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Understanding golden hour, blue hour, and twilight photography

Almost every photographer has a favourite time of day, but for a select few, the right timing can become something more: a cornerstone of their artistic practice.

For renowned American photographer William Eggleston, it was the golden hour, when warm rays of light made even the most mundane spaces pulsate with heat and magic. For Gregory Crewdson, it’s often twilight, when the darker, eerie colours lend his photographs a distinctly mysterious and cinematic undertone.

The terms ‘golden hour’ and ‘blue hour’ can be deceptive because they rarely last a full hour; sometimes, they can last for just fifteen minutes, depending on your location. The golden hour occurs just after sunrise and before sunset, when the sun is low on the horizon, creating that signature warm glow. The blue hour arrives shortly before sunrise and after sunset, when the sun’s position just below the horizon produces those cooler tones.

Image by ​Nick Rufo

Despite their fleeting nature, these dazzling times of day have served as muse and inspiration to countless artists over the years. While each time evokes different emotions, both result in an ethereal, sometimes otherworldly atmosphere, and they also require many of the same methods. We asked eight golden hour, blue hour, and twilight photographers to divulge their secrets for making the most of these enchanting moments. Read on for their top tips.

1. Scout your location

“I suggest planning ahead and scouting any locations you’d like to come back to during the golden hour or blue hour,” the Los Angeles-based photographer Nick Rufo tells us. “I often come across a scene that I know has potential, but I’m seeing it in the middle of the day and can’t find an interesting way to shoot it, so I will plan to come back to it at a certain time of day.

“Shooting during these two times of day can be difficult because the sun moves quickly, so if you aren’t in the right place at the right time and fully focused, then you might miss what you came for. These are obstacles that will always be there, and you just have to adapt to them, but scouting always helps.”

Image by Marina Monaco

2. Get there an hour early

“I recommend taking into account at least one or two hours before the blue hour or golden hour, so you can practice your shots beforehand,” the photographer and director Marina Monaco explains.

“The biggest challenge lies in determining where the best spot and angles are. Try to choose a spot where you have an open sky. I do not recommend a location that has something that casts large shadows, because there will probably not be enough light to get a good exposure.

“It’s best to find your spot at the beginning of the shoot. You have to get into the habit of imagining what a location will look like during the blue or golden hour in advance so that you’re prepared when it happens.”

Image by Marina Monaco

Apps like PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris will give you up-to-date information on the sunrise and sunset times in your area, helping you to plan for blue or golden hour.

3. Select a fast lens

“Particularly for blue hour, when you’re shooting in low light conditions, your lens needs to have larger apertures, like f/1.2 f/1.4, or f/1.8,” Marina tells us. “This will give you more flexibility and more time to shoot.”

You can always bump up your ISO or decrease your shutter speed if you’re not getting enough light, but these changes can result in noise or motion blur, so opening up that aperture is a good first step. Faster lenses with larger maximum apertures work best.

Another perk of shooting with a wide aperture? You’ll get a shallow depth of field and bokeh in the background. “If you choose a background with a lot of coloured highlights, your photograph will have a lot of bokeh,” Marina adds.

Image by Lena Jeanne

4. Know your camera

Some cameras work better in low light than others, so it’s important to know the limitations of your gear. “From a technical viewpoint, my main tip would be to try and understand the camera and, if you’re shooting analogue, the film you’re shooting with,” the Wales-based photographer Lena Jeanne tells us.

“In tough low light conditions, I need to know what my camera can do: Will I get camera shake if I shoot at a lower speed? Can I focus accurately? Can this film stock capture the colour I want? Once I’m confident that I have the right equipment for the job, then I can focus on making the image I want.” Don’t be afraid to experiment with a few different rental options to see what works.

Image by Lena Jeanne

“My favourite time to shoot is dusk. For me, that’s when nature really comes alive. The colours have this soft but deep glow, and all the smells of nature permeate the air. It feels very special to be out at this time when all the plants and animals start to breathe more deeply. There’s a real peace as the sun goes down.”

Lena Jeanne

5. Watch your white balance

On digital cameras, auto white balance will serve you well in most situations, but it’s not ideal for the blue hour or golden hour. In auto, your camera will work to neutralize those cooler or warmer tones, so set your white balance yourself. You can use a preset like Tungsten or Shade, or you can enter it manually in degrees Kelvin. Decreasing your white balance setting will add blue, and increasing it will add orange.

6. Beware of squinting eyes

“Golden or magic hour can sometimes cast dappled light, so if you’re shooting portraits, make sure the shadows hit the right spot on a person’s face,” the Melbourne-based photographer Abigail Varney advises. “Often, your subject needs to be in the direct sun rather than backlit. Here, the challenge then becomes dealing with squinting eyes, so it’s best to turn your subjects to the side so they aren’t looking straight into the light.”

Image by Abigail Varney

7. Check your exposure regularly

“It’s easy to forget about checking your exposure more often at this time, but it’s changing rapidly, even though you might not notice it,” the Alberta-based photographer Sandy Phimester explains. “Paying attention to how colours change in this kind of light is so important and the most interesting aspect to keep in mind, no matter what you’re shooting or how.”

8. Take as many photos as possible

“Running out of time is my biggest challenge in this kind of light,” Sandy says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve realised I should have doubled down and captured more images. I think I’m guilty of enjoying the moment maybe a bit too much. Being mindful is an important thing in all aspects when enjoying your photography.”

Image by Sandy Phimester

9. Learn to shoot in manual mode

“Shoot in manual mode,” the Paris-based photographer Anaïs Duvert urges. “That’s the best way to explore and develop your aesthetic, and it’s the first step toward improving your photography.”

Working in manual mode will give you full control over your exposure and creative aspects like depth of field, grain, and motion blur. Of course, you can always “break the rules” with interesting compositions, underexposure, and unconventional effects, but it helps to understand how each of your settings influence the mood and aesthetic of the final photo.

“I love shooting at night because it’s calm and mysterious. There are fewer people, and it’s very quiet. Time seems infinite. I’m all alone at night—it’s kind of like my little secret garden. At twilight, the lights are smooth and delicate. It’s peaceful, like a caress.”

Image by Anaïs Duvert

“I always trust my mood first. If I can create only one image that underlines my thoughts in the moment, I consider it a success. We are all expressing our own inner worlds. Think about what you feel and about what drives you to a particular place during a particular time of day.”

Anaïs Duvert

10. Stay still (or use a tripod)

Several of the photographers we interviewed stressed the importance of using a tripod, an essential tool if you’re shooting at slower shutter speeds. “It might sound obvious, but if you want to shoot in low light, it’s really important not to move,” Anaïs adds.

“It’s best to have a tripod, but it’s not always necessary. I started shooting at night by holding my breath! I sometimes got blurred pictures, but I tried to play with that. I think the habit of holding my breath and trying to stay immobile might have helped me to stay focused in the moment; my body and my mind just adapted to the challenge.”

11. Carry a reflector

“When it comes to capturing a portrait during this time of day, it might be hard to fill shadows on your subject’s face,” the Athens-based photographer Bill Thanopoulos, who favours blue hour, tells us. “A reflector will do the trick if you are near a light source, maybe a colourful one.” You can also get gold or silver reflectors to enhance the effect of golden or blue hour, respectively.

Image by Bill Thanopoulos

“At the blue hour, the natural light is super soft, and the contrast between the ambient blue hue and the urban yellow lights is very photogenic. You can almost feel the people around you changing during this time of the day; they are calmer, and the atmosphere is more nostalgic as the light falls.”

Bill Thanopoulos

12. Embrace imperfections (and unpredictable weather)

While many of our tips thus far revolve around careful planning, sometimes spontaneous shoots—inspired in an instant by a trick of the light—can be just as powerful. “I don’t like to be too ‘prepared’ before a photoshoot,” Bill admits.

“I love those unexpected scenes that you don’t have to look for. Of course, sometimes I do check the forecast, but I prefer to shoot when I know that the weather will suddenly change. It’s interesting to notice and try to capture how people are also changing as the weather turns.

“At the end of the day, you don’t always have to worry about having the best gear (lenses, tripods, etc.) to shoot at this time of day. Sometimes, grainy or blurry images give you a mysterious feel, and in this kind of photography, that’s what it’s all about.”

13. Capture emotions

While they had plenty of technical tips, emotion and atmosphere were two themes the photographers we spoke with returned to time and time again. These intangible elements are often what makes a blue hour photo feel lonely or wistful and a golden hour photo feel dreamy or romantic, so tap into those feelings in your photos.

Image by Maria Maglionico

“I would love to see more portraits set in the golden hour and blue hour,” the Italian photographer Maria Maglionico tells us. “During these times of day, everyone has a different kind of aura.

“In the golden hour, for example, the softer light makes photos feel more intimate, and it makes people feel more reachable. It is difficult to explain, but during certain times of day, it seems as though everyone and everything is unveiled. If you are lucky enough, you can get a glimpse of that inner world.”

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.

Spotlight editor

As editor of Affinity Spotlight Melanie oversees the stories, interviews and tutorials published on the site. Outside of work she enjoys travelling, reading crime thrillers, Pilates and dabbling in a spot of oil painting. Get in touch with Melanie if you would like to contribute or be featured on Affinity Spotlight.

Credits & Footnotes

Hero image created by and copyright of Lena Jeanne.

Orange cityscape: image created by and copyright of Nick Rufo.

Woman on a roof top and couple lighting a cigarette: both created by and copyright of Marina Monaco.

Horse image and woman walking through a field: both created by and copyright of Lena Jeanne.

Deserted shop with mural: image created by and copyright of Abigail Varney.

Woman in long checked dress: image created by and copyright of Sandy Phimester.

Block of flats at night: image created by and copyright of Anaïs Duvert.

People walking on bridge at dusk: image created by and copyright of Bill Thanopoulos.

Portait of woman holding a circular card: image created by and copyright of Maria Maglionico.