The Golden Hour and Photography

The Mittens at Sunrise, Monument Valley, UT (HDR)

We just came back from a weekend in Monterey, CA.  Our trip reminded me, once again, about how our vacations have changed since we began to be serious about photography.  The biggest change is that we wake up early and usually miss happy hour.  Let me explain.

The Mittens at Sunset

If you are a serious photographer, you know the routine: check the weather; check sunrise and sunset times; plan a spot to shoot from in the morning and evening; and scout the location beforehand, if you can.  The alarm goes off at 5 AM and you crawl out of bed and look out the window.  Sometimes you even go outside and look at the sky…decisions…decisions.  Do I go back to bed or do I get out?  Is the pain of missing a great sunrise worse than the pain of going out into the cold and seeing a dull sunrise?  Are you a real photographer or not?  “OK Mary, let’s go!” and we are off because we HAVE to be ready for the golden hour.

Sunrise Saguaro National Park, AZ

The best light will be about 30-60 min before sunrise.  We know this, so we have to get there early.  I also don’t like to rush, so I want to be there even earlier.  One time in Death Valley, we got to Zabriskie Point “too early”.  We were the first car in the parking lot and we had to sit in the car for 45 minutes before we even got out to set up our shot.  I was so excited to get there, I could not sleep and I did not want to miss a thing.  Mary had a few “choice words” for me as we sat in the car in total blackness without another soul in sight.

The golden hour light is softer and more diffuse.  It also appears more colorful because it is traveling through more of the atmosphere, so you will get the pinks, yellows, and reds.  The sky also looks bluer.  Once the sun comes up and direct sunlight hits your subject, it is usually over and time for breakfast.

San Francisco Bay Bridge Sunrise

I really think that it is literally an hour a day — 30 min before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset.  However, it depends on where you are and the weather conditions.  I think it is safe to say, that you need to be ready to shoot an hour before and an hour after sunrise and sunset.  It also depends on the season.  In the winter months, the sun is lower than in the summer, and therefore the best light can last longer in the winter.  It also depends on latitude, altitude, and the terrain.  To know the “exact golden hour” for you on any given day and location, use the website.

In the middle of the day, the sunlight can create bright highlights and dark shadows. Exposure becomes increasingly difficult as the light gets brighter, so we usually spend the rest of the day sight-seeing, shooting for black and white or infrared, trying to find subjects with good light in shadows, or scouting locations.  The one really good opportunity is that black and white images can be quite striking with middle of the day light.  If you have the right light and subject that creates very interesting contrast, middle of the day shooting can be very rewarding.

Death Valley Mid-day

In the old days, I planned our day so that we would end up in a nice place about 5 PM for happy hour and some good wine and relaxation before dinner.  Now, we worry about having enough water,  a snack, and a restroom, because we have to be out in the field for sunset.  Last weekend in Monterey, we drove around for about two hours looking for the right sunset spot.  We got out and walked around a few times.  Nothing really made us excited and the sun just kept dropping.  At a certain point we had to make a decision “to shoot something.”

So we settled in on a spot and captured some coastal Cypress trees and the coastline.  The full moon was rising in the East and gave us an additional element to our photos, which was nice.  Mary made the right call not to shoot the sunset directly as there was a “cloud bank” on the horizon that blocked the final sunset and prevented the light from bouncing off of any high clouds.  We got a little pink, but nothing terribly special.

Monterey Bay Sunset
Monterey, CA Sunset

Then it was off to a late dinner and a glass of wine.  We always debrief our day and then we look at each other and one of us sheepishly asks, “So, are we going to shoot sunrise tomorrow?”  To see more of our golden hour photos, please go to

The world-famous Lone Cypress, Pebble Beach, CA (HDR)


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