Do you ever wonder how some photographers and videographers are able to get the absolute perfect outside lighting? So perfect, they must have spent ages fixing it in post? Well, those creatives have likely mastered the beauty of golden hour (also called magic hour). While not a literal hour, the term refers to the period of time directly after a sunrise and directly before sunset, when the lighting is soft and warm. This redder tint matches the brightness of streetlights, headlights, and lit windows, which minimizes the contrast between outside lighting and film/photography lighting. Combined with the softened shadows that come from the sun's low angle in the sky, this lighting is perfect for stunning portraits and dynamic shots. Keep reading for tips on how to get the most out of this magic time of day!
1) Manage Your Time
The key to a successful golden hour shoot is planning and time management. The first thing to know here is that golden hour is actually less than an hour. Typically only 25-40 minutes... and once it's gone, it's gone. You can't afford to be spending any bit of this timeframe with set-up or rehearsal. As much of the "hour" as possible needs to be used to get usable shots/footage. To ensure this happens, it is critical that you plan out every portion of the shoot. Check both the time of sunrise/sunset and the weather while planning--a heavy cloud day will interfere with a golden hour's lighting warmth. Arrive on set earlier than you need to, and be ready to get the camera(s) rolling the instant the sun starts to work its magic. Depending on the type of shoot, using multiple cameras can be a great way to capture more footage during this narrow timeframe, as well. Because this time is so valuable, you want to get as many shots as possible, which means you have to plan accordingly.
2) Adjust Your Settings
During the height of golden hour, lighting may feel relatively consistent. However, this really isn't the case. As the sun's angle over the horizon changes, the scattering of blue light also changes. Just as rapidly as the clock is ticking on a golden hour shoot, all the pigments of lighting are in constant motion. There are a few ways to compensate for this when adjusting your camera. First, you'll want to slightly underexpose your image. Overexposure will blow out footage and create a stark contrast between highlights in the shot, completely undoing the magic of golden hour. After fixing exposure, you'll want to check your white balance. To compensate for the scattering of blue light that occurs during golden hour, set your white balance to lean slightly warm (many cinematographers manually set their cameras somewhere between 3200-4300 Kelvin). Doing so will also highlight the natural vividness of the time's lighting.
3) Framing is Key
To get the most out of golden hour lighting, you'll also need to frame shots specifically to showcase the beauty of the natural light. You can capture dynamic movement by shooting into the sun (possible at this time due to the sun being lower and dimmer) and placing the subject into that composition. This technique will create long silhouettes that highlight the scene's natural color and movement. Similarly, when shooting portraits during golden hour, situate the talent in front of the sun, on the key side. To take full advantage of the lighting, use a bounce card or gold-tinted reflector to then highlight the fill side of the talent's face. We also suggest using wider shots than usual during a golden hour shoot. Larger compositions can be more striking and easily tied together by the particularly crisp pigmentation of this lighting. It really is magical at this time of day--when skillfully executed, the lighting can make every aspect of the composition look directed, intentional, and impressive.
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