Couple embracing with sunset behind them

How to use golden hour

How do you use golden hour? What is it? When is it? What types of settings should my camera be set to?

Want answers? Read on!

Golden hour or "magic hour" creates stunning photos when captured correctly. This is because it basks your image in warm and soft lighting illuminated by the rising or setting sun. It is the perfect setting for an engagement, fashion, family, portraits, and real estate cover photoshoots. 

However, if you do not know when golden hour is or what it is exactly, it can be challenging to effectively photograph this magical time. 

Not only does golden hour produce gorgeous photos, but it allows photographers to experiment with natural light. It is a great tool that teaches them how to work with it and use it productively in their pictures. Whether you are a beginning or experienced photographer, there will be something you can take away from this blog post. 

Here is Focal's guide to using golden hour.


Golden hour occurs twice a day: the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset. At these two times, the sun is closer to the horizon in the sky and because of this, the lighting is softer and warmer. Hence the name, "golden hour." 

📸  : Marlboro Wang

After that the sun is mostly in your face or in your subject’s face. Sunrise is harder to manage than sunset since you can’t see where the sun is. It gets brighter and brighter, and you have to constantly adjust your settings. The best way to manage your settings is to use aperture priority and let the shutter figure itself out. 

1 to 1.5 hours before sunrise and after sunset is “blue hour.” Sunset time can vary from place to place. That’s obvious but what I mean is that the horizon is different at different spots, even if you are in the same city. 

For example, if you check on your phone and it tells you the sunset today is at 7 pm, that doesn’t mean that golden hour will be 15 minutes before 7 pm everywhere. Let’s take Victoria, BC as an example. The sunset at Beacon Hill Park is 6:15 pm but at Holland Point Park the sunset is at 7 pm. The two parks are just 5 minutes from each other. Why? This is because Holland Point Park is a beach and the horizon is the faraway mountains, which is just a little bit above the ocean. Beacon Hill Park on the other hand has a little hill and some tall trees, so the sun hides behind the tree lines by 6:15 pm. If you are there at 7 pm, the best lighting is gone for the day and because there are so many trees, you will be doing night photography rather than a sunset session. 

You will have to visit the place you want to shoot at the night before to see what time golden hour actually is. 


Some photographers only shoot outside during golden hour. Wedding photographers will make sure the couple reserve at least 15 minutes before the sunset to do a golden hour session and those photos usually end up on canvas prints and in their wedding albums.

Still not sure if a golden hour shoot is worth it? Check out these gorgeous photos taken by some talented photographers who use Focal and get inspired!

📸 : Marlboro Wang
📸 : Christin Carruthers (oohoohdarling)



Now that you know when golden hour is, the next step is to check when the sun rises or sets in your part of the world. I recommend going to the spot ahead the day before to make sure of the exact “golden hour.” This ensures you don’t get there only to realize your timing was off for the reasons I mentioned above. Since you have limited time to shoot, arrive at your location 20-30 minutes early so you don’t spend valuable shooting time setting up.

Secondly, you should plan where you are going to go. For lighting, it is important to make sure you are somewhere you can easily see the sun rise or set like the top of a hill or at the beach. Remember, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If you can’t tell where the east or west is, don’t use your phone. Just look for the brightest thing in the sky, it’s pretty hard to ignore. You should also choose a location that won't be too busy during your shooting time to avoid any photobombers.

In need of some location ideas around Victoria, BC? Check out our last blog post: 6 Places to Go For Your Next Photoshoot Around Victoria, BC


When shooting during this magical hour, you want to set your white balance to make up for the warm tones. This way, the parts of your photos that are white will stay white. Sometimes, the warm oranges and yellows of the rising or setting sun gives them an unwanted greyish or bluish tinge. However, your auto white balance on your camera will be sufficient and you can always do adjustments in the editing stages like on Lightroom.


Golden hour creates soft and even lighting which can produce some beautiful and creative shots. You should go into shoots with a plan for your lighting, especially with paying customers. It is good to always have a plan for shoots. This will minimize your chance of messing up and/or arriving at a shoot unprepared! By planning how you want to use golden hour in your photos, it will make you appear more professional to your clients. 

Here are some light positions you can have fun with:


📸 : Marlboro Wang
📸 : Marlboro Wang
📸 : Marlboro Wang


If you aren't careful, golden hour can cast shadows over your subject's face that causes your low lighting to look accidental rather than intentional. So, when you are shooting, keep an eye on those pesky shadows. The last thing you want is for your subject's eyes to be lost in darkness or for them to look like they haven't slept in a week.

ONE TIP to avoid all those unwanted shadows is to have your subject backlit. Not only will they get a rim lighting, their face will be in shades and the skin is evenly lit and looks very soft. 


Since the sun is either rising or setting this means the lighting will grow brighter or dimmer during your shoot, you are going to need to adjust your camera settings according to the shifting light. Sunrise is harder to manage than sunset since you can’t see where the sun is. It gets brighter and brighter, and you have to constantly adjust your settings. The best way to manage your settings is to use aperture priority and let the shutter figure itself out. For example, at the beginning of evening golden hour, you will want to use ISO 800 rather than 100. Why ISO 800 and not 100? We will explain in detail in one of our upcoming blog post’s called Crank Up Your ISO

Here are some more golden hour photography tips:

📸 : Christin Carruthers (oohoohdarling)

Now you are equipped to explore this beautiful time with the answers to the what, where, when, why, and how's of golden hour!

Remember to experiment and try new things with lighting and object placement. Your images may not turn out how you want right away, but with time and practice you will master the art of it.

Don't forget to tag us in your golden hour creations on social media (@bookfocal) if you try it out with these tips in mind! We can't wait to see your creations.

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