"Magic Hour"—sounds like the next great soon-to-be-has-been tween punk band. But, it’s actually much more than that. The magic hour is your most valuable cohort in creating imagery that earns keeper status and stays out of the trash bin.
Interestingly enough, this elusive "magic hour" can be more like a magic minute at times, or can extend to a magic marathon at others. In its very nature, exceptional light is often unpredictable and understanding how to best utilize those special moments is paramount to successful photographers.
I tell people that 90 percent of my work is done in the first and last ten percent of the day. Take a look at your images from any given sunrise or sunset shoot—you’ll notice that the first two minutes of light are like manna from heaven. The next ten minutes are still worth every other click or so. After the next ten minutes, warmth and softness can begin to deteriorate. Sometimes, even after the first 30 minutes of daylight, colors start to wash out and, despite its beauty and serenity in person, scenes simply don’t record in camera the same way they did even ten minutes prior.
Of course, all this can change with just a skiff of clouds to diffuse that sunlight…or any other number of indeterminable factors.
Shooting during the magic hour can be one of the most rewarding experiences for a photographer. It can also be one of the most frustrating—no one likes going home knowing they blew an opportunity for greatness. Read on for tips on how to best to utilize this precious time.
Choose Locations Wisely
Great photographers know and understand how best to utilize the conditions presented them at any given time. This means choosing a location that will benefit most from what Mother Nature has offered. Check weather patterns the night before your shoot. Have an idea of what might occur. Then, look up to the sky immediately upon leaving for your shoot. Whether that means poking your head outside of the tent or parting the blinds in your bedroom, look up to the sky and figure out what atmospherics you might have to work with. Clouds? No clouds? Wind? Mist? Fog? Overcast? Try and establish a game plan from that moment. Have a plan A, B, and C if possible.
Have a Location Routine
It is vital to function like a well-oiled machine once the magic starts to happen. You must be able to operate intuitively from a technical standpoint if you hope to have all your creative faculties available for composition and on-the-fly adjustments. Have a home for everything in your camera bag. Know where your wide angle lenses and telephoto lenses are. Know where your filters are. Know where your memory cards and cable release are. Know where a lens cloth is. Seconds make the difference, and there’s nothing worse than scrambling for that one vital piece of equipment just as that gap on the horizon closes.
It is also key to have a shooting routine. Just as we all have a workflow for what occurs after capture, we should all have a workflow for what occurs before and during capture. These seem like minor issues to deal with, but if you’ve not already had occasion, you will recognize very soon that the small things make the biggest difference between an average image and an exceptional masterpiece.
Find your Composition Early
This should be part of your shooting routine, but it’s worth mentioning in greater depth. I find that one of the greatest challenges for students at my workshops comes in committing to one or two compositions and then waiting for the light to come. We’re after quality, not quantity. Finding and committing to your composition early will keep you from running around like a chicken with your head cut off (we’ve all been there!). It will also give you time to shoot several test shots, allowing you to fine tune your composition and/or anticipate any significant exposure challenges you might face.
Implement these tips to give yourself greater production and fluidity when the light is just right!