Capturing Magical Wildlife Moments: Tips for Golden Hour Photography

Golden hour photography happens when the sun is low in the sky. This occurs twice daily, right after sunrise and before sunset.

Get it right, and soft light will add warm tones to your nature photos.

Plan ahead; it doesn't last long so get into position quickly.

Depending on the time of year...

The golden hour isn't just about sunsets; it's also about the soft, warm light of sunrises that wildlife photographers crave.

To see how this special time of day can transform a landscape, read about my encounter with the beauty of Nene Washes at dawn.

Short Eared Owl flying over the water at sunriseShort Eared Owl

Plan ahead

Plan ahead and be patient, nature doesn't always wait!

One effective approach is to use phone apps such as The Photographer's Ephemeris. They show you sunrise and sunset times of locations on a map. Handy for planning and upon reaching your destination. 

However, one of my favourite golden hour photography sessions didn't even involve leaving home.

I snapped this photo of a tiny dunnock on our hedge, through the lounge window!

Photo of Dunnock on our garden hedge at sunriseDunnock on the garden hedge

Distance your subject from the background for soft "bokeh" and golden light, even without a pricey lens.

Get Local Knowledge

If you are staying in an area for a while you can afford to spend the first day checking out possible viewpoints. Use your app, or ask locals, to find the best time and spot for sunrise/sunset.

Get to the perfect spot early; if it's popular with photographers seats may fill quickly.

Check it out in daylight the day before, especially if it's a new place. Getting in position may entail a trek across country. You don’t want the sun to rise or set before you reach the location!

We learned this lesson on our first trip to Spurn Point. It took us four days before everything came together at the right time. Sunrise, weather and the wading birds, before they headed to the Humber mudflats to feed.

I tell this story on my Spurn Point page

Talking about weather. This is one instance where clouds in the sky will add to the golden hour effect. You don’t want them too close to the horizon if you want vivid colour. However, low cloud can be dramatic, if not quite as colourful.

Curlew in flight during Golden HourCurlew flying during Golden Hour

Bamburgh Sunrise

Traveling with others? They might prefer a good night's sleep over golden hour photography. Crazy, eh? Well, you can leave them snoozing and venture out on foot. Leave a note to let your companions know where you have gone. Just in case anything untoward should happen. 

Take me for example. During a trip to Bamburgh, Northumberland, England's most northern county, I rose before everyone else. So, quietly, I slipped out of our cottage and strolled down the main coastal road.

Although it was dark, street lights illuminated my path. I passed Grace Darling's burial church, eventually finding the narrow street I'd been hunting for.

After some time, I reached the beach. To my surprise, I wasn't the only one there. Another photographer, with the same dawn intent, was present. But it wasn't a problem; I wasn't blocking his view.

I marched to the water's edge and swiveled to look inland. What a sight! The golden light was dancing on Bamburgh Castle, mirrored in the nearby saltwater pools. I had timed it perfectly.

In that moment, I realized my early walk had been worthwhile. Yet, by day's end, those extra four miles had taken their toll. My poor aching feet!

To truly capture the golden hours of dawn or dusk, an understanding of how light affects exposure is crucial.

Learn to master the nuances of light and exposure by using a histogram, a tool that can transform the way you approach those magical lighting conditions

Bamburgh Castle golden hour photographyBamburgh Castle at sunrise

The rules of composition are as important for golden hour as any other time of day. Avoid centering your subject matter. Positioning it off to one side will make for a more appealing image. Think rule of thirds.

Think about where your horizon is situated. Smack bang in the centre is not ideal. If, like in my castle photo, there is interest in the foreground, raise the horizon. If the sky is the main feature, keep it lower.

What to Photograph During Golden Hour

Early morning light helps to accentuate the beauty of the natural world around us. We notice more because of how low the sun is in the sky. For example, the soft light produces wonderful silhouettes of tall objects such as grasses and trees.

During this time, animals are more likely to be active. Venturing out in search of their first meal of the day. The early light offers reduced competition from other hunters making it safer for them.

After sunset, the sky turns a stunning blue. This makes birds' pale colours pop. This brief time is called Blue Hour however it seldom lasts an hour before total darkness.

Lastly, the 'Golden Hour' presents an opportunity for us to experiment. With both subject matter and new techniques. 

Golden Hour Photography Gear

There are four pieces of equipment I feel you need in order to shoot golden hour photography:

  • A camera with a manual exposure option: This allows you to choose the correct exposure for the light you are shooting in.
  • A tripod is essential during the golden hour. Light levels are low, requiring longer shutter speed speeds.
  • A remote trigger: This allows you to trip the shutter without touching the camera. This helps prevent camera shake in low light. It's useful for long exposures.
  • Shooting castles or landscapes? A wide-angle lens is perfect. For wildlife, get a long lens with a wide aperture. Choose what you can afford/carry.

Having said this, it's worth remembering that good quality shots can be taken with any camera. In the right hands. So just use what you have available!

Tips for Golden Hour

Golden hour photography offers a great opportunity to capture stunning image. Want a special shot for your wall? Remember, light is key. Here are some tips:

  • Wide-open aperture: The small amount of light available during golden hour means that you will want to shoot wide open to allow what there is to reach your sensor.
  • Action shots can be tricky due to low shutter speed. Especially during this periodbe low. Pick something static or slow-moving for best results.
  • Want to capture action? Try panning. Move your camera as fast as your subject, like a flying bird. You can get away with slower shutter speeds this way.

In Closing

Have you been on a dawn or dusk walk with your camera? What tips would you add to our list? Feel free to share your experiences by using the form below.

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