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Twilight, the magic of the Golden Hour and the Blue Hour

As most of you know I’m a stickler for a good reference photo.

Bad reference = bad painting. With some timing and luck, here is another way to get some great shots for your next painting.

Twilight is the illumination of the bottom part of the atmosphere when the sun is not visible anymore because it has sunk below the horizon for its sleepy time. The light from the sun scatters in the upper atmosphere, illuminating it but not hitting the earth’s surface. The landscape becomes darker and muted, the values drawing closer together, making it a super tingly time to paint.

Up here in the northern part of the world twilight lasts only about 40 minutes. Pshhhwaaaa? But…. YES, you need to paint fast or bring a good camera….read on.

Known as dusk, this small window of magical light is the time when reality begins to warp, taking the subconscious intellect for a ride. Wait! Don’t order yet, because you get a twofer… just before the sun pops over the horizon in the morning “wakey wakey eggs and bakey“, this time like dusk, is dawn. Dawning like the age of Aquarius. You’re singing the song right now, aren’t you….

For you morning cats, dawn is the birth of a new day, a mere short shutter click of time. You have to be ready with a camera at hand to capture the fleeting amazing light moments before the sun cracks or dips below the horizon, making it the time to capture a great reference photo. These two-time frames, known as twilight are the Golden Hour and the Blue Hour. Neither of which is actually an hour….you have to be fast.

The Golden Hour:

The right light can make a single photo stop you in your tracks. Imagine a warm, natural glow that makes everyone and everything look their best. That’s the magic of Golden Hour photography. The Golden Hour is the period when the colour of the sky goes from red and orange to yellow or, as its name suggests, golden tones, having a warm colour temperature.

Lighting is soft, diffused and with little contrast since the sun is low in the sky. It doesn’t produce strong shadows or harsh lighting making it ideal for landscape photography. Light has to travel far, spreading the blue light out and making more room for the red light. This gives the light a golden glow and the moment roughly lasts less than 2 cold beer.

Of course, during the winter, the sun is much lower at the horizon than in the summer, hence the Golden Hour lasts a little longer. Mmmm more beer. When is the golden hour you ask?

Golden Hour begins when the sun is sinking and is about 6° above the horizon (fairly low in the sky.) until it is about 4° below the horizon. This usually lasts about 30-40 minutes. Each day has two Golden Hours. One at sunrise and one at sunset.

The Blue hour:

Blue Hour generally starts about 30-40 minutes after sunset; bear in mind that this will vary depending on where you are and also the time of year. The Blue Hour comes right at the end of the Golden Hour. It is a small window of time before the light fades into night. Depending on where you live, the Blue Hour doesn’t last an hour. Up here in the north, it lasts (in the summer) about 15 minutes.

During the Blue Hour, the orange glow begins to fade and the sky takes on a deep blue hue with a cooler temperature and pours a whole can of super-saturated colours over everything. Take a close look during winter at the snow and these colours become more apparent on the white surface.

In the urban settings, buildings are still lit and streetlights on, making it an ideal time for creative photography. It’s also ideal for capturing interesting landscapes because of the different shades of the sky and colour saturation.

At the Blue Hour, natural light is super soft, and the contrast between the ambient blue hue and the urban yellow lights is very photogenic. You can almost feel people’s demeanour around you, changing during this time of the day; they are calmer, and the atmosphere is more serene as the light falls.”

In the evening, the Blue Hour coincides with the end of the Golden Hour. In the morning, it reverses in order and precedes the Golden Hour.

An added bonus is:

It is easier to capture the moon during these times, after all, who doesn’t want a luminous lunar sphere in their painting?

Here are my top ten 10 tips for painting in the twilight.

#1 - Know the difference between the Blue Hour and the Golden Hour. And remember the blue period doesn’t last very long. #2 - Timing is important. Get the Timing Right. Scout ahead, nothing worse than being in the wrong place when that fleeting light is good. Try being in places a day before to scout it out. The extra effort here will pay off, I promise. Golden Hour is one of the easiest types of natural light to work with, but you can run out of time so quickly. Avoid rushing, plan on arriving at least an hour before sunset, depending on the weather conditions. #3 - Don’t worry about the weather. If the weather is cloudy, give yourself even more time. Overcast days don’t provide quite the same magic, but the type of light is still soft and directional. All kinds of weather may produce some inspiring things that one may want to paint. #4 - Watch the sun’s direction. If you’re new to working with light, pay attention to the sun’s position for the best quality of light. For most, arrange your shot so that the sun is to the side. Also one of the best uses for the golden hour is back-lighting. Placing the sun behind your subject gives you that magical glow and radiance that is the bazinga! In a painting. #5 - learn to shoot in manual mode or get a girlfriend who knows what they’re doing and will set your camera up. Then don’t fart around with the settings. Otherwise, reason my friends… #6 - Know a little about your camera. Most cameras will work during this magical time, but using one with a focusing lens and aperture settings will help capture images that will make painting easier. An effect referred to as "Bokeh" is shooting images that are soft while the space in the background is out of focus. To achieve this, the aperture on your camera needs to be wide open. This will create a short depth of field, blurring and softening most of those overwhelming details. I often use aperture priority mode. That allows me to open the lens to let in as much light as possible. The added bonus is when the aperture is wide open, the image softens reducing the dreaded details to a more paintable reference photo. Blurry is good. Sharp is bad. Sharp photos make you want to paint too much detail in your pictures. Try setting to Ap “Aperture mode” setting. Check your White Balance, (This is in the setup mode) If it is set on Auto White Balance (AWB), it will compensate for all of those beautiful warm tones, wiping out any hope for the warmth you set out to capture. Your images may end up far cooler and more blue than you want. A good starting point for beginners is setting it to “shade” or “cloudy” to get those gorgeous golden hues. If you want to set it, move it to the warmer red-orange end of the colour grid. Remember that the white balance or temperature of your photos can sometimes be adjusted in a photo editing program like Lightroom, Photoshop, or Befunky. (Befunky is mostly free online) Increasing the ISO (ISO = amount of light let in.) If you choose a higher ISO you can increase the shutter speed letting in the light you see. Set to 1600 or higher. This allows more light into the lens for the low light your shooting in. It also softens the details even more. For landscapes, particularly if you use a tripod and lengthen the shutter speed as the sunlight wanes. You get super zippy colours!! I know this all sounds complicated but it’s really not. Just a bit of finding where these little gems are will make your photos so much better to use. #7 - Steady yourself and use a tripod or a monopod. I cannot stress the importance of using a tripod or monopod if you are shooting in low light at slower shutter speeds. It’s pretty important not to move, hold your breath, get out of the wind, rest your arms on the hood of your vehicle, kneel down, do what it takes to steady that lens. The longer the lens the harder it is to steady it. Get into that Zen moment! Namaste everyone. #8 - Take as many photos as possible. I can easily take 200-300 photos in a short amount of time. Gone are the limitations of prints on paper. Get yourself a large memory card and shoot with impunity and load up on photos. It takes time to go through all the photos later but that’s what the evening margaritas are for. #9 - Embrace imperfections (and unpredictable weather). While many of these tips revolve around careful planning, sometimes spontaneous shoots inspired in an instant trick of the light can be just as rewarding. I don’t like to be too prepared before a photoshoot, I love those unexpected scenes that you don’t have to look for. Of course, I do check the forecast, but I prefer to let things be what they may. At the end of the day, you don’t always have to worry about having the best gear (lenses, tripods, etc.) to shoot at this time of day. Sometimes, grainy or blurry images give you a mysterious feel, and this kind of photography brings out the best in artists. #10 - The Look The Golden Hour look gets its characteristic look since the sun is in a lower position in the sky. Compared to other times of day, the Golden Hour light is: Soft: The transition from light to dark is gradual, creating soft light that’s universally flattering and particularly good for portraits. Warm: The low angle of the sun creates an orange glow, associated with calm and happiness. Directional: Since the sun is low in the sky, it’s easy to create back-lighting, side lighting or front lighting with just the sun. Together, those three characteristics form the magic of the Golden Hour. All you have to do to take advantage of the golden hours is adjust your shooting time or perhaps wake up a little earlier! The Blue Hour Look At the blue hour, the natural light is very soft, and the contrast between the ambient blue hue and the urban yellow lights is very photogenic. You can almost feel the changing of the day as the light wanes. You get almost a natural 70/30 split between a large amount of blue and the warm radiance of the reflected sun or the urban life hanging on. And for those of you who go away on holidays and want to know the best times to paint or shoot, here are some apps to help you out.

  • Helios Golden Hour (for iOS)

  • Blue Hour Calculator (for Android)

Hope this helps, Your friend in art Doug. Here are some funky examples of The Golden Hour and The Blue Hour paintings.

Red Train Painting Image

Dusk Train by Loic Zimmerman.

Orange Sky Painting Image

Twilight by Tom Thompson.

Blue Street Painting Image

Jeremy Mann.

Street scene in The Blue Hour.

Street Painting Image

Kim English.

Woman In The Golden Hour Painting Image

Daniel Gerhartz.

Sun Set Painting Image

Ovanes Berberian.

Right between the end of The Golden Hour and the start of The Blue Hour.

The Golden Hour Bike Painting Image

Randy Sexton. Golden Hour bikes.

David Sharpe Painting Image

The Master, David Sharpe.

The Golden Hour Painting Image

I don’t know who painted this but I have had this painting in my files for some time. I absolutely love the glow.


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1 Comment

Karen A Pedersen
Karen A Pedersen
Mar 17, 2021

This was a great article Doug. I need to go and play with my camera, lol. Karen

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