Sunset photography: 11 tips for making the most of the golden hour

Photography rule number one: don’t point your camera directly into the sun, right? Well, not all the time. It’s actually not so bad at sunset. The ‘magic hour’, ‘golden hour’ or whatever else you want to call it, is a beautiful, transcendental time of day when the light just gets better and better, until it gracefully glides down below the horizon. It can turn a scene into a total cliché or an Instagram sensation, depending on your taste. Here are 11 photography tips to help you make the most of the golden hour on your travels.

1. Keep an eye on the timeA baby elephant at Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India

Most weather apps will give you the precise time for sunset, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the ‘hour’ in golden and magic hour is approximate and will vary at different times of year and different latitudes. The nearer you are to the equator, the shorter the light show will be, but head towards the Arctic or Antarctic in summer and you could be watching the sunset for hours.


2. Use the daytime to recce potential sunset spotsMount Teide at sunset, Tenerife, Canary Islands

While you’re racing around from museum to café, gallery to bar or mountain peak to valley during the day time, keep an eye out for spots that might make a good compositions at sunset.

You can use a compass or apps like Photographer’s Ephemeris to get a better idea of precisely where the sun will set and what the light will fall on. You can also use apps like Photo Spot Land (and Instagram, of course) to see what others have shot in the same place.

3. Keep yourself fed and watered throughout the daySunset behind Ramsgate Lightbouse, Kent, UK

Often the excitement and endless discovery of a trip to a new place will leave you exhausted by the time your sightseeing day is over.

But it’s worth staying fed and watered throughout the day so you’re full of energy and raring to go when the sun decrees it’s photo time. You can reach for that sundowner cocktail once the light has well and truly gone.

4. Sunset toursHeading back to the super jeep at Vesterahorn, Iceland

Sunset tours are popular excursions on offer in many a destination and well worth looking into as a way of accessing views worth shooting after regular public transport has stopped for the day.

But they can also be quite expensive, more focused on fleecing your money for overpriced dinners than allowing you to access great compositions. Find out from the operator before you embark to make sure you’ll have enough time for photography.

5. Create silhouettes with your compositionChinese fishing nets in Fort Cochin, Kochi, Kerala

One of the most obvious ways to give a sunset life and dynamism is to create a strong composition with a silhouette in front. Look for interesting shapes in the landscape – architecture, trees, people are good for this – to form your composition.

6. Get up highSunset From a hill in Greenwich, London

Many a city or tourist town has a sunset viewing platform and it’s as good a place to start as any. But if you want your pictures to really stand out, you’ll have to get off the beaten track – keep your eyes open for alternative paths and options lest your photos end up looking exactly like everyone else’s.


7. Try using the sun as back lightWindsurfer and Martello Tower at Clacton on Sea, Essex, UK

When the sun is low in the sky, it’s a good time to try using it as back light. Because it’s softer and less harsh than the bright sun of the day. Tip for the techies among you, if you can get your camera off ‘auto’ setting, and set the camera to under exposure by up to a couple of stops, you’ll have more interesting results.


8. Look at what the light is illuminatingFishermen on Varkala beach, Kerala, India

It’s not just about the disappearance of that glowing orb in the sky, don’t forget to look at what the sun is illuminating. The tallest and biggest structures will remain in light for longer and some architects may even have taken evening light into consideration when designing and positioning their building (enter: Stonehenge).

In many tropical countries, the heat of the day is often too much to bear, so many activities like fishing, sport and commerce take place in the cooler late afternoon or early evening light giving you plenty of options for telling the story of life in that place.


9. Head to the hillsSea cliffs at West Bay, Dorset

The golden hour is the perfect time to photograph natural geographical features in the landscape. The intense quality of the light will illuminate different minerals within the rock formations, bringing out hues not visible during other times.


10. Don’t try to be too ambitious with your sunset itineraryThrough the trees at Fløyen, Bergen, Norway

There’s often a temptation to race around and fit in lots of locations in during the golden hour, but with an ever-changing magic to behold from one moment to the next, you just need to keep shooting from where you are.

Take as many pictures as you can; often you won’t know which was the optimal moment until you’re looking back and editing later on.


11. Use editing apps to make your pictures look more like what you’re experiencingOn the beach in Kerala, India

Unless you’re using very high-end gear and are super confident with handing your camera on the manual modes, you’re probably at the mercy of the in-built presets the manufacturer has installed. Some of these are great and work very well, but the biggest problem your camera will encounter when deciding how to capture the scene is the huge disparity in light levels between the sky and the shadow areas of the picture.

It will either expose for the brighter areas or for the darker areas, which will look more pronounced on your resultant image. You can easily modify your results by raising the shadows and decreasing the highlights either in camera or by using an app. Adobe Lightroom software is very effective for those willing to invest, and Snapseed is an excellent mobile app that can re-balance your image.

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