DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Golden Hour and Blue Hour

Filed under: Photography: Light — Tags: , , , , , , — fred @ 01:14

Sunset and Twilight, 2006, photos by Fred Hatt

Photographers and Cinematographers sometimes use the term “magic hour” to refer to times of day when natural daylight takes on special qualities that beautify nearly any setting and imbue it with drama and grandeur.  Unfortunately the phrase is used inconsistently to refer to times just before or just after sunup or sundown.  I prefer the terms “golden hour” for those times when the sun is just above the horizon, and “blue hour” for the time of twilight, when the sun is below the horizon but the sky carries a hint of its glow.  Of course, “hour” is also imprecise, as the duration of the times of magical light depends on season and latitude.  The tropics may have warm weather all year round, but there the setting of the sun is abrupt.  In St. Petersburg or in Patagonia, on the other hand, the  sky can be numinously luminous all day long.

At the golden hour, the sun comes nearly sideways through the atmosphere, passing through significantly more air than when it comes from overhead.  This softens and diffuses the light, and absorbs many of the short (blue) wavelengths, giving it a warm golden or reddish tone.  The landscape is illuminated laterally, with raking shadows revealing the texture of surfaces and things.

Autumn Sundown, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

Side lighting is particularly flattering to human subjects.  In stage lighting, illumination from the sides is usual for dance, as it emphasizes the shapes of the body.  The warm tone of late afternoon or early morning light has its own glamorizing effect, reducing harshness and making blemishes and wrinkles less visible.  The softer light doesn’t make people squint as harsh midday light does, nor does it cast dark shadows under their eyebrows and noses.

Photographer, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

When the light comes from behind through translucent things like leaves, grass, or hair, those objects glow with transmitted light, overpowering the ordinary reflected light by which we see opaque things.

Roebling Tea Room, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

When low in the sky, the sun casts shadows laterally, sometimes outlining the shapes of trees and people and things upright on walls, rather than beneath them on the ground or floor.

Studio Window, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

Direct lateral sunlight exposes textural contours in a reddish light, while the overhead blue light diffused through the sky provides a second, softer source of light.  At a particular time these two light sources, red from the side and blue from overhead, may be almost perfectly balanced.

White Brick, 2007, photo by Fred Hatt

A golden glint and long shadows turn the plainest structures into glittering metallic facets.

Gilt Edge, 2006, photo by Fred Hatt

Buildings are shadowed by other buildings, and the red glow of the setting or rising sun selectively ignites the gridlike structures.

Tinged Red, 2001, photo by Fred Hatt

Just as the sun drops below the horizon, the level of daylight comes into balance with the level of artificial lights.  Buildings are illuminated both from without and from within.

Foggy Evening, 2005, photo by Fred Hatt

At certain times, from certain angles of view, reflected light is more powerful than any direct light, outlining softly illuminated subjects against a sharp antipodal sheen.

Shiny Paint, 2006, photo by Fred Hatt

Once the sun drops below the horizon, the sky retains a diffuse ultramarine glow for some time before darkness completely overtakes the celestial vault.  Artificial lights are now dominant, but the twilight glow pervades the shadows.  Now it is is the blue hour.

Blue & White, 2008, photo by Fred Hatt

The remaining light in the sky gives every unlit thing a blue glow, while interiors and places with artificial lighting shine in warmer tones.

Pay Phones, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

The sky is blue, sodium vapor streetlamps are reddish, incandescent bulbs yellowish, fluorescent lights greenish.

Manhattan Bridge Anchorage, 2009, photo by Fred Hatt

The photo below is taken while there was a twilight blue glow in the sky.  Fifteen minutes later, and the women would have been silhouettes against the artificially lit background.

Smoothies - Salads, 2012, photo by Fred Hatt

Wet streets reflect the sky, so the blue glow comes from below as well as above.

Rain & Steam, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

As night descends, the overarching dome of light that is the sky gives way to the many separate sources of light that rule the urban night – headlights, streetlights, working lights, signal lights, display lights.

Roadway Composition, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

When the level of the long wavelength street lighting matches the level of the short wavelength twilight sky, red runs through blue like rivulets of blood in icy water.

Red Feather, 2006, photo by Fred Hatt

Pomona Fountain, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

Through reflection, the golden light of incandescence penetrates the deep blue of the gloaming.

Chelsea Blue, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

Golden Estuary, 2009, photo by Fred Hatt

The last phase of twilight is an indigo glow that barely rises above black, a memory of light, a faint resonance, a lingering echo.

Park Road, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

Central Park at Dark, 2005, photo by Fred Hatt


  1. Wow Fred – I enjoyed this so much and learned something in the process. Truly beautiful – might be my most favorite time of day visually. The colors are amazing, the mood suits me perfectly. Excellent.

    Comment by Terri Semper — 2012/02/29 @ 01:55

  2. Terri, welcome to Drawing Life! I love that time of day too. The blue hour and golden hour around dawn might be even better, but I’m afraid I usually sleep through it!

    Comment by fred — 2012/02/29 @ 15:42

  3. Thanks – really enjoyed the tour of New York through its gold and blue colourations!

    Comment by Jennifer — 2012/02/29 @ 03:50

  4. Jennifer, the magic hours are one thing to really appreciate about living far away from the tropics. Britain must have great ones, whenever it’s not overcast.

    Comment by fred — 2012/02/29 @ 15:44

  5. Fred, that’s just plain gorgeous. Thank you for this beauty this morning.

    Comment by Liag — 2012/02/29 @ 09:51

  6. Liag, I love sharing beauty with people!

    Comment by fred — 2012/02/29 @ 15:45

  7. Beautiful photos!

    “Numinously luminous” is a catchy phrase. I just looked up numinous: “spiritual or supernatural; surpassing comprehension or understanding; mysterious.” Great word!

    Whenever I’ve gone to a remote location with a photographer for a nude-in-nature shoot, taking maximum advantage of the golden hour has been part of the challenge. Rushing is antithetical to serendipity.

    “Foggy Evening” and “Rain and Steam” (both blue hour) are my favorites from this post. I also like “Pay Phones” because it is quaint and nostalgic in this cell phone era.

    Blue hour is nearly impossible to capture with my cheap digital camera. Low light conditions (indoor or outdoor) are also more prone to “camera shake” unless shooting with a tripod. I think digital cameras with bigger sensors do better in low light situations.

    Comment by Andrew — 2012/02/29 @ 12:36

  8. Andrew, I know what you mean about rushing to take advantage of the golden hour. All of these are just snapshots – no set-up or posing required, so there’s no rushing, just noticing and recording. Certain filmmakers seem to shoot nearly everything at the golden hour – Terrence Malick is a good contemporary example. This must involve setting up and rehearsing all day so when the brief moment comes and the light is right, the crew and performers can just nail it!

    Most of these pictures are taken with a digital SLR, but some of them were taken with a little Canon G series camera I often carry in my pocket. It’s got a small sensor but it does have manual controls and a wide-aperture lens. I’ve gotten some good low-light pictures with it by bracing it against a tree or a fence post or something.

    Comment by fred — 2012/02/29 @ 15:55

  9. Great pics & discussion, Fred!

    Years ago, when I was working on the North Slope, where golden hour lasts over a month, a National Geographic team came up to take a series of photos on the tundra. Although golden hour was all day long day after day, they’ed still, often seek a platinum 10-15 minutes therein when the golden hour sun was coming from exactly the right compass heading to light whatever subject they were focused on. They had (still have?) a well deserved professional reputation for shooting the very best of the best and then going the extra mile to make it even better.

    Comment by Jim in Alaska — 2012/03/01 @ 16:08

  10. That’s a great story, Jim. The classic National Geographic photographers of the Kodachrome era used the golden hour heavily. Perusing old National Geographics and looking at one gorgeous warm-toned, laterally-lit image after another, you’d have to say they were on to something! But all those tropical locations with the speedy sundowns must have driven them nuts.

    It must be amazing to be on the North Slope during the endless days of arctic summer. Check out the ethereal light in this HD timelapse video shot in Norway’s Lofoten Archipelago.

    Comment by fred — 2012/03/03 @ 23:41

  11. All gorgeous Fred. Luminous. I must say that Pomona Fountain is my favorite not just for photographic/light reasons but because that sculpture is of the great NYC artist’s model Audrey Munson!

    Comment by Claudia — 2012/03/05 @ 00:03

  12. Thanks, Claudia. I’m afraid the photo of Pomona Fountain (AKA Pulitzer Fountain) doesn’t actually show the sculpture very well. Curious readers, check out Claudia’s great post about Audrey Munson.

    Comment by fred — 2012/03/05 @ 07:47

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress

Theme Tweaker by Unreal