Photography tips – The golden hour

A Crane (Grus grus) shot in the very first rays of sunlight, from a tent hide pitched on the shore of a small forest lake in Dalarna, Sweden.

OK so you have invested heavily in camera equipment, you have learned to be still out there, to let the subjects come to you rather than the other way around, you have the mechanics of aperture, shutter and ISO-settings dialled, and the images STILL aren’t quite what you were hoping for?? Chances are you’re out there at the wrong time of day…

The first rule of nature photography may well be “get level*”, but the second rule is no less important, and that is “get the lighting right”. On sunny days, that means “get up early” or “go for the sunset”. Overcast days are a different beast altogether; on those days, getting the background right will make or break a photo, but on sunny days the warm glow of the sunrise or -set is essential to get the images you dream of – to the extent that I have heard of photographers longing for overcast skies just so they could sleep in for a change!

Aside from getting the hour right, you really also want to get the direction right; the sun should be either directly behind you, as you point your long lens at the bird, or directly behind the bird (for those golden silhouettes, see the landing Whooper swan below). As soon as the sun (or the bird, in our case) wanders off to the side the image gets riddled with deep shadow – deeper during the good hours of the day, because there is less light in the first place. The male Wheatear from France, and the Nuthatch below are good examples of this.

It is worth considering that the further N or S you travel, the longer dusk and dawn are – on the Equator, dusk and dawn lasts all of three minutes each, whereas in central Norway/Sweden the entire winter day (all 2-3 hours of it) has great light for photographers. This means that if you travel to Varanger in Norway for the King and Steller’s eiders during February or early March, provided you actually get sunny days the light will be fine all the way through. On the other hand, if you decide to escape the European winter gloom in Ghana you’ll have something like 10 minutes of “nice” light every day – better not miss the alarm clock just one morning..

The following gallery is meant as an inspiration for you, and contains examples of images I have shot during the golden minutes of days. In some instances there are also similar images from “the wrong time of day” so you may get a good impression of just how big the impact difference is. Click on the first image to browse the gallery, and make sure to read the image captions to get the low-down on how each image happened.

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*) I may write a quickie about getting level soon, complete with examples just like this one..