Golden hour is the holy grail of natural light. Learn how these eleven pro portrait photographers make the most of this fleeting, ephemeral glow.

In photography, “the golden hour” describes the period of time right after sunrise and before sunset, when the light takes on a warm, reddish hue. But the phrase is somewhat misleading.

“In reality, the golden ‘hour’ is often only a few minutes,” Shutterstock Contributor ​Eva Blanco explains. Summer sunsets offer some of the most beautiful conditions imaginable, but as any experienced photographer knows, they’re also fleeting.

We asked eleven artists from around the world to tell us about some of their most captivating pictures. Along the way, they shared their best tips for taking advantage of the most breathtaking—and often unpredictable—time of day.

Shooting at sunset comes with its fair share of challenges, from short timeframes to harsh glares, but as each and every one of these photographers can attest, the results are more than worth it all. Read on to learn how they use different gear, camera settings, and angles to create evocative, glowing portraits.

1. “The golden hour plus soft backlight and light wind is a recipe for a beautiful portrait.”

Kalamurzing

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Soft Backlight

Image by ​Kalamurzing. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 50mm 1:1,2L lens. Settings: Exposure 1/800 sec; f3.2; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

This is one of my favorite models. She’s also interested in photography, so she always supports my creative ideas. In this case, it was important to find a place in our city, Kyiv, where the low evening sunlight would not be obstructed by buildings. This abandoned bridge over the Dnipro River turned out to be an ideal location. The port with those cranes in the background created a romantic, industrial atmosphere.

Pictured: [1] Kalamurzing [2] Kalamurzing

Pro Tip

The golden hour plus soft backlight and light wind is a recipe for a beautiful portrait. I also love to create portraits that incorporate flares from the sun. These details add a romantic, dreamy quality.

It’s important to speak with your models and make sure they are comfortable. The main thing is to establish communication and enjoy the shoot together. Be sincere.

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2. “When it comes to portraits, the real challenge lies in preserving the atmosphere and energy of the moment.”

​Geerte Verduijn

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Atmosphere

Image by ​Geerte Verduijn. Gear: ​Canon EOS 750D​ camera, ​Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens. Settings: Exposure ​1/160​ sec; f4.0; ISO ​100​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

I took this photo in Elangata Wuas, Kenya, while on a university trip to research the influence of climate change and land policies on the Masai people. All of us were still a bit dusty and tired from a long bus ride when this lady took us on a mesmerizing sunset walk through the area.

The two of us were walking a bit ahead of the group at some point, and she stopped to look at the sky. It was a quiet moment of introspection that only lasted several seconds before the group caught up again. I was happy to have been able to take a picture at all, without destroying the silence of the moment.

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Capture the Energy

Image by ​Geerte Verduijn

Pro Tip

When it comes to portraits, the real challenge lies in preserving the atmosphere and energy of the moment. I have tried some shoots where my model was actively posing in front of a setting sun, but I noticed they felt artificial or cliché. I quickly decided to just stop asking anything of people I photograph during sunset.

We can have an efficient and formal shoot during the day, but as soon as the sun sets, they can do whatever they like: philosophize, tell me a story, hum a song. If it works, it works. If not, at least we had a wonderful view.

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3. “Ask others for feedback, and be open to learning something new.”

​Nicolette Kapp

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Ask for Feedback

Image by ​Nicolette Kapp​. Gear: Canon 5D Mark II camera, Canon 50mm 1.8 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/400 sec; f2.8; ISO 320.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

Shelby is a beautiful and inspiring friend. She grew up in a community in Cape Town, South Africa, where people have many challenges. In the face of those challenges, however, Shelby is always smiling and encouraging others. She uses her gifts and talents to build our nation. Her future is bright.

Shelby is also an intern at our local church, and on this particular night, she stayed over. Before the sunset, I looked over at her and said, “Hey, let’s take a drive to the beach and take some photos.” She’s always up for anything fun. It was a five-minute drive to the beach, and we spent just thirty minutes taking photos. Still, these images have become some of my bestsellers.

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Learn Something New

Image by ​Nicolette Kapp​

Pro Tip

I normally explore my surroundings and get my bearings long before I bring a model to a location. You want your model to know that you are confident in what you’re doing. To that end, I also don’t use much gear, mainly one body and a 50mm lens. That way, it isn’t so intimidating.

Ask others for feedback, and be open to learning something new. Another small tip: have a look at the weather forecast. I prefer days that are nice and warm but cloudy. Clouds are a natural diffuser, and on days like these, you will have a bit more time to take photos and still have that beautiful golden light. Make sure those colors pop. Sunsets are never dull, so why should your photos be?

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4. “I always check for the exact time of the sunset, and, if possible, I scout to the location beforehand.”

Eva Blanco

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Scout Ahead

Image by ​Eva Blanco​. Gear: Canon 5d Mark III camera, 35mm 1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/400 sec; f2.8; ISO 800.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

This was one of those sessions where everything just flowed. This woman is not a professional model, and it was her first time in front of a camera, but it was a beautiful session. She was very easygoing, and her laughter was genuine.

I can’t even remember what were we talking about, but I was lucky to work with her. Choosing the right model is extremely important. You can have the perfect light, but ultimately, it’s up to your subject to imbue the frame with the right mood and atmosphere.

Pictured: [1] Eva Blanco [2] Eva Blanco

Pro Tip

I always check for the exact time of the sunset, and, if possible, I scout to the location beforehand. I go at the same hour on a different day, so I know where the sun goes down and how the light falls.

Having something dark in the background can help you to achieve a beautiful contrast with that golden flare. It can be a mountain, a building, the horizon line, or in this case, trees. In my opinion, the more open the aperture (f2, f2.5, f2.8), the more beautiful the flare.

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5. “At least one reflector is essential when creating this type of shot…”

Darren Baker

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Use a Reflector

Image by Darren Baker. Gear: Canon 5DS camera, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS USM lens. Settings: Focal length 60mm; exposure 1/100 sec; f8.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

Although I have traveled the African continent extensively throughout my life, this particular photo—featuring an African model wearing genuine African clothing—was actually shot in the UK. This location is a favorite of mine because it is high on the top of a hill and has a field that stretches across to the west, where the sun sets.

I had visited the location many times in the run-up to the shoot, waiting for the crops to turn the perfect shade of gold. I spoke to the farmer to make sure it was okay to shoot in his field and also that he wasn’t about to start harvesting. I penciled a window of a few days into my diary, watched the weather, and had the kit all pre-prepared and ready to go.

On the chosen day, we got to the location about an hour before I wanted to start shooting, checked out a few positions for the model, and waited for the sun to make its way down toward the horizon. By the time the sun had disappeared, I was fortunate enough to get some great images, heading home to my own bed at the end of the day. I didn’t have to get on a plane and fly anywhere, which was an absolute luxury.

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Plan Ahead

Image by Darren Baker

Pro Tip

With the so-called golden hour, as the name would suggest, you have about an hour or so of good light, but you only have about twenty minutes or so of the fabulous low sun that you need for a shot like this one. That’s why it’s critical to have your equipment planned and get to the location early and set everything up in advance.

Additionally, make sure your lens is very clean because dust, dirt, and smudges on that front element are going to give you all sorts of trouble when you’re shooting into the sun.

At least one reflector is essential when creating this type of shot, and sometimes more than one, as it’s vital to bounce some of that golden light back onto the model to prevent them appearing as a silhouette. The color of the reflector makes a big difference; if you use a pure silver reflector, you are going to cool down the reflected light, so white, gold, or a mixed surface style are better choices for these warmer pictures.

Finally, shoot RAW. You need to be able to adjust these images as much as you can in post-production as you’re dealing with huge contrasts between the light and dark parts of the picture, and the camera’s internal jpg processing will rarely get it right.

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6. “Find inspiration in your surroundings.”

Creative Family

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Find Inspiration

Image by ​Creative Family​. Gear: DJI Mavic Air. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

This is a picture of my wife and me. We created this “drone selfie” after a photo shoot, using the very last of our battery. Believe it or not, we were actually on our way to the dentist’s office. The appointment was scheduled for just after sunset, so we were able to shoot during the golden hour.

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Be Flexible

Image by ​Creative Family​

Pro Tip

Find inspiration in your surroundings. You don’t need to travel to an exotic destination to create compelling pictures. The key is to use available light to your advantage. I always like trying out different styles using natural light, softboxes, and reflectors. With practice, you’ll be able to shoot anywhere and in any conditions.

Instagram | Instagram

7. “I prefer natural shots, so I try to stick to available light and sometimes a reflector.”

Misha Beliy

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Be Spontaneous

Image by ​Misha Beliy​. Gear: ​Canon EOS 5D Mark II​ camera, ​Canon EF50mm f / 1.8 STM lens. Settings: Exposure ​1/5000​ sec; f2.8; ISO ​640​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

This was actually a spontaneous moment. I was driving home with the model after a different shoot, and we saw this beautiful field on the way. We decided to take a couple of shots right then and there, and we also planned for another session at this location.

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Shoot in Manual Mode

Image by ​Misha Beliy

Pro Tip

The main challenge with shooting at sunset is the presence of strong backlight, so I recommend using your camera’s manual mode. That way, you can control all your settings to depending on the light. In extremely rare cases, I might use additional light to highlight models’ faces, but in general, I prefer natural shots, so I try to stick to available light and sometimes a reflector.

8. “The best time for making photos like this is about thirty to sixty minutes before sunset.”

​Alones​

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Enhance the Glow

Image by ​Alones​. Gear: ​Canon 6D​ camera, ​Canon 85mm 1.8​ lens. Settings: Exposure ​1/400 sec; f2.0; ISO ​100​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

​I’ve been working with this young, talented model from Belarus for more than five years. We chose this field as our location, in part because of its tall, dry grass, which enhanced the golden sunset glow. The image was part of a larger shoot showcasing this denim outfit.

Pictured: [1] Alones​ [2] Alones​ [3] Alones​

Pro Tip

The best time for making photos like this is about thirty to sixty minutes before sunset. The “reflectors” in my photos are usually natural objects: buildings, walls, sand, asphalt, etc. When it comes to shooting at sunset, the more practice and experience you have, the better. The location also matters, of course. Some places I find randomly, but most I’ve carefully scouted. I sometimes use post-processing for that magical golden effect.

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9. “If possible, explore the area in person before your shoot.”

Serhii Yurkiv

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Explore Before the Shoot

Image by ​Serhii Yurkiv. Gear: ​Canon 5D Mark III​ camera, ​Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens. Settings: Exposure ​1/1250​ sec; f1.6; ISO ​200​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

The girl in this photo is a friend of mine. We were hiking when I captured this moment.

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Track the Sun

Image by ​Serhii Yurkiv

Pro Tip

The most important thing is choosing the right location. If possible, explore the area in person before your shoot. If not, look carefully at pictures by other photographers. Nowadays, you can download your choice of mobile app to track the sun and plan ahead for that golden light. For me, backlight is ideal, as I like to have a narrow silhouette line separating the model from a warm, hazy background.

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10. “Explore different techniques.”

Dmitry_Tsvetkov

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Explore Different Techniques

Image by ​Dmitry_Tsvetkov​. Gear: ​Sony a99​ camera, ​Sony 70-200/2.8g​ lens. Settings: Focal length ​200mm​; exposure 1/500 sec; f2.8; ISO ​200​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

I collaborated with my favorite model for this shoot, and she did the styling herself. Luckily, the light wasn’t harsh, so we could shoot in direct sunlight without her having to squint. I placed her in a narrow sunbeam passing between houses.

I chose a blurred and underexposed background because there were a lot of people and other distracting elements, and I wanted to focus only on the model. I like the contrast between the warm tones on her face and the cool colors in the background.

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Work With Shadows

Image by ​Dmitry_Tsvetkov

Pro Tip

Remember that light helps you tell a story, so it should change based on the mood you want to convey. Explore different techniques. Try working with direct lighting and deep shadows, and then experiment with backlight. Try different reflectors, including the natural ones available in your surroundings: bright walls, windows, street signs, etc.

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11. “If you have the opportunity to climb to higher ground, take it!”

​Vagengeim Elena

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Climb to High Ground

Image by ​Vagengeim Elena​. Gear: ​Canon EOS 5D Mark III​ camera, ​Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM​ lens. Settings: Exposure ​1/250​ sec; f3.5; ISO ​320​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

​I went on an evening walk with this young woman, her son, and her dog. At the time, she was preparing to become a mother for the second time. The dog, whose name is Amarok, sat calmly like this for only four frames before running off to explore some more. It is evident in this photo that he wanted to keep going, even as the sunset kissed the horizon.

11 Portrait Photographers on Capturing the Glow of Sunset — Seek Authenticity

Image by ​Vagengeim Elena

Pro Tip

If you have the opportunity to climb to higher ground, take it! Look for hills and rooftops. An elevated vantage point will help you capture the gentle light of the setting sun, without extra people, buildings, or billboards obstructing your view.

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Top Image by ​Creative Family​

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