Cinematography: When Is Golden Hour Today?


By Assemble

September 22, 2021

When Is Golden Hour?

For photographers, the perfect light to capture stunning images is often the last hour of light before sunset and the first hour after sunrise.  This is referred to as “golden hour” or “magic hour” because it captures the stunning hues of red, orange and gold during the first and last light of the day.

The best way to describe golden hour as it relates to cinematography is by example.  One of the most effective is found in Terrence Malik’s Days of Heaven, which was never a box office hit, but is often considered one of the most aesthetically beautiful in cinema.   Néstor Almendros won the 1979 Academy Award for best achievement in Cinematography for the film. He described his use of this light and collaboration with the director in an article for ASC magazine. 

Golden hour filming for Terrence Malik's Days of Heaven

“Malick wanted a major portion of the film photographed during one of these extreme situations, a period of time he called “the magic hour”. The time between when the sun has set and the fall of night—when the light seems to come from nowhere; from a magic place. It is a time of extraordinary beauty. Actually, the time between sunset and total darkness is only about twenty minutes, so the term “magic hour” is an optimistic euphemism.” 

The targeted use of golden hour’s orange and red natural light was not a stylistic choice independent of the story elements dictated by the script.  Alemdros explained further.

“Malick’s decision to shoot so much of the film in this light was not simply gratuitous aesthetics. Historically and in story context, this was the period when these scenes would really have occurred, for the field workers would rise before the sun and work until it set. Their only “free” time being this “magic hour.” 

This was a bold choice by both Malick and Alemdros because the window of time to capture the warm light found just before sunrise and sunset limited their shoot time to around 20 minutes a day. This meant the golden hour photography had to be meticulously planned.

“To be as prepared as possible we would rehearse the scenes with the camera and the actors during the day. And then, with everyone poised and ready, as soon as the sun had set, we would shoot as quickly as possible — even frantically—fearful of even wasting a minute.” 

Alemdros detailed strategies he used to achieve the best possible result.

  • “Magic hour” scenes were always forced one-stop, to ASA 200. 
  • As the light waned, the lens was opened wider and wider, until finally they would use their fastest lens, the 55mm, opened to its maximum aperture, T/1.1. 
  • Next they would pull the 85 filter, gaining what they would consider in this situation the equivalent of nearly a full stop.
  • Sometimes they would reduce the shutter speed and shoot at 12, then 8 frames per second, careful to instruct the actors to move very slowly so their movements would appear “normal” when the film was projected at the normal projection rate of 24 frames per second. 
  • Dropping from 24 to 8 frames per second, they effectively increased the exposure time from 1/50 of a second to 1/16, gaining a stop and a half. 
  • Shooting with this last breath of light meant the negative would have different tones, almost mutations, and these would increase in variation the deeper they shot into the “magic hour.”


When Is Golden Hour Today?

Production schedules are often tight and having a resource that can tell you exactly “when golden hour is today” on shoot days is invaluable.

There are golden hour calculators that can access the sun’s positioning and give an exact determination of when to find those sunrise or sunset times in any time zone.  You can use these apps to figure out when the sun rises and when the sun sets to the minute, and even the degrees below the horizon that will give an accurate projection for the color temperature and the most flattering lighting. This gives you the opportunity for creative effects such as rim lighting, backlighting, side lighting, silhouettes, sunbursts, and lens flares with precision.

Five Apps to Determine When Golden Hour Is

  1. Photo Ephemeris - The Photographer's Ephemeris is especially designed for photographers working with natural light. You can see the exact direction of sunrise and sunset on the ideal map for your location. Follow the changing direction of the sun across the day as you adjust the selected time. Choose the dates you're interested in. Whether your trip is tomorrow or ten years from now, you can check out light conditions past, present and future. The timeline includes key celestial events of the day, including rise, set, civil / nautical / astronomical twilight times, golden hour, moon phase events, new moon visibility and more.

  2. Photo Pills -  An all-in-one app that covers everything you need including a planner, widgets, ways to easily calculate equivalent exposures with filters, in low light and at night. Everything you need to know about the sun (twilights and magic hour) and for the moon ( rise and set times, calendar, phases and Supermoon dates.)

  3. Magic Hour -  Magic Hour makes it easy for you to know when magic hour is coming and how much time you have left once it begins. The app takes your location along with the current day and calculates when magic hour will occur.  It also gives up to the minute weather information that could affect your shoot.

  4. Golden Hour One  - Golden Hour One helps you to find the best time, place and weather for your outdoor pictures. Golden Hour one knows in advance your chance for a good photo. It can predict the light, sky and moon indexes from local weather forecasts anywhere in the world. Select any place on the map and the app will show you the sun position during the golden hour.  If the sun is not where you have imagined, you can either move the pin to a new position or use the slider to pick another date when the sun is in the desired position.

  5. Blue Hour Solar Photography App - Android users need some love also, as the bulk of creative apps seem to be iOS based. The Blue Hour app has been developed to assist photographers in searching for the best time and place to shoot blue hour images. However, it can also see sunrise and sunset with blue hour, golden hour, and twilight times as well as data about moonrise, moonset, and moon phases.


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