Making the Most of the Golden Hour

photography tips

What is this sorcery that some of us call the Golden Hour? It’s the time of day right after sunrise or before sunset where the light is warmer and softer because of how low in the sky the sun is. Cool and science-y, right? Well, it’s a dream for photographers because of how appealing the lighting is during that short time!

Any professional photographer will tell you that golden hour light is pure magic. It has a cast that’s warm and seems to caress the face like a bright hug from the sky. Golden hour light feels like love formed into rays of light. It’s literally light from heaven that’s the most gorgeous thing ever. So how can we use this amazingness for better results in photography?

Time it Just Right. Since the golden hour only happens for a short period of time each day, make sure to come early and prepared. Get set up and be ready for when the sun sinks lower and the magic starts happening.

Shoot Shallow. If you shoot with an open aperture, not only will it make your subject pop, but the glorious light streaming through the trees will create the most amazing bokeh you will ever see. Here’s an example of that:

Some other things to consider: fill light, contrast, and color balance. Color balance is crucial because you want to create a balance of warm but also don’t go overboard with warm tones. That’s really up to artistic merit, so just work with the images in Photoshop to get a balance you like. Same with contrast. It can be easy to overdo it, so really focus on a nice medium. And you can always try a speedlight to create some drama and to add a little pop of fill light to the images during the golden hour! The key is to experiment and see what you like.

Lens flare, shadows, and silhouettes. The golden hour can be a great time to play with silhouetting objects since the sun is so low. Lens flares can also be fun. Here’s another example of a golden hour silhouette. Feel free to play with shadows and use the lighting to create the emotion you are going for!

Overall, there is no better time than the golden hour to get outside and experiment with natural light photography. It’s a great time for me to gain some inspiration and shoot some personal work when I’m feeling like I need some photo creativity. Grab some friends, a speedlight, a reflector, and have fun! 

Why I Do This Photography Thing

Inspiration

Usually I focus on writing about tips and techniques within photography, but with my college career culminating this year, I have been thinking a lot lately about why I even got into this in the first place. And the truth is, I fell into it.

I picked up my parents point and shoot camera, like many kids do, in middle school. I remember it was summer, and I took a photo of a lady with a white sun hat that had blue beads that matched her blue shirt. She was looking away, and I clicked the button. I gasped when I saw it, without even realizing that I shot my first portrait. When I showed it to my mom, to my dismay, she scolded me for taking photos of a stranger. She didn’t see what I saw: the beauty captured within that moment.

Moments. That’s really what it all boils down to, for me. I capture moments, sometimes insignificant and easily forgotten, sometimes grand and gorgeous. I look for things that other people might miss, for moments in life that carry emotion, and connection, to other human beings. That’s what I love about shooting portraits, whether it’s weddings, seniors, or just a candid of a stranger in the park. 

On days like today, when I have a long day of my internship, then night class, then Photoshop homework, then answering emails, setting up shoots, and applying to grad school, I try to remind myself why I do this. It’s for those moments. They keep me going.

How to Talk Camera in 5 Minutes or Less

photography tips

Going to a photo gallery opening? Want to impress your new art major girlfriend? Or just want to sound cool when conversing with friends? Check out my quick guide for camera terms!

Lens: This one is easy. It’s that piece of glass that is attached to your camera. A Zoom Lensis simply one that zooms in and out so you can crop how much of the scene that you want to be in the frame. A Prime Lens just means that it cannot zoom because the focal length is fixed and unmoving. How to use it in a sentence: “Wow, nice prime lens! I bet that shoots so sharp!” 

Exposure: This word means how much light is being exposed in a photograph. How do you know when a photo is overexposed (too much light is being let in the camera, so it’s too dark), underexposed (not enough light is being let in, so it’s too bright) or the correct exposure? Well, it’s a good exposure when you can still make out details in the shadow areas and in the highlight areas.

But please note that photographers use the word “exposure” interchangeably. Some variations: “I just took an exposure of that tree, and boy does it look great!” “Ugh, I’m so annoyed because my camera keeps overexposing the sky. I’ll have to bring up the shadows in Photoshop.”

Focus: What can be clearly and sharply seen in the photo. The out of focus area is affectionately called bokeh and can deliver some beautiful results (see my other post about bokeh here). How to use it in a sentence: “Just got some great bokeh from shooting really shallow!”

Shutter Speed: To take a photograph, the camera opens its shutter and then closes it again. The term shutter speed refers to how quickly or slowly the camera does that (and modern cameras can do it really fast—up to 4,000th of a second!) Common shutter speeds could be anywhere from 1/250th of a second or all the way up to 15 seconds for a photo taken at night!

Aperture: It can also be called an F-stop. The aperture works together with the shutter speed to create a photo. How big or small of aperture you use to execute a photograph will determine two things: 1) how much light is let into the photo and 2) how much is in focus.

An aperture such as f/16 or f/22 is a very small opening, so not much light would be let in (called underexposing). You would need to leave the shutter open for a lot longer so enough light would enter into the camera. The reverse (having an aperture of, say, f/2.8) would be a big opening and much more light would be let in, so the shutter would be faster because the camera would not need to be open nearly as long to let in enough light. Use it in a sentence: “Looks like I need to adjust my shutter speed to a bit slower so I can capture the detail in those shadow areas.”

Making sense yet? There’s just a few more to go, and you’ll be a camera expert!

Depth of Field: It sounds crazy, but actually how open your aperture is will determine how much depth is in focus. If you want everything in focus, use an aperture of f/16 or f/22. If you want just a little bit in focus (creating bokeh!) use, say, f/2.8 or f/1.4.

ISO: It determines how sensitive your camera is to light. How to use it in a sentence: “I better turn my ISO down before my shot gets too grainy!”

White balance: It determines how warm or cold your photo is. Now, I know what you’re thinking: How can a photo have a temperature?! But it does! Warm means it is a bit too yellow, and cold is too blue. This can be easily adjusted in Photoshop. Use it in a sentence: “Wow, the sun is so bright today that all of my shots are turning out really warm!”

I hope that helped you with some camera terminology! If all else fails, just say, “Are you Nikon or Cannon?” and the photographer will talk for at least fifteen minutes about their preference, so just nod along and you’ll be in the clear.

So, What’s Bokeh, Anyway?

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Bokeh is a camera term and a Japanese word that translates to “blur.” It’s the quality of being out of focus rendered by the camera’s lens in an image. Bokeh is visually appealing to the eye because it forces us to focus on the subject and blurs out everything else in the image, creating a shallow depth of field.

Why am I bringing this up? Because bokeh is what changes everything. Bokeh takes the casual amateur photographer shooting pictures of their family and makes them a high-quality portrait photographer. I know, because that’s how I got started.

People always ask me how they can take better pictures. This will always be my first answer: Get a lens that can create bokeh. The problem with kit lenses that come as a standard with the DSLR camera body is that they create virtually no shallow depth of field.

To have a shallow depth of field, the aperture on the lens must go to somewhere in the gorgeous range of 2.8-1.4, but kit lenses only go to 5.6, on average. So, all the pretty little blurry circles that make the subject pop out in a sharp image just blend in with the subject, and therefore there is no bokeh. What a shame.

There are other benefits of shooting shallow, too! The aperture is open much wider and therefore more light gets let in the camera, so you need a faster shutter speed. This can be really helpful when wanting to capture motion, or if you are in a low lighting situation.

For those looking to try it out, I recommend a 50mm f/1.4 lens of any brand. It’s prime, which means that you can’t zoom in with the lens, but it’s a great way to get an inexpensive lens that you can practice with.

If you don’t feel comfortable shooting on manual, try aperture priority! It will let you set the aperture that you want (anywhere in that nice bokeh range—f/1.4-2.8!) and then the camera will do the rest! And remember, when in doubt, just shoot shallow and see what happens!