I love shooting with natural light, and particularly during golden hour. In fact, whenever possible I aim to shoot exclusively with natural light, and only when necessary I will augment it with additional light sources to help enhance the look, as to avoid losing the organic aesthetic that I’m after. This bias has inevitably led me to shoot during golden hour consistently, as this time of day can offer some of the best natural light results when done right.
Golden hour (or magic hour) of course refers to the hour leading up to sunset, but can also refer to the hour beginning directly after sunrise. The sun emits an incredibly beautiful, warm, and forgiving quality of light at this time of day, and it’s unique look simply can’t be replicated. Filmmakers like Terrence Malick have made a career out of shooting around sunset, and many others continue to follow suit as it’s distinctive characteristics are hard to resist.
But shooting in golden hour isn’t always easy, and many filmmakers go into golden hour shoots completely underprepared. It’s a common misconception that shooting at this time of day is easy, primarily because less gear is involved than on a typical interior or night exterior scene. That said, just because you don’t have as many lights, c-stands, or flags lying around on set, doesn’t mean you don’t have your work cut out for you. In reality, shooting in golden hour can be far more complicated than shooting under more controlled lighting conditions, despite what it seems like on the surface.
Over the years of shooting time and time again during golden hour, I’ve developed my share of guidelines that I’m always cognizant of on set.
Below are 5 of the most common mistakes you might make when shooting in golden hour, and how to avoid them:
1. Underestimating shooting time
Golden hour doesn’t always last an hour. Depending on where you are in the world, what time of year it is, and many other variables, the actual shootable time during golden hour may only be 40 minutes or less. Filmmakers often wait until the last second to start shooting in an attempt to capture the most optimal quality of light… But when the sun goes down and they realize only half of their scene has been captured, unfortunately there’s no other solution but to either re-shoot a different day, or cut the scene short.
The key to timing out your shoots right is simple: put effort into pre-production. Scout your location, know the exact times you will be able to shoot, rehearse your actors like crazy, block beforehand, and so on. The more legwork you do up front, and the more decisions you make before you start rolling, the more time you have to actually shoot your material. Every second counts during golden hour and if you spend 5 minutes formatting a card, or re-blocking a scene because you didn’t prepare properly. you just lost another take.
2. Inconsistent exposures
Under controlled lighting conditions you have the luxury of setting your exposure in camera, and leaving your settings exactly as they are for the duration of your scene. When shooting in any type of natural light though, you will never have this luxury as you are always going to be chasing the movement of the sun. This issue is exaggerated tremendously during golden hour, since the light can literally change by the second.
As such, if you aren’t constantly changing your exposure settings – either by opening your aperture, bumping up ISO, or adjusting your ND filters, your images are going to be all over the place, at least exposure-wise. From your first take to your final take, your light levels will be drastically different. This means you’ll need to rely on heavy color correction work in order to match the shots, which of course can eat up a lot of unnecessary time and money on the tail end of your project.
This might feel like an obvious point, but I can tell you from first hand experience as a colorist that this is an issue I have seen more often in the color suite than nearly anything else. So always remember to keep an eye on your light meter, histogram, or whatever your exposure tool of choice may be – and tweak your camera settings constantly in order to capture a consistent, well exposed sequence.
3. Missing an early golden hour
Any of you that have ever shot during golden hour more than once, know that the light quality at this time of day can vary significantly based on cloud coverage and other environmental variables. A sunset one night might light up the clouds in the sky with pink and purple, and the very next night there may be no clouds in the sky at all – ultimately giving you a much more subdued look.
On a more extreme end, when there is a lot of cloud coverage, golden hour practically doesn’t exist. The hour leading up to sunset will look just like the rest of the day – drab and dull – if there aren’t enough pockets in the clouds to let the light come through.
This can cause a lot of problems, especially if you are planning to start shooting at a specific time. Let’s assume sunset is at 7pm and you want to start rolling at 6pm. By the time 6pm rolls around, the light could actually look worse than at 5pm, since not only is there still cloud coverage, but now it’s much darker, meaning you are now also fighting lower light levels.
In situations like this, all you can do is start shooting as early as possible. For instance, if you were to start shooting at 4pm, you would at least have a couple of hours of nice light (even if you don’t get a sunset), before things get too dark. You might even luck out and find that the clouds start to clear away just at the perfect time… There’s no way of knowing. The bottom line is, when in doubt – just start shooting. There are no guarantees with golden hour, so sometimes you just need to be willing to work with what you’ve got.
4. Shooting into blue hour
Blue hour is the small pocket of time after sunset (usually 20 – 40 minutes), where the sun is completely gone, but there is still some ambient light lingering. This is another incredible time of day to shoot at, but it is even more challenging than golden hour, since the window of time is so small and the exposure levels are so low.
Some filmmakers will continue to roll a scene well into blue hour (that began during golden hour), which can ultimately cause a number of issues, particularly when shooting a substantial amount of coverage. For example, imagine you were to shoot a closeup of one of your actors during golden hour, and then shoot a second closeup of a different actor during blue hour. While shooting this might not seem like an issue at all, since you may be able to expose both shots properly in camera. But this scenario can be extremely problematic with regards to matching colors later on in the edit suite.
Obviously in any color grading software you can color balance to get your talent’s skintones to match each other, and use curves or color keys to fix specific issues with the overall color balance. But you will never make the sky look the same. Boosting up a sky in post just never looks right, and while it is possible to go down that path, a far better method is to just get it right in camera.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever shoot during blue hour – but simply that you should never assume you can match blue hour footage to golden hour footage, as sometimes they are just too far off, and the look of your scene may become very distracting to the viewer. Always aim to finish your scene before blue hour, unless the purpose of the scene is to extend into the evening, and that’s the look you are going for.
5. Over-saturating in post
Not all golden hour problems happen on set. Some can happen in the color suite too. It’s common for filmmakers to want to get the most out of their golden hour footage when color grading, and in an attempt to play up that quintessential “sunset look” they often end up pushing their colors way too far. Some filmmakers will be tempted to push more orange and yellow into the midtones and crank up the saturation significantly to make the golden hour effect even more obvious. Unfortunately though, this type of color work is counter-intuitive to an ideal golden hour look, as it can completely take away from the natural feel of any given scene.
Golden hour is all about capturing that magical, yet realistic quality of light that feels beautiful in an organic way. As soon as your image is noticeably “colored”, you’ve lost the whole essence of what makes golden hour footage look so good. Your footage becomes synthesized and digital looking, which completely defeats the purpose of shooting during golden hour in the first place.
Keeping your saturation and color balance natural looking is one of the most powerful ways you can craft a look around footage shot at sunset. The goal should be to let the natural colors shine, and play into the organic beauty of what the environment actually looked like – not to make it look like a Michael Bay film. That’s not to say you can’t stylize your footage, or give it it’s own distinct look… But rather that you should be tasteful and subtle with your approach to coloring in order to maintain the unmistakeable quality of light that was captured at the source.
That’s about it for now.
Hopefully those of you that like to shoot during golden hour as much as I do have picked something up here, and I’ll see ya around the site next time!