The Great Journey in Photography

Molecules Matter-What Makes the Golden Hour Gold

Ring Billed Gull

500mm f6.3 250iso 1/160sec

I originally wrote this post for another website but it was never published so lucky us, I am going to put it up here. You often read me referring to the “golden hour” and how magical it is, well this is my explanation of how it all works.      Enjoy.

The golden hour, it’s that time right after sunrise and around sunset when the light is best for photography. Shadows are softer, colors bright and golden. So just what is it that makes the golden hour golden? Anyone who says its because the red color spectrum is increased please go to the back of the room and stand in the corner because that is not what I am going to tell you.

It all starts over at that fireball called the Sun. Our Sun emits rays of light that is called clean white light. White means that is contains all the colors of the spectrum. These colors are violet, indigo, blue, green ,yellow, orange and red. Combined there is no perceptible color and this light simply illuminates. All the colors in the ray of light are defined as waves and each color is a wave of a different length so for example the color red is the longest wave length and violet is the shortest. This is important to remember.

Light rays travel toward the earth at breakneck speed, so fast that people often refer to it as the “speed of light”. To be exact the speed is 299,792,458 m/s or 671million miles per hour. As that ray of light approaches the earth in the eight or so minutes it takes, it may encounter things like asteroids, planets, space debris, satellites, and the occasional Yugo, but in general it is unaltered until it hits the earth’s atmosphere. That’s when things change big time.

The earth’s atmosphere is made up primarily of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and water vapor along with trace amounts of chemicals, other gasses, with soot and dust particles.  It also becomes more dense the closer it gets to the surface of the earth. The atmosphere does a bunch of cool things to protect us from harmful emissions but it also changes the quality of light that travels through it. Going back to those different colors of light having a different wave lengths now comes into play. The short answer is that the longer wave lengths are more durable than the short. You might think of it this way. Long wave lengths that make up red and orange light are like football players and the shorter lengths compromising violet, indigo and blue are like ballerinas. As the light travels through the atmosphere it encounters obstacles like water vapor, dust and Oxygen molecules. Often times the football players are able to brute force their way through the obstacle while the ballerinas have to go around. They are elegantly  sent off in another direction essentially stripping that ray of light of that color. This stripping of color and diffusing it throughout the atmosphere is also the reason why the sky is blue. This phenomenon happens 24/7  but is not noticeable during most of the daylight hours. It is only when sun light is forced to travel through the greatest length and densest parts of the atmosphere that it becomes most noticeable. That is the golden hour.

So the notion that the red and yellow light actually increases during golden hour really is not possible. You would need to have a pretty substantial strobe mounted on the moon to actually increase any portion of the light spectrum. You might ask yourself, “if the sunlight intensity is greatly reduced then why do I get crazy fast shutter speeds while shooting sunsets”? Probably because most photographers won’t even try to capture the sun at any other time without some extra protection. Your camera wouldn’t even be able to handle all the light. Since the sunlight is less intense in the golden hours, you also have the added benefit of softer shadows an in general a softer quality to all natural light.

And that is what makes the golden hour gold for photographers.

Thanks For Reading.

You can see more of my photos at


3 responses

  1. Magnificent! (As usual. 😛 )
    My website is Canon Cameras.

    November 19, 2011 at 8:44 pm

  2. This is one awesome blog post.Really thank you!

    November 20, 2011 at 12:54 am

  3. Hello! I just would like to give a huge thumbs up for the great info you have here on this post. I will be coming back to your blog for more soon.

    December 3, 2011 at 5:16 pm

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