John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

The Golden (Magic) Hour

golden hour

The sun hasn’t come up yet. It’s dark outside and everyone is asleep. Or, your workday is over. People are hungry and going home. Do you veer off from what you would typically do in these situations, like stay in bed or go home for dinner, and instead pick up your camera and head outdoors?

If you want to seize the opportunity of the Golden Hour, the answer would be YES.

The Qualities of the Light

Also known as the Magic Hour, the Golden Hour refers to the first and last hour of sunlight – i.e., the period after sunrise and before sunset. At this time of the day, sunlight infuses the world with a soft, warm, diffuse, and ethereal golden glow. This effect is due to the fact the sun is low in the sky, resulting in light rays having to pass a longer distance through the atmosphere. Violet and blue wavelengths tend to scatter, while the warmer tones endure to reach the surface of the earth where they enrich the colors of the world.

By contrast, in the middle of the day, a time that’s usually more convenient to venture out for photography, the direct light of the overhead sun can be overly harsh, creating deep shadows and bright highlights that fall outside the dynamic range of the camera. The resulting underexposed and overexposed areas of the photograph are less likely to occur during the less extreme and more soothing light of the Golden Hour.

That’s the short story. The longer story, as is often the case in this world of light and color, is more complex. Some photographers say that cold blue shadows creep into the landscape near sunrise, which may be desirable if you want the shadows to create a sense of depth, provide an interesting contrast with warm tones, or help present a graphic look. Others say that the best light is right before the sun appears and right after it sets, which is why serious landscape photographers are early risers who have their equipment set up before dawn.

If you can see the sun as a glowing ball near the horizon in a fairly clear sky, the light, even though warm, will be low, direct, and raking, which produces long and deep shadows for some objects (like trees), interesting form in other subjects (like portraits, when the light comes from the side as opposed to the front or back), and amplified texture for various elements of the scene (like grass and leaves). On the other hand, if the low sun is hidden by trees or buildings, or especially when behind clouds, the light will be more diffuse, revealing a subtle range of colors, tones, and textures, with very few shadows.

golden hour photographyIf the sun is moving in and out of clouds, or reflecting light off them, the quality of the light can change dramatically and swiftly. Even a matter of minutes, or seconds, may make a big difference, which keeps watchful photographers on their toes while also delighting them. Like the weather in New England, if you don’t like the light during sunrise or sunset, wait a few minutes.

A variety of other factors will affect the duration of the Golden Hour and the quality of its light. The steepness and speed of the sun’s movement will vary depending on one’s latitude, altitude, and the time of year, with the Golden Hour tending to be longer at higher latitudes, lower altitudes, and during the summer. Reflected light from the buildings and landscape of a particular location will affect colors and tones. In urban environments sunsets may be more dramatic than sunrises due to pollutants from daytime activities that collect in the atmosphere - which aren’t great for one’s health but do provide a reflective layer for vibrant colors.

So the Golden Hour isn’t always golden in the light it offers. Instead, it’s a golden opportunity to experience the many variations of light that unfold in a short period of time – patterns of colors, tones, shadows, and textures that surface briefly in this particular time and place, then disappear, perhaps forever. What makes a photograph unique is its potential to capture such fleeting moments of light. This is what makes it the Magic Hour.

The Psychological Qualities of the Golden Hour

So far, I’ve described mostly the visual qualities of the Golden Hour. What about the psychological reactions to it? When we see a photo taken during sunrise and sunset, what ideas and emotions does it stir in us?

To answer that question, all we have to do is consider what sunset and sunrise have meant to us humans over the course of our history. Some would say that buried deep within our collective unconscious lie ancient memories of returning to the cave - to safety, warmth, and family as the sun disappears below the horizon. The uncertainty and possible dangers of night approach. After the darkness, the sun rises once again, bringing the promises and challenges of a new day to live.

That eternal cycle of light and dark created our archeytypic patterns of thinking and feeling about the Magic Hour. Sunset symbolizes the end of something – of the light, a stage or condition in one’s life, or the end of life itself. The forms, colors, and textures of the world blossom one last time in the setting sun before they fade into oblivion. Then it’s the entrance into darkness, death, ignorance, despair, danger, evil, or the other qualities we associate with the night. It is the witching hour, the time for monsters, dark practices and rousing spirits. On the brighter side (reverse pun intended), sunset may mark the return to the soothing safety of the womb, the revival of mysterious forces, or slipping off into the unconscious dream world. Sunset is a period of rest, renewal, and self reflection.

Sunrise means the beginning of life. The world starts anew. The birds sing. We return to the light of day, to reason, knowledge, and righteousness. There is the promise that our goals and ideals may be fulfilled, that we may be embarking on a new adventure. In rituals and stories throughout human history, the sun represents health, power, energy, and joy, while Light serves as a symbol of spiritual well-being and God. At dawn, Muslims pray to Allah.

Together, sunrise and sunset remind us of the cycles in nature, including human nature and the lives we play out. The repetition of day and night, one after the other, symbolizes transition, change, the eternal recurrence of death and rebirth, and the mysterious transcendent force behind it.

When taking a photograph, might one of these ideas or feelings be motivating you? Do you want to infuse your image with these meanings? How might the colors, tones, composition, and subjects in the shot reinforce and complement these symbolisms, or perhaps challenge and contradict them?

Here’s one last interesting but more practical question to consider. If you saw some Golden Hour shots of scenes you aren’t familiar with, do you think you could tell the difference between the sunrises and sunsets? If you’re like the news reporters on a local morning TV show that I watch, who attempt this determination on photos sent in by viewers, you’ll be right about 50% of the time – which is basically chance. If we photographers train our eyes, we might improve our accuracy, which would be a very good visual exercise for us. When creating images, we also might consider the fact that people who view them may not be able to tell the difference between sunrises and sunsets. With a title for the shot, or an explanation, we can steer them towards the idea we intended. Or we can let them decide for themselves, using their own imagination, according to their own needs and expectations as to what sunrise and sunset means to them.

If you liked this article in Photographic Psychology, you might also like these:

The Big Picture of Composition
Symbolism: What Does It Mean?
The Good Capture

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche