Magic Hour Photography: Get Creative And Capture The Drama

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Few photographers can resist shooting a beautiful sunset. Clouds build up, color starts to develop, you have a perfect ocean or lake surface for great reflections or you found some fascinating trees or buildings to silhouette against the colorful sky. It’s impossible to resist, isn’t it?

More often than not, however, at this time of day, I find myself turning my back on the sun as it goes down and watching for what it lights up instead.

Mesa Verde ruins sidelit

Mesa Verde ruins sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

That warm color of the low sun skimming across a landscape or buildings is pure magic. The soft, low-contrast sunlight at the end of the day is perfect for lifestyle images or dramatic portraits. It creates an ambiance to which everyone can relate. It’s the time of day we associate with relaxing and gathering with friends, enjoying a meal with others or just sipping a glass of wine. There is something truly magical about photographs created during the golden hour at the end of the day when the fleeting warm light mixes with cool-toned shadows to heighten drama and mystery in an image.

Native American Fancy Dancers sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Native American Fancy Dancers sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

There is more to producing photos with impact at magic hour than just turning your back on the sun, of course.

Death Valley sand dunes sidelit by the setting sun

Death Valley sand dunes sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

If you are shooting in JPEG format, make sure you turn off Auto White Balance and set your camera white balance to Daylight or Overcast. Auto White Balance, or AWB, works great in a lot of lighting environments because it neutralizes color in an image, but it will also neutralize all that warm light at sunset. There goes all your atmosphere and saturated color. The Daylight or Overcast setting will capture the warm color balance that you typically see at sunset.

Woman practicing yoga is backlit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Woman practicing yoga is backlit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Even better, shoot in RAW format if your camera has that feature. The RAW format ignores the camera’s white balance setting while capturing the maximum amount of image data. This extra data makes it possible to correct or change your image to a much larger degree, giving you more creative freedom than can be achieved with a smaller JPEG file.

One of my favorite techniques is using warm sunlight to side light my subjects, creating an exaggerated sense of volume and contrast. Side lighting also separates the warm, lit side of your subject with the cool, shadow side, producing a more dramatic image.

Mission San Xavier del Bac sidelit by the setting sun

Mission San Xavier del Bac sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Front lighting at magic hour produces rather flat lighting, but can be effective if the warmly lit subject is contrasted against a cool blue sky. Quarter back lighting is also effective at this time of day, especially for lifestyle and portrait photography. The soft, even lighting on the shadow side of your subject can be quite beautiful as long as the subject is not underexposed. Flair can be a bit of a problem when the sun is out in front of the lens, but flair can also create a strong ambience if it is controlled properly.

Aerial of the Alabama Hills front lit at Magic Hour

Aerial of the Alabama Hills front lit with sunset light at Magic Hour

Next time you are out shooting late in the day, break the sunset habit and turn your back on the sun. You may be surprised by the images you can create using sunset light, rather than photographing the actual sunset. It’s a magic time, after all.