sunset wedding photos

Golden Hour in Photography and Why it Matters for Sunset Wedding Photos

Let’s start by answering some frequently asked questions about what is golden hour in photography, how to find it, and why it makes photographers jump up and down with glee. We’ll touch on sunset engagement photos and then we’ll talk through some tips for sunset wedding photos.

Landscape photography was our first love. When we became professional photographers over a decade ago I was just learning about finding the best light. Sure, direct sunlight can be dramatic and dark shadows can be mysterious but magic hour is still, well, magic.

If you plan ahead the best time and shooting location to capture a particular scene, the results can be epic whether you’re shooting weddings, landscapes, or portraits. The same spot might look different on a sunny day versus a cloudy day and every sunset is different. However, I’ve never once regretted sticking around for the golden hour.

Read the post to find out why and/or check out our video on YouTube!

Frequently asked questions about golden hour in photography and why it matters for sunset wedding photos

What is the golden hour in photography?

Golden Hour is the hour before sunset or after sunrise. The angle of the sun creates a warm, otherwise known as golden, colored light that is considered romantic. It’s also a soft flattering light that’s great for pictures of people.

Many professional photographers try to avoid shooting when the sun is directly overhead. The high angle of the sun can create darker areas on a subject’s face. Conversely, the low angle of the sun from later or earlier in the day can soften the high contrast on a subject’s face.

Whenever I talk about light in photography I talk about CHAI. Color, Hardness, Angle, and Intensity. Golden Hour typically means you get a nice golden color, soft even light, a low flattering angle, and less intensity than the mid-day sun. Learn more about light and shadows in the following YouTube video.

What makes the light golden?

When the sun is directly overhead, that’s a high angle. As the sun sets and gets closer to the horizon it is at a low angle to the Earth. At a lower angle the rays of light are traveling further through the atmosphere.

This angle not only impacts the hardness and intensity of the light but alters the color temperature as well. If you watched the lights and shadows video you see that color, hardness, angle, and intensity can all work together to determine the quality of the light you’re dealing with.

Golden Hour is known not only for the color, the golden light. But also for the soft light that is flattering and comes in at a nice angle that doesn’t create harsh shadows. It’s esentially a combination of beautiful light qualities that happens naturally at a certain time of day.

Let’s talk through our light qualities and see how great the conditions are.

  • Color: The light is warm
  • Hardness: The light is soft
  • Angle: The light is low angle and directional
  • Intensity: THe light is less intense

What is the golden hour at a wedding?

As I just stated, Golden Hour is the hour before sunset or after sunrise. The angle of the sun creates a warm, otherwise known as golden, colored light that is considered romantic. It’s also a soft flattering light that’s great for pictures of people especially couples that want that romantic look.

When people talk about Golden Hour at a wedding, they are usually referring to the photography timeline specifically. Often the photographer or wedding planner will schedule time in the day for sunset photos to ensure the couple gets portraits in the best light possible. It can be tricky to schedule photos during sunset on a wedding day, often dinner is happening at the same time.

We always make sunset photos a priority for our couples. It works out even if it happens during dinner. Since the bride and groom normally eat first, we can often sneak away for photos while the rest of the guests are eating.

What time of day is best for wedding photos?

We say, “Golden Hour” but the exact time of day for the best wedding photos might vary depending on the location of the venue. If you’re in a valley in front of a big mountain, the sun might go behind the mountain long before golden hour. Thus, the hour before sunset traditionally known as the golden hour might not be a very good time for photos.

Another example is if you’re in a forest. Golden Hour can actually be dark and spooky hour if you’re in a deep forest. Therefore, I recommend calculating the light for the specific location you’re going to be shooting wedding photos and determine what time of day is best for wedding photos based on that.

And yes, there’s an app for that!

Look for when the sun sets, when the sun goes behind the hill, and when the sun will light up the mountain in the background.

There are other great times for wedding photos such as blue hour which happens after the sun sets. Cool blue light can make a great contrast to warm lighting of candles or chandeliers and make for really cool evening portraits. Color temperature can be a fun composition element to consider.

What is the best time for a sunset wedding?

I recommend planning the ceremony about an hour before golden hour. That way, you’re shooting couples portraits and the guests are taking their own cocktail hour selfies during actual golden hour and sunset. 30 minute ceremony, 30 minutes for family photos, and bam, perfect light for couples portraits!

When it comes to calculating the best time for a sunset wedding, it’s very important to know the location of the wedding. Just like the above answer, sunset can mean something different on the beach than it does in the forest. Use a tool like the photographer’s ephemeris app to determine what the light will look like in your exact location.

Additionally, there are a few other factors to consider. If the wedding is a big wedding, you might not want to plan the ceremony at sunset because that leaves you zero wiggle room in your timeline. If you have to push back the wedding because someone is stuck in traffic then your sunset wedding will turn into a dark bedtime wedding.

What is the difference between sunset photos and golden hour photos?

Generally we refer to sunset photos and golden hour photos as the same thing but they are actually two different things from a technical perspective. Golden hour is the hour before the sunsets. Sunset is when the sun disappears and the clouds light up.

Which one is better for your wedding photos? Both. You should do both. 

We do our best to be as efficient as possible with our portraits. Ideally we want to sneak away for golden hour photos to capture that last glimpse of an orange sun on the horizon. And then we might pop out again for sunset photos if it looks like the sky is going to light up.

The argument for golden hour in wedding photography

I shouldn’t have to make the argument for sunset wedding photos but here it is. Everyone has a phone that doubles as a camera so everyone is constantly taking photos. As a result our standards for photos are constantly increasing.

So when it comes to wedding photography, you want photos that are dynamic and dramatic. Golden hour or sunset photos provide incredible light that makes a photo so much more appealing. The soft light is flattering on the person and the warm colors create a romantic feel.

You as the photographer can play with longer shadows or rim lighting and get really creative with everything from exposure and contrast to color temperature. The weather conditions might also result in dramatic scenes turning rain on your wedding day into a blessing in disguise. The sky might light up allowing you to witness all the colors of a rainbow, or even a literal rainbow.

Sunset Engagement Photos and Why You Should Capture Them

Below are four reasons to capture sunset engagement images in preperation for great sunlight in your wedding images. Engagement photos are like practice and they give you more control on the wedding night. You don’t know what will happen with the sky but you can be ready to take advantage of the warmer light.

  1. Priority: One of the main reasons to shoot sunset engagement photos is so your couples see how awesome they are and prioritize sunset photos on their wedding day. 
  2. Efficiency: It also gives you a chance to work with the couple ahead of time so that you can be more efficient on the wedding day. 
  3. Creativity: You have more time to be creative with sunset engagement photos that you do on the wedding day.
  4. Variety: Sunset engagement photos are a great opportunity for your clients to have couples photos in their non wedding attire
  5. Make the most of it: On an engagement shoot you can shoot as long as goldne hour lasts and even beyond and into blue hour.

Tips for Sunset Wedding Photos

Below are some tips for sunset wedding photos and capturing the warmth of magic hour. Taking a quality image comes down to setting yourself up for success and understanding how to produce dramatic images. Once you have great light you can focus on capturing an emotional moment.

  1. Practice: Shoot sunset engagement photos, see explanation above.
  2. Play with a variety of light: Shoot golden hour, shoot sunset, shoot blue hour, and shoot night photos. Learn to be quick and efficient during your portraits so you can convince your couple to pop out for one more photo if the light is doing something cool.
  3. Schedule it: It’s essential to schedule it, that way everyone expects it. You can sneak away during dinner, you can time it for cocktail hour, but just be sure to mention it so that people expect it. They might not want to take the time in the moment but they will be ever grateful that they did. Use tools such as apps to make sure you know the right time.
  4. Shoot both front lit and back lit. Either direction can be powerful and both techniques create beautiful effects and you may like one more than the other but if you shoot both you have more variety in your work and you never know what the light is going to do.
  5. Framing and lens choice: Use good composition techniques to either show off the sky with a wide angle lens or create fun lens flare with a telephoto lens. This is a great time to combine your landscape photography skills with your portrait skills. You might also consider a ND filter.
  6. Shoot a silhouette. Silhouettes can be epic, you just have to pose your couple for it to have impact. Thinking about what the subjects are doing in your silouettes will help with that.
  7. Use artificial light. As the sunset gets more dramatic you’ll need to light your couple in a portrait. Therefore, even if you’re a natural light shooter learn some simple lighting for sunset.
  8. Chase the light. Sometimes you can move locations as the light moves. Plan ahead and you can get constant great light and follow the beauty.
  9. Consider lens flare: Sometimes you can choose a lens that creates attractive and dramatic orange lens flare. Do you know what happens when you aim each lens you own at or near the sun? Find out!
  10. Dynamic Range: Professional digital cameras these days have incredible dymanic range and with a mirrorless camera you can even see in camera what you’re going to get in the image. Make sure you choose the right camera settings to maximize the natural lighting without having an over exposed sky that you can’t recover in post.
  11. Post-processing: Learn how to edit your photos to enhance the beauty of the sun and sky during golden hour without making it look fake. You can use the masking tools to help bring back detail from the under-exposed foreground, for example.
  12. Sunrise: Consider sunrise too. Not everyone will be up for waking up early in the morning it but it’s worth considering especially depeneding on the lighting of a particular scene. In certain locations, such as the mountains, sunrise and sunset can be very different depending on the direction you’re facing. Waking up before the dawn can be hard but it’s almost always worth it.

Summary of Golden Hour in Photography and Why it Matters for Sunset Wedding Photos

I think it’s important that a professional photographer can shoot any time of day in any light. We don’t always have the choice. But when we do, sunset and golden hour in photography can level up our image and create that extra drama our couples are looking for.

If we have the right gear and we’re present in the moment, we can capture great images in any season and any time of day. But if we plan ahead we can set ourselves up for even more success.

Knowing the right timing for photos and different techniques for shooting the light can expand possibilities for your creativity. Get shooting, I can’t wait to see what you create!

Up next:

Next, you might like these posts on tips for wedding photographers:

Or this recent Roxborough state park wedding photo and video

Finally, boost your creativity with this creativity meditation or these creativity affirmations.

We are Marc and Brenda Bergreen, a husband and wife photography team specializing in Colorado wedding photography and other adventures. We travel to Vail, Breck, Rocky Mountain, and more from our home base in Evergreen.

Don’t hesitate to contact us and let us know how we can help! Be sure to follow us (weddings instagram & adventures instagram) and/or like us (facebook) to stay tuned.

In the meantime, remember to…

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