloudy or overcast days?

Overcast days are great for portraits because the light is very soft from any direction. You can shoot at midday and create beautiful, epic scenes any time of day. You can also still find directional light if you know how to look for it. I love overcast light! And fog!!!! Don’t even get me started on how much I love shooting in the fog!

Getting the most out of natural light on a sunny day

I like to end all of my engagement sessions and family sessions right around sunset. This ensures that the last hour or so of the session, the light is absolutely gorgeous! This also means that the light at the beginning of the session will be the worst we’ll encounter and it is going to gradually get better throughout the session. As I guide my clients (couples or families) through the various locations during our session, I always keep this in mind. Early on, I’ll select locations that have more shade or where I know that the Sun will not be quite as big of a factor. If we’re shooting indoors and relying on window light, this is the perfect time of day to get the most light coming inside. I’ll save any scenic wide views for the end if possible because I know these will look best during the golden hour. Most importantly, I’ll educate couples during their session along the way on posing, showing connection, and essentially preparing them so that when the golden hour arrives, we can really make the most of it! This is it! This is the hour we’ve been waiting for during your session! It’s all been a buildup to this! So make sure you’re at that breathtaking view or that open field, wearing your best outfits and lets rock that golden hour!

For family sessions, shooting during the golden hour can make for a later day than little ones are perhaps used to, particularly those less than 3 years old. Quite often, little ones get tired in the evening hours and so parents will suggest having the session at a different time when their little one is typically in a better disposition, such as 11am, in-between naps for example. I’m happy to accommodate this, but in my experience, with a beautiful outdoor location, the excitement, lots to explore, and all the fun we have prevents the usual evening melt-down. And in the end, we always have an amazing session! Trust me, the light is so so much better that it is worth it waiting until the golden hour! And I’ve never met a little one who didn’t have tons of fun at one of my sessions! 🙂

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long Photography

Capitalizing on the Golden Hour When Planning Your Wedding

One of the best things you can do to ensure great images on your wedding day is to plan on having bride and groom photographs taken during the golden hour if possible. I often have couples do some photographs earlier in the day and then reserve a little time closer to sunset to steal away their reception for a few minutes and capture some images during golden hour. This is particularly more common in the summertime, when sunset isn’t until 8:30pm or later. Look up the sunset time for your day and see if it is possible to fit in some bride & groom photographs during that golden hour!

In the winter, spring, and fall, you can plan your outdoor ceremony to happen 2-3 hours or so before sunset to ensure the light for your ceremony is good and also to ensure you’ll have the golden hour for bride & groom photographs. Then as it gets dark, it’ll be perfect timing to start your reception celebration!

Seattle WA Wedding and Family Photographer James Thomas Long Photography


  1. Anna mcginty says:

    This was a wonderful explanation of the golden hour!

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