It’s favoured by photographers and cinematographers for the even light and the effect it has on natural colour, heightening and accentuating shadows and enriching hues.
It may be called an ‘hour,’ but this shouldn’t be taken too literally. The best way to catch it at dawn is to keep an eye out for the preceding ‘blue hour,’ which is (you guessed it) the bluish-grey light window just before the sun cracks the horizon. The magic hour will then last roughly one hour, with its counterpart coming in the hour preceding dusk. In autumn and winter, it can be as little as half an hour, but throughout most of the rest of the year, it tends to last for around 52-58 minutes.
Scientifically speaking, the golden hour, in relation to the observer, begins when the sun is 4 degrees below the horizon and ends when it’s 6 degrees above it in the morning, with the numbers reversed for the evening golden hour. It’s less well defined than the well-lit ‘civil twilight’ with which it roughly coincides, because it’s more of a photography term than a meteorological one, and its impact and desirability are a subjective matter.
A representation of morning twilights, golden hour and blue hour. In the evening, it’s exactly the same but happening in the west instead of in the east. The golden and blue hours both fall between -6 to 6 degrees on either side of the horizon. Image courtesy of PetaPixel.
It gets its name not only from the stunning beauty of the light and the landscape at that time of day, but also from its enormous potential for equally dazzling photography and film. Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), for example, had a number of unfortunate setbacks, intentional or otherwise, during its filming. One of these was that Malick insisted on shooting many takes only during the golden hour, with the result being that a major film production was held up by an entire cast and crew waiting around for the two to three hours each day when they could shoot. This insistence on a narrow frame of filming wasn’t helped by the fact that the movie turned out to be an utter flop.
On the plus side, they did get some terrific images.
Obviously, the restrictions on timing mean that if a crew hopes to capture footage during the magic hour, they’ll need to have their shot set up and everything prepared, which means having your camera operator, focus puller, and gaffer, at the very least, all on board and set up to shoot. Much of the beauty of the magic hour can really only be captured by technicians who know how to allow the camera and the light to work together, without allowing one to overpower the other.