The Golden Hour Landscape Image
An Often-Overlooked Opportunity
Virtually every Nature enthusiast knows about the potential beauty of landscapes taken at sunrise and sunset. However, for many, the hour before full sunset is often just a time to get into position and set up the camera. And about as often, photographers stow their gear immediately after catching a peak sunrise with fiery red and pink clouds.
They may know about the Golden Hour. But for many, planning to photograph at that time is a low priority. And there have been times that I was guilty of the same omissions and missed capturing some magical moments in Nature. I’m glad I didn’t miss the last one, which is highlighted above, as much for the inspiration to write this article as for the privilege of recording this moment.
Before going any further, it is helpful to define what the Golden Hour is and what causes it.
The Golden Hour is officially defined as the last hour of light at the end of the day and as the first hour of light at the beginning of the day.
During that first hour and last hour periods, sunlight must reach us through more atmosphere than at any other time of day. The greater travel through the atmosphere results in more scattering of the shorter bluer wavelengths leaving a high proportion of longer reddish wavelengths. Consequently, the lower the sun is relative to the horizon, the ratio is higher. At all other times of day, the shorter, higher energy wavelengths predominate.
In the morning, as the sun comes over the horizon, the reflected light from any clouds near the horizon will appear reddish and then slowly turns to orange, then yellow, and finally white an hour after sunrise. Of course, such scenes tend to be very photogenic. In the late afternoon, the color cast turns yellow first, then progresses to oranges and pinks, and shortly after, to reds.
But there is another principle at work that gives Golden Hour photographs special appeal. About halfway through each Golden Hour (post-sunrise and pre-sunset), the yellow glow dominates. Yet the surrounding landscape is rendered in crisp detail as the sunlight still contains short enough, high-energy wavelengths to generate fine shadow detail. Earlier in the sunrise and later in the sunset, a preponderance of lower energy wavelengths makes the finer detail appear mushy. But, in the middle of the Golden Hour, the combination of yellowish clouds and finally detailed landforms tends to be optimal and is often subtle and striking at the same time.
The word “tends” is used here because higher humidity can also cause more scattering of sunlight, which can hinder the rendering of fine detail, particularly when sunlight intensity is substantially diminished early and late in the day. More about this later.
I think that the best way to demonstrate the unique beauty of Golden Hour images is to show a variety of them taken at different times of the year and in different locations. Aside from a few informational bits, I invite readers to draw their own conclusions,
The following two images of the southern Teton range were taken 12 minutes apart during the morning Golden Hour. The rosy sunrise was optimal at 11 minutes after sunrise, while the beautiful golden glow in the second image was optimal 23 minutes into the Golden Hour. Notice the improvement in the definition of fine detail in the “golden” image in just 12 minutes. Of course, the image detail would continue to improve as the sunlight grew stronger. But, by then, the golden glow would have completely disappeared.
The images comprising the following stitched panorama of the Mogollon Rim in Sedona were taken at 7:32 in the evening, just as the Golden Hour started. What’s interesting in this view is that the yellow cast is evident in the left one-third of the scene but not at all in the right one-third. This effect may be caused by the lower cloud bank on the left blocking the higher clouds on the right from receiving the warmer wavelengths radiating close to the horizon. I’d love to hear other theories.
Two months later, an almost identical scene occurred, as shown below:
There’s no doubt about the Golden Hour effect in the next image. Looking northwest in this scene, the yellow side and backlighting are at its strongest at 7:33 PM in early August. While this image is dramatic, it’s not unusual for a Golden Hour scene during the monsoon season.
The following image is unusual because the yellow light of this time of day is reflected by fast-moving, low-lying clouds that resemble a fierce wildfire.
The next image is complex, showing Cathedral Rock with a yellow cast, while the reflected image in Oak Creek shows a more normal orange. This is due to the compensating blue wavelengths in the deep-shadowed reflection area.
Looking at another morning Golden Hour image (below), the yellow early light provides a pleasing contrast to the cool tones of a snow-dusted landscape in shadow in the following image.
That same scene was taken in the middle of the afternoon Golden Hour and displays vibrant yellows and oranges. (See the following image.) Though the editing was similar in both cases, the late afternoon image appears to be warmer and more dynamic, illustrating that lighting and atmospheric conditions are far more complex than just lighting geometry. From my experience, the sunsets in Sedona tend to be more vibrant and longer-lasting than the sunrises.
Following is a late Golden Hour image of Bandon Beach, which is almost at the same latitude as Teton NP in Wyoming. In comparing Golden Hour images taken between 33.8- and 43.6- degrees north latitude, I can’t say that I see much difference in the lighting. I do see a difference between photographs taken near water – where humidity is presumed to be moderate to high -and those taken in the high deserts where humidity is low to moderate. Because of the greater light scattering in more humid air, colors appear softer with lower contrast than what is seen in the dryer high desert scenes. The softer tones certainly lend their own charm.
The next image, taken in the early morning at Bryce Canyon National Park, displays the same warm tones in the clouds as the above Bandon Beach image, but the fine detail in the rocks is much sharper in the image taken in Bryce NP, again consistent with low humidity in the high desert.
This image shown below is a good example of rapidly changing weather and lighting that is common in the high desert in which Sedona is situated. The sky was clear earlier. But, as the Golden Hour approached, a small cloud system blew in and a thin covering of wet snow that lasted less than five minutes. When I photographed this scene close to my home, the clouds had already moved on and receded into the distance. The late afternoon light did not give the clouds a color cast, though the rock formations in the distance did pick up a noticeable yellow tint. While the effect may have intensified a little later, this scene is different and memorable.
Following are two Golden Hour images taken in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Preserve. They illustrate a daily cycle in which Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese leave their protective marsh environment after sunrise to forage and then return before sunset to sleep. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials flood portions of the preserve to create shelter for these migrating waterfowl and deposit quantities of grain in dry areas to feed them.
The first image captures a fly-off of Snow Geese in silhouette against a yellow-orange sky as Cranes await their turn to take off. The second image captures Snow Geese taking off in stages to return to their resting place as the sky turns yellow, orange, and pink.
Following is an exposure that was made after the Golden Hour ended one rainy December morning in 2010. I visited Coffeepot Rock in Sedona a few minutes after sunrise hoping to capture this well-known monument against a fiery sky. However, the site was filled with low-lying clouds. The clouds did not lift in time to reveal a colorful sky. However, the early sun shone through the cloud cover and spotlighted a wet Coffeepot and gave it a metallic bronze/orange sheen. Technically not Golden Hour, but something even better!
Another image of similar circumstance was captured on Mother’s Day while sitting in a lovely restaurant with views of the forest and distant red rocks. I noticed wind-sheared clouds starting to turn pink and excused myself to take a photograph the developing scene. The cloud colors suggest that this image is more of a sunset, except that the sun was still shining on a small slope covered with Penstemon blooms. So, it was captured during the last hour of sunlight.
I have taken many Golden Hour photographs the past 20 years though they were never a specific priority for me. That changed last January 18th. On that day snow had fallen in the upper elevations and the air was crisp and clear. the lighting in this scene was just about perfect. As my wife and I will be moving to Colorado later this year, this image is the one that will hang in our new home to remind us of Sedona.
This is the image that appears at the beginning of this essay. What I like most about it is the lighting which is optimal for each portion of the scene. The trees which comprise the foreground are in subdued light but still, show much shadow detail and balanced forms. The background consists of two prominent parts, the bright orange “Crimson Cliffs” at the left center and the darker formations that are part of the Mogollon Rim – the south edge of the Colorado Plateau. Usually, this undulating wall of rock is seen as dark tan and brown with a somewhat uniform tonality. In this instance, the wall reflected a rich array of colors and tones as the sunlight intensity and color were neither too weak nor too strong. There are no glaring highlights or inky shadows, and the overall lighting was warm without creating a yellow cast. Editing this image was unusually easy, as hardly any correction was necessary.
The composition of this scene has a natural dynamic balance which is further enhanced by the light distribution. Though the sky accounts for 40 percent of the image, it balances well with the landscape as the soft, yellow-tinged clouds evenly fill the space. The overall composition appears to be naturally balanced from any perspective, leading the viewer’s eyes to move around the image to discover one striking feature after another.
This wasn’t a lucky single capture that by chance, was grabbed at exactly the right time. It was obvious two hours earlier that this vista would evolve into a striking scene. So, I made sure to check it at regular intervals. Having photographed this exact composition at least one hundred times and at all times of the year, I knew where this image was heading. At 5:10 PM, I put my jacket on and walked about 60 yards from my front door, and started making exposures. I quit six minutes later, knowing that I had captured an image that I was not likely to improve upon.
To see the scope and essence of Harvey Stearn's photographic art please visit www.CameraStops.com. Mr. Stearn began photographing Western landscapes and wildlife at the age of 13, spent 50 years pursuing his passion in the field and in the darkroom before fully converting to digital photography in 2002. He developed color prints as well as monochrome, but switched over to digital capture and editing in 2002. Though he was a top executive for two large scale land development and home building corporations, he always found time for his fine art photography which won many awards. His work was exhibited in art museums in Southern California and Arizona, and was also featured in billboard advertisements and published in magazines. Mr. Stearn served on the California Arts Council for nine years, including two years as Chairman and another two as Vice Chairman. In addition, he was the founding Chairman of the John Wayne Airport Arts Commission in Orange County, California. Mr. Stearn’s work was sold through Arizona galleries for 15 years. In recent years he wrote 21 illustrated articles for PhotoPXL.com and 14 articles for Luminous-Landscape.com. In 2013 he published a book entitled “In Search of the Old West” which has been widely acclaimed. He was a guest lecturer on photography on a cruise ship visiting Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and the Falkland Islands. His work was among the top 100 images printed in NANPA's Showcase publications in 2019 and 2020. Images have been edited and selected for two new books on Landscape photography which will be published in late 2022 and early 2023.