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The Golden Hour is not necessarily an hour, is not necessarily golden, and actually happens twice a day. If the conditions are wrong, it may occur only once or not at all in a day. What the term refers to is the time of day when the sun is low to the horizon and the light travels through more atmosphere.
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There is a lot more to the Golden Hour than that, actually. There are transitions. The quality of light can change rapidly. There are several considerations.
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The second Golden Hour ends about 20 minutes after the sun has disappeared behind the horizon. Like with sunrises, this is often when sunsets are at their prime.
When the sun peeks over the horizon, it paints the scene in a soft, warm light. From that moment, this great light is slowly diminishing. As the sun rises in the sky it has less atmosphere to diffuse its light, so it becomes stronger and more harsh. Depending on your location and the amount of particles in the air, the Golden Hour will last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half after sunrise.
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The second Golden Hour will begin anywhere from an hour-and-a-half to 45 minutes before the sun sets. The light will slowly get better until the climax just before the sun disappears behind the horizon.
During the Golden Hour, if you point your camera towards the sun you will get a high-contrast image. The sky will be bright and anything blocking the sun will be silhouetted. Even though the sun is diffused, cameras are still not capable of capturing the full dynamic range of the scene.
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A lot of people will attempt to photograph with the sun at their back during the Golden Hour. This produces very warm but very flat images. The lighting is typically very even and shadows may be non existent (other than perhaps the photographer's shadow).
Probably the most pleasing angle to photograph at during the Golden Hour is 90 degrees (well, really, anywhere from 45-135 degrees) from the sun. The scene will still be warm, but the shadows will show the depth of the scene. Typically the shadows are not too deep to capture (they still have details).
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While the Golden Hour seems obvious for color photography, it is also good for black-and-white. This is because monochrome images rely heavily on contrast, and good contrast can be found during these times.
Clouds during the Golden Hour can be magical. Mostly or partly cloudy skies can give the scene a special touch. If there are too many clouds the Golden Hour may come and go without giving its wonderful light.
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You don't need any special equipment to photograph during the Golden Hour. You may be surprised to learn that the majority of photographs in this post were captured using a cell phone. Any camera will do. Photographic vision is most important.
Every photographer should make an effort to capture during the Golden Hour. You have two opportunities each day. While great light can be found anytime of the day or night if one looks hard enough for it, it is most obvious and most plentiful near sunrise and sunset.
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