Golden Hours: Photographing the Light of Sunrises & Sunsets

Many photographers often find that their golden hour images rarely represent the scene they observed. Not only is the sk

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Golden Hours: Photographing the Light of Sunrises & Sunsets

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golden hours photographing the light of sunrises & sunsets

the art of landscape photography by christopher o’donnell

All material in this eBook, unless otherwise noted below, is © Copyright Christopher O’Donnell, All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. This book may not be copied or distributed without prior written permission, except for brief excerpts for the purpose of a review. Purchasers are allowed to print one copy of this eBook for their own personal use. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is © Copyright Crookneck Consulting LLC, All Rights Reserved. Images found on pages 44, 45, 50 and 55 are © Copyright Darwin Wiggett and/or, All Rights Reserved. Essential and Advanced Filters is an eBook © Copyright, All Rights Reserved. Google MapsTM and Google EarthTM are trademarks owned by Google Inc. Google MapsTM and Google EarthTM content is owned by Google Inc. or its third-party suppliers. Apple, iPhone, iPad are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries. This eBook is an independent publication and has not been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise approved by Apple Inc. Microsoft and Windows are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries. This eBook is an independent publication and is not affiliated with, nor has it been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise approved by Microsoft Corporation. Photoshop, Adobe and Acrobat are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe Systems Incorporated in the United States and/or other countries. This eBook is not endorsed or sponsored by Adobe Systems Incorporated, publisher of Adobe Acrobat®. Disclaimer: Links to photography equipment are affiliate links to B&H Photo Video, which earns me a small percentage of each sale I refer through this eBook. Please consider clicking on one of these links before your next purchase - thank you!

table of contents 04 introduction 08



finding interest


controlling light


the focus workflow


creativity with aperture


the portfolio


about christopher


As the sun nears the horizon – either at sunset or at sunrise – the light begins to dramatically transform the landscape before you. The atmosphere becomes thick and golden, shadows are lengthened, and highlights are brightened. Soon your scene develops texture and depth, and a stunning show of light explodes in the sky. The golden hours typically refer to that window of time when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky: just before it sets and right after it rises. When you photograph the golden hours, it encompasses much more than simply capturing a specific time of day. It also includes your emotional response to what your senses are experiencing: the visual qualities of light and shadow, the smells of the early morning mist, the feeling of damp grass brushing against your legs, and the deafening silence which is only interrupted by the song of a single bird. The unique light that the golden hours provide has the ability to quickly transform your surroundings, and this light is responsible for evoking a wide array of emotions - more than what can be expressed in words. It has the power to connect everyone to nature by providing the visual stimulation which awakens all of your senses, and is a source of great inspiration that many landscape photographers treasure.

5 6

Photographing the golden hour light requires a specific set of skilled knowledge in order to overcome the limitations of your camera. That is the primary goal of this eBook: to be a detailed guide on how to successfully translate what your eyes see during one of the most challenging times of day to photograph, and be able to represent that experience visually by using a combination of camera and processing techniques.


When the sun is near the horizon line and provides you with that sharp angle of light, it not only produces strong shadows and highlights, but also increases the texture of your scene. There are many challenges that present themselves during this window of time, and I would like you to learn how to overcome them and expand your creative horizons so you can focus more intently on enjoying your photography.


Choosing a location for the golden hours can be quite simple as this quality


of light has the ability to transform any kind of landscape. A view that appears flat and uninteresting during the noontime light can be a stunning show of tones and texture when the sun hits at a more dramatic angle.







calculated by when the sun reaches the horizon line at sea level. However, this does not necessarily mean that is the precise time the golden hours will begin or end. The topography of your location plays a large role in determining what your window of opportunity is, and a landscape that has any substantial variation can alter this window greatly. A simple sand dune or hill can obstruct the sun from your scene, eliminating the light needed for those intense textures and depth that the golden hour is known for producing. This hill blocks the setting sun, which eliminates any harsh highlights and shadows. Additionally, the true sunset time is not an accurate gauge of when the golden hour light ends as it does not take the unique terrain into account.

If the sun disappears from view, it does not necessarily mean that you can’t capture an inspiring scene with unique color and texture - it just won’t be a classic “golden hour” image. The sunrise to the left was captured just before the sun reached the horizon line and could cast its light across the terrain. These twilight moments just before sunrise and just after sunset are known as the “blue hours”. The lighting is softer and the colors are cooler, which makes for a unique and ethereal environment.

The sun changes positions in the sky as the year progresses, so a location that did not look particularly interesting last season can look quite different under a new angle of light. Also keep in mind that while the sun can move, your terrain does not - so a golden hour view that was obstructed by a small hill a few months ago may now have a clear path to the sun as it disappears behind your horizon.


the photographer’s ephemeris It’s important to know that topography does not have to eliminate a location from the golden hours. It simply means that you will have to plan accordingly and work with the terrain you have in order to make your window of opportunity. A fantastic tool that I use often to predict the golden hour light is The Photographer’s Ephemeris, which visually shows you where the sun (and moon) will be rising and setting by utilizing Google maps. Not only will this program show you the official sunset and sunrise times, but (with a little bit of math) you can factor in any topographical interferences - such as hills and mountain ridges - that will cause you to lose direct sunlight at a certain time.


Here you can see a typical view from The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This allows me to scout from my computer or phone and select locations to visit in person. I can survey a large area with the golden hour in mind, making note of sites that could make for an interesting image based on the topography and where the sun appears on the horizon. With the ability to zoom down to street level, I can gather a strong idea of any land variations and decide how to best approach my composition.

Designed by a photographer, TPE is a fantastic resource for those who plan their shoots around the natural light. On their blog, they list several tutorials on how to use all of TPE’s advanced features, which allows you to obtain pinpoint accuracy of a golden hour window you wish to photograph in. TPE also has the ability to predict future sunrises and sunsets, which is very useful if you want to photograph a location under a certain direction of light. Since the sun’s position in the sky changes as the seasons progress, you can decide the best time of year to photograph an area under the exact angle of light you are looking for. For example, there may be only a two-day window where the sun sets directly behind a mountain peak, or the rugged horizon line along a particular valley may only allow the sun to fill it during the autumn season. You also have the ability to save a location, making it simple to scout several spots well in advance of your trip. However complicated or simple your golden hour session is, The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a well respected program that can assist you in obtaining incredible accuracy over the natural light, which makes it an outstanding tool for any landscape photographer.


below the horizon The golden hour light is not dependent on having a sunrise or a sunset in your frame. Even if you can’t see the horizon line or if the sun is otherwise not present in your scene, beautiful images are still possible under this incredible light - front or side lit landscapes can be equally as stunning. If your terrain blocks the sun from being in your composition or if the sun is just below the horizon line, you have a unique opportunity to expand your view onto other subjects and call on your creativity with the camera. The sky will still hold that beautiful golden hour quality and texture before shifting into the twilight blue hours.

Even as the sun dips below the horizon or just before it breaches it, the sky explodes with color and texture. The Photographer’s Ephemeris has a more scientific explanation for this in their extremely helpful infographic, but the point is that since clouds are higher in elevation than sea level, they can reflect golden light after the sun sets or before it rises. The earth is curved, so although we may not visibly see the sun in the sky, the clouds above are still in the sun’s direct line of sight. This is why that transition period between the blue hour to the golden hour - those key twilight moments when the tones warm and the sky brightens - is often the most spectacular show of interest in the sky. The ground lighting is soft and even, but the sky is a stunning display of highlights and shadows.

This golden hour image shows another instance of how the true “sunrise” and “sunset”times sun has not set

are entirely subjective to not only where you are standing, but also the elevation of elements within your frame. The official sunset time had already passed sun has set

when this photo was captured, as indicated by the foreground which is blanketed in shadow. However, since the towering pine trees are able to see around the curve of the earth, they are still able to reach into the sun’s direct line of sight. If you were perched at the top of one of those pine trees, you’d be able to see the setting sun. However, at ground level, the sun has already disappeared below the horizon line.

The landscape is something that we, as photographers, can not alter. What we do have control over is our work, and more importantly our ability to adapt our workflow to the environment that surrounds us. Instead of viewing topography challenges as limitations to your photography, consider it an opportunity to adapt your workflow to the environment you’re in and compliment it. This requirement to adapt provokes you to seek out alternative compositions, which helps you to grow as a photographer and refine your skills. Oftentimes, you will find the result of acclimation to be better than your original expectations.


acclimation Unexpected roadblocks can be easily removed by changing your perspective - both figuratively and literally - and adjusting your workflow to compliment the environment. Rather than becoming discouraged, analyze your landscape and look for ways to adapt. This is an important learning phase for any photographer: the ability to compliment your landscape and make a scene work in your favor. These location guidelines are meant to help you prepare and bring awareness to your surroundings, but the ability to easily change your perspective and identify ways to enhance the landscape will declutter your creative path for a more fulfilling photography experience.

Despite the guidelines in this section, there is nothing wrong with packing up your gear in the late afternoon or early morning and traveling to a location without any previous scouting. In fact, that’s exactly how I captured this photo to the right. It was late afternoon and the sky began to gather clouds, so I traveled to the opposite side of an island I was living on - a side that I’d never visited before. I found this pier that I had never seen, and everything came together at the last moment, including a seagull that had perched on the railing. No planning, and no scouting - I simply followed the light.

location scouting There are many variables which affect the golden hours – in particular, the location of the sun in relation to where you are standing. If possible, scouting a location first is often a good idea, especially if it’s somewhere that is not easily or frequently accessible. Among other conditions, your light can be affected by fluctuations in the topography, obstructions between your camera and the light cast, or the time of year and the position of the sun in the sky. Being prepared to alter your workflow will often produce better results than trying to quickly adapt in the field – especially since time is not always on your side to capture this unique light.

It’s also best to do a scout around the time you actually plan to shoot, and not rely on a visit that you did months prior. The most notable reason for this is due to the sun changing its position in the sky over time. A location scout that you did two months ago wouldn’t be the most accurate gauge on how the golden hours will interact with your landscape at present.


And remember: if you scout a location and arrive only to find your sun to be obstructed, either by landscape or clouds, take this as an opportunity to explore other compositions under the golden hours. The light is filtered through the landscape in an ethereal way during this time, and the opportunity to create a masterful image is plentiful if you allow your mind to wander.

finding interest

Once I’ve settled on an ideal location for the golden hour light, my first instinct is to choose a composition and focal point that compliments my environment. I usually do not predetermine a specific vantage point as my image is entirely dictated by the light during this time. Not only is the angle of light an important factor, but both the quality and strength of the light have much to do with how it interacts with the landscape - specifically if it’s affected by clouds and other atmospheric elements. When the sun is at such a dramatic angle, any kind of vertical movement it makes can drastically transform the scene around you. Location scouting will give me a general area of interest, but I will often let the light direct my composition once I return to that location.


When I approach my scene during the golden hours - whether it be a beach or a forest – I survey the sky first. Is there enough interest to make this my focal point? Clouds have a way to make a dull, flat sky come alive with textures and colors, which is only amplified as the sun is closer to the horizon line. I will rarely miss an opportunity to make the golden hour sky my focal point when there is added cloud interest, unless there is something truly extraordinary in my foreground.

Clouds can also extend the golden hours before sunrise or after sunset depending on their elevation. Just like many environmental elements, clouds reflect light - which explains why the colors and textures of clouds explode during this time. While the sun may still be hidden behind your horizon, the clouds above are within the sun’s view, making for an ethereal show of color and tones.

If, however, the sky is flat and uninteresting, I will often choose to include the sun in the upper left or right corner of my frame and search for a prominent foreground subject to help even out the “weight” of an image - which I will discuss in more explicit detail in a later section.

directing the flow If I choose the sky to be my main focal point, I

focal point will be barely noticeable, and perhaps

will look for a foreground subject that will not

only once the entire image has been looked over.

only compliment it, but help to balance my composition. The weight of my focal points in

Usually, I want to create a balanced image where

relation to the sky is very important to me, and is

the sky and ground have a reasonably equal

something I take into great consideration when

amount of weight. Depending on the heaviness

composing my frame. By “weight”, I am referring

of my sky, the foreground subject I choose can

to the power and balance a specific focal point

vary greatly. A highly-detailed, intricate sky will

has over the entire image. A photo that has a

draw much attention, so a strong and noticeable

heavy focal point will draw much attention away

foreground focal point will be required to make

from the rest of the composition, while a light

a complete and well-balanced image.


Redistributing the weight of your focal points is another way of altering the flow of your image: how your eyes move across the composition, and what points cause them to pause and focus. When composing for the sky, it’s important to not let it “float” by adding “anchors” - points of reference that give it perspective and depth (like the boats and islands in this image). A photo of a skyline can be mesmerizing, but without an anchor point to ground the image, it can appear to float and become lost. By framing your scene with added interest and reference points, you can present a more powerful impact.

Foreground anchor points not only ground your scene with added interest, but they can also help to balance out a dramatic sunset or sunrise. This golden hour sky exploded with textured, swirling clouds over the bay. I wanted to include the tree line on the left of my frame, but knew that was not enough interest to anchor my sky. For added depth and interest, I composed the setting sun with this sizable shoreline rock. Notice how it redistributes some of the weight (or attention) away from the sun and onto the lower third. Without it, the photo becomes unbalanced and begins to float. By checking the foreground for interesting elements, you can incorporate strong focal points that enhance your entire image.

If I lack a strong, singular focal point to balance out a dramatic sky, then I will often switch the “rule of thirds” and place the horizon line in the upper third of my image to include more ground in my composition. The lack of a heavy anchor point in my foreground is now balanced by reducing the area of the heavier sky.

finding balance There are many creative paths you can take in order to balance out the weight of your image – for example, changing focal lengths, adjusting your aperture, or altering the size of your frame. I’ll go over several in-the-field techniques I use to compensate for an unbalanced frame in later sections, but for now I’d like you to take a moment and study the golden hour photos that you consider exceptional. Identify the focal points, and analyze how they work in harmony to create a visually-pleasing scene. Your ability to be flexible and adapt to the landscape will not only push your creative boundaries, but will make photography more enjoyable by providing you with the means to get the results you are striving for. The light of your environment changes constantly during the golden hours. Knowing how to accommodate for these changing conditions will give you the creative freedom to pursue any landscape.


controlling light

the golden challenge So now that you have an idea of how the light interacts with your landscape, it’s time to learn how to render it with your camera. The golden hours set the stage for you to capture an ethereal view of the world, and is a time of day that is highly coveted by landscape photographers. At the same time, this light presents a unique set of challenges that can be difficult to overcome if you don’t know the proper workflow to use. The natural light differs as the sun moves throughout the sky, so it makes sense that we need to change our camera workflow to accommodate for this movement.


In the simplest terms, your camera is a tool made for capturing light, with many features you can utilize to adapt for different environments. If this concept is new to you or if you need a refresher course on how a photo is made, you may find my Photography 101 articles beneficial. Varying qualities of light (direct, overcast, filtered, etcetera) require different methods to capture it, and the golden hours certainly have their own parameters to work inside of. However, the unique challenges this time presents are well worth the added effort as this light yields highly rewarding results.

The directional light of the sun during the golden hours can add much depth and texture to your scene, making for a visually stunning composition. This amplification of detail comes from an increase of shadows and highlights across the landscape. Any


object can be transformed into a textured focal point, drawing much interest and attention to an otherwise unnoticeable subject. When you view a golden hour image in black and white, you can see the vast differences between light and shadow, and these differences contribute to the added texture and interest you see when the sun is


at such an extreme angle.


While the light of the golden hour can transform a landscape with shadows and highlights, there is also a noticeable effect on the sky. The presence of the sun close to the horizon creates varying degrees of tones and colors, which can drastically change the skyline within minutes. Atmospheric elements during the golden hours such as clouds, fog, and mist undergo their own unique transformations and will add much interest to your composition.

proper exposure All these variations of light and tones make it

The two images on the next page are probably

challenging for your camera to capture them

familiar scenes to you when trying to capture a

under one exposure without some noticeable

sunrise or sunset. The sky is naturally brighter

side effects, which mainly come in the form of

than the ground, especially as the sun nears the

crushed shadows and blown highlights. If any of

horizon and your foreground becomes backlit.

this information is unclear to you, I encourage

Since your camera can only take one exposure

you to read through my Photography 101 articles

at a time, and you’re photographing a scene that

which explain what exactly causes of over/

has several different optimal exposures within the

underexposed areas, why it’s detrimental to your

same frame, you’ll end up with parts of your image

image quality, and how to rectify it.

that are overexposed and/or underexposed.


In this frame (left), my shutter

1/13 second

1/250 second

24mm f/1.4L @ f/1.4

24MM f/1.4L @ f/1.4

was open too long for the sky, despite the ground level being exposed properly. By choosing a shutter speed to capture my foreground, I lost nearly all of the fantastic sunset detail. Unfortunately, too much of the sky is overexposed, which means it can only be recovered by adjusting my exposure.

When I reverse this process and adjust my exposure for the sky (right), the ground becomes underexposed and loses all of the interest and color that the opposite image captured. The underexposed details here, much like the overexposed areas of the left frame, are not rendered on the camera’s sensor and therefore can not be recovered fully.

Typically, your camera’s meter will try and compensate for this disparity and “even out” the difference of exposures between sky and ground. This usually results in a distracting combination of the two, with your sky washed out, your ground too dark, and much detail lost in the process. To the right, you’ll see that the top image is exposed for shadows, and the bottom image is exposed for highlights. The camera’s attempt of a compromise between these two exposures is the middle image, which has both blown highlights and crushed shadows. So what you see with your eyes is often quite different than what your camera is able to capture, and this disparity is the source of much frustration to photographers.

sky of 1/250 second

blending exposures This disparity in exposures is why many golden hour scenes are not rendered the way they appear in person, and photographers often notice this lackluster representation of what should be a stunning image. Since the camera can not accommodate for these differences within the same frame (that is, expose part of your image for the highlights and another part for the shadows) we need to blend the best

middle ground of 1/60 second

parts of each exposure into one frame to have a full tonal range without any unexposed details. This will ensure that your entire image is a true representation of the golden hours, and that any

ground of 1/13 second

lost detail from improper exposure has been recovered fully.

gnd filters

To overcome this, you can pursue two unique methods, each with their own advantages and workflow. The first method I’d like to discuss involves manipulating how the light enters the camera and is exposed onto your digital sensor. This will help you overcome the exposure challenges that sunrises and sunsets give, and will close the gap between shadows and highlights for a well-exposed photograph. GND (graduated neutral density) filters act as a literal pair of sunglasses, tinting a certain part of your lens. Part of the filter has an ND (neutral density) effect which will reduce your exposure by a certain amount of stops. In other words, it limits the amount of light that hits your sensor. The rest of the filter is transparent (this is where the “graduated” part comes in), meaning that it will not reduce the amount of light.

For the golden hours, a GND filter is a common tool to use as you’ll typically come across a great need to reduce the light for the top portion of your frame in order to eliminate blown highlights. In the field, you would meter to expose the ground correctly and allow the GND filter to scale back the exposure for the sky. In this image, you can see the benefits of using a GND filter. The inset shows how the photo appeared without any filters, which resembles many unsuccessful attempts at capturing the golden hours without compensating for the varied exposure needs. After adding GND filters (along with a warming polarizer), the photographer was able to capture the stunning light of the skyline without throwing the foreground into darkness. Most importantly, he was able to photograph this scene without the loss of important highlights and shadows.

exposure blending Those are GNDs, but what is exposure blending? It’s an alternative digital darkroom process I use often, which is why I included the additional eBook on exposure blending. It covers many aspects of the blending process, from in-camera techniques to beginner and advanced digital blending workflows. I also discuss the importance of knowing where and why you should apply this technique. In essence, you use the same principles of a GND filter, but instead take several different exposures (shutter speeds) of the same frame. Then you transfer those images into Adobe® Photoshop® and use layers and masks to digitally blend the ideal exposures of each image together into one photograph. Although I use Photoshop, any post processing program with layer functionality will work. It’s the digital version of using a GND, and has helped me capture the golden hours with much success.


GNDs and exposure blending are two very different approaches to the same goal: to expand your tonal range and reduce the occurrence of blown highlights and crushed shadows. In other words, to recover any lost data due to improper exposure. There are great benefits to each method, and I’ll discuss them so that you make an informed decision as to which process works best for your photography workflow.

benefits of gnd filters When you read through the Exposure Blending

and waves moving through your scene can all

eBook, you’ll learn that you’re using three different

cause ghosting as you blend your images together

exposures of the same scene and blending them

since these elements were not stationary between

together to create one image. A drawback to

frames. Your layers will be of different transparency

this is what we in the

(you’ll learn about this



in Exposure Blending),

call “ghosting”, which

so these differences

is caused by objects

will register as being

that move within your


frame between shots.


Events like people




photograph, as seen

blowing in the wind,

in this example image.



negative to


When using a GND filter, you’ll typically only take one frame and one exposure rather than blending several exposures into a final image, so ghosting is not an issue. To overcome ghosting, you’ll need to be comfortable with removing these specific areas in the digital darkroom. At times, this can be a tedious task if you are not familiar with exposure blending, and could lead to some frustration if you’re working with a scene with multiple ghosting areas. Also, using a GND filter is much easier when working with long exposures. If you plan on extending your shutter speed for several minutes to create a dramatic effect on moving subjects, such as flowing water or clouds in motion, it may become quite time-consuming to take multiple exposures for digital blending. With a GND filter, you’re working with only a single exposure rather than three (or more).


benefits of exposure blending So those are the pros of GND filters, but what up through your horizon line and into the sky). advantages can be said of exposure blending?

With exposure blending, you can apply layer

When you blend exposures, most of your masks and draw exactly where you want your workflow is in the digital darkroom – which means exposure to change. You have the ability move less work in the field, no additional gear to carry between tree branches, around rocks, and trace around and set up, and also no additional cost

along structures that breach your horizon line with

of filters.

ease for a less distracting blend of exposures.

Exposure blending is a more accurate way to correct exposures than using GNDs. Even if you’re selecting the right transition strength for your scene - soft (pictured left) vs. hard (pictured right), there’s usually some elements along your line of transition that will appear darkened and unnatural (think of trees or a lighthouse sticking

combining workflows

sky of 1/60 second with gnd filter

Using a GND filter does not always exclude you from having to blend exposures in process if your goal is a full tonal range and to reclaim any lost detail. A GND filter reduces the exposure by a fixed amount of stops, and the unique lighting of each scene won’t conform to that perfectly. You’ll sometimes find that you are over or underexposing your sky outside of your filter’s range, which means you’ll still need to bracket your frame and combine several exposures later in process. Let’s say that my GND filter reduces the sky exposure by two full stops. However, this particular seascape has a four stop difference between sky and ground. In order to capture the full tonal range, I would bracket this scene with my GND filter, combining my base exposure with another taken at -2 EV. This will close that gap between what the GND filter can capture and what the scene actually is.

ground of 1/13 second

This is especially true for sunsets and sunrises. When the sun is in your composition, the sky itself can have varying exposure needs that a GND can’t correct on its own. While the sky overall can be exposed perfectly with your chosen GND, the area around the sun can still be blown out and lose much detail around its circumference – especially cloud texture. This is easily corrected by capturing an exposure metered just for the sun area, which you can then blend with a longer exposure for the rest of the sky. The ability to pinpoint exactly where you want to blend exposures is an incredible benefit for complicated scenes.

sun area one stop less than rest of sky

That is what I did for my sunset image here. I used two different exposures for the sky alone – one for the entire sky, and another exposure taken with a faster shutter speed for the sun area. By doing this, I was able to reclaim much cloud detail around the sun without underexposing the rest of my sky. If I was just using GND filters, this kind of accuracy would not be possible. Even those who use GND filters exclusively can benefit greatly by also blending exposures for dynamic tonal needs.

which workflow is best? While the workflows of GND filters and exposure blending are certainly different, there is one important factor that still needs to be considered before deciding which path to choose: what is the difference in quality, and which method will produce the “better” image? The answer is: there is no difference. If both methods are executed correctly, there will be no difference in image quality between a photo taken with a GND filter and one put together in Photoshop by exposure blending. You’re achieving the same exact result (combining different exposures within the same frame), just choosing a different path to get there. So the key to a high-quality image is not the method you use, but the method you can execute better. The technique that will give you the “better” image is the one that has a workflow to which you’re most comfortable with. If you enjoy working in the digital darkroom and processing images, you’ll be able to blend exposures with great ease by bracketing and combining exposures. However, if layers and masks are a foreign subject to you or you would rather spend the least amount of time in the darkroom as possible, than GND filters would better compliment your style.


If you do decide to go with GND filters, landscape photographers Darwin Wiggett and Samantha Chrysanthou have written a fantastic guide to the most important filters for landscape photographers, including GNDs. In Essential and Advanced Filters, they address the importance of filters, how to use them in the field, and also explain how some filters are not required anymore, saving you a costly purchase. I’ve read through this guide several times and have found it to be an essential, well-written eBook for those who are newly introduced to filters. Click here to read more and to view sample pages.

how i combine exposures I typically do not use GND filters; most of my golden hour work is achieved through exposure blending. That’s not to say my method is better than using filters, but rather that I enjoy working in the digital darkroom and appreciate the versatility of using masks to selectively decide where I want to adjust my exposure. Although I have to occasionally deal with ghosting, I’ve learned how to work around that through (sometimes tedious) editing. I enjoy that part of photography, but others may not, which is why the path you choose should be based on your personal workflow preference. There are obvious pros and cons to each method. Don’t choose the one that works best according to others, but rather the one that works best for you. When you’re comfortable with your workflow, you’ll find photography to be much more enjoyable, and that enjoyment will be evident in your work.


the focus workflow

the tripod While you can certainly capture a landscape

properly on your scene by providing the

handheld (if you have enough light), I find

needed stabilization, especially when working

myself almost always using a tripod. When the

with thin slices of focus. Even the most minor

camera is stationary, it makes for a much easier

movement can alter your depth of field, so a

process to pinpoint your focus and adjust it

firm hold on your camera is a great benefit

manually as needed. It also eliminates any

when adjusting your settings. Since you’re

concern with soft focus from camera shake,

usually working with stationary objects in the

allowing you to concentrate more on your

landscape, there is little concern about being

composition (click here to learn more about

able to move freely without the restraint of

camera shake and shutter speed).

a tripod. There are, of course, exceptions to this - but typically, you’ll find the tripod to be

Using a tripod allows you to focus more

essential when shooting the golden hours.


1. A tripod gives you a more secure way to line up your shot.

I’ve learned that you can never trust handheld compositions fully. When I’m shooting in awkward positions (especially down low or laying flat out) what I see in my viewfinder isn’t always what appears on my computer later. Using a tripod gives you stability, which helps you slow down and check those important compositional elements, such as using the rule of thirds or straightening out your horizon. Also, a tripod allows you to check your histogram and adjust your settings without changing your alignment.

2. A tripod helps you to pinpoint your focus.

Slight movements from a freehand grip can lead to focusing problems, especially if you’re working with a shallow depth of field. Any kind of vibration or movement can throw off your focus and alter your depth. A tripod helps treme


by giving you the opportunity to check and re-check your focus (I’m a big advocate of chimping or using live view to confirm proper focus). If your focus isn’t where you want it to be, you can adjust it manually (explained later), which is much easier to do if your camera is mounted on a tripod.

3. A tripod helps with proper image alignment for processing.

You’ll appreciate the added stability of a tripod if you’re auto-bracketing for HDR or exposure blending, or shooting a panoramic. When you photograph an image handheld, even the slightest movement can cause minor discrepancies between each frame, which makes it very difficult to align images in process later for blending or stitching a golden hour scene.


For this image, a tripod was necessary for several reasons. The awkward angle of my camera (pointed almost directly vertical and low to the ground) required a firm mount in order for me to compose and set my focus. Additionally, the autumn wind was very intense and I wanted to execute a long exposure to capture the moving leaves and tree branches. Since I was working very point of focus 3 inches away

wide (f/1.4) I had to use not one, but two ND400 filters, which gave me an image that was 18 full stops slower than the unfiltered exposure, which left my shutter open for 40 seconds. With this in mind, a tripod was absolutely necessary.

proper focus

In order to ensure that you get a proper exposure and uniform depth of field with your image set, I have a few focusing tips for you to follow before you press the shutter.

Most (if not all) digital SLRs

pick one focus point instead

have several auto focus

of allowing your camera to

points that you see through

randomly select them for

your viewfinder. The camera

you (your camera manual will

will automatically use these

show you how this is done).

points as a reference to

This gives you much more

decide where the main

control over where your point

point of focus should be,

of focus will be. You can then

meaning the sharpest point

easily aim the camera at your

of your image. While this is a helpful invention,

subject, do a prefocus, and reposition the

you’re basically playing a guessing game

camera accordingly to get the composition

with your point of focus, which is something

you want. I use the center focus point only for

you should avoid - especially when shooting

my camera as it is not only convenient, but it’s

shallow depths. The easiest solution here is to

also the most accurate point to select.


Once you find a strong composition (and with the correct focus), switch to manual focusing just after you prefocus so that your lens doesn’t automatically refocus when taking multiple shots. This is less important if you’re using a deep depth of field, but still should be practiced since even the smallest discrepancy can throw off your entire focus, leading to less-than optimal image quality.

If you follow these important focusing steps, you’ll ensure that your slice of focus will be pinpoint accurate, and always where you want it to be - and just as important, that it won’t change when taking multiple exposures.

creativity with aperture

sunstars The opportunity to express your creativity during the golden hours is endless, and changing your aperture is one of many ways to enhance and transform your environment. When shooting into the sun or other light sources, you may notice that some of your images have a “sunstar” effect where visible rays of light stretch across your frame. This creates a very strong focal point, and adds an entirely new dimension of interest to your image.

To condense a technical explanation: a smaller aperture (higher f/stop) will exaggerate the rays of light you see when compared to a wider aperture. When your aperture becomes small, light diffracts as it enters through the lens - and when the sun (or any bright light source) is rendered onto your sensor, beautiful, elongated rays stem from the center and create a stunning focal point (top). When you shoot wide open, your aperture blades spread out and create a rounder opening, giving you a softer light source (bottom). I usually set my aperture at f/16, which provides a nice balance between a deep depth of field without any noticeable deterioration in image quality from lens diffraction.

Also, the quality of your light plays a huge role in determining the strength of your sunstar. If your light is filtered through clouds, fog, or other atmospheric elements, your sunstar will become noticeably less powerful and defined despite what aperture you use (for this image, it was f/14).

shallow depths Small apertures aren’t the only way to transform your golden hour environment. Shallow depths of field offer their own unique interpretation of this light by helping you to direct the focus of your image by throwing elements into obscurity that you don’t want to be prominent. This allows you to create an abstract, ethereal environment to an otherwise recognizable subject.

“Bokeh”, or the aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas in your image, is a strong pursuit of mine, and I will often apply this technique during the golden hours. The light at this time provides a beautiful canvas for bokeh as the intense amount of highlights available combined with the dramatic angle of the sun both contribute to a mosaic of shapes and colors, which is not typically found during overcast or direct, overhead lighting. Since a golden hour image usually includes the sun within your frame, I highly recommend using a strong ND filter to reduce the amount of light that enters your camera. By using a wide aperture, you’re increasing the amount of light your sensor absorbs, which causes your shutter speed to increase. At times, the speed needed will exceed what your camera is capable of, which means you have to reduce the amount of light hitting your sensor by using an ND filter. This will ensure that even with a wide aperture, your shutter can move fast enough to reduce any blown highlights.

Here you can see the dramatic difference your aperture can make. Both of these golden hour images were taken of the same tree and with the same lens (24mm f/1.4) within minutes of each other. The top image was set at f/16 for a deep depth of field as I wanted to photograph the entire scene in sharp focus. As I was walking away, I decided to indulge in some bokeh. The golden light is a time I do not let slip by, and the stage was set to take advantage of the beautiful f/1.4 ability of my lens. I focused on a small group of maple leaves on the right side of this tree and composed the shadowed coastline in my frame to balance out the weight of my focal point. Two images of the same subject, and both were taken at the same time. A simple change of aperture can completely transform your surroundings and widen your creative possibilities.

focal points When creating bokeh, there are two distinct ways I select a focal point, each with their own unique quality and effect. By directing the focus onto the foreground, you will lighten the weight of the sun and sky and create a painterly backdrop that will allow the viewer to absorb your focal point without being drawn to the heightened interest of your golden hour sky.

point of focus

Alternatively, by moving your slice of focus to the background and allowing the foreground to become softened (as seen in the image here), you create depth and mystery by adding a layer of obscurity. If this image had a uniform, deep depth of field, the flow would be interrupted by an overload of sharp focal points, and leave the audience searching for a place to rest their eyes on.

point of focus

There is much more to creating bokeh than simply using a wide aperture - light, distances, and focal length all contribute to obtaining a shallow depth of field. In my eBook Bokeh, I detail the specific conditions needed in order to control your depth of field and create that dreamy environment that is only exemplified by the golden hour light. Click here to read more about what this eBook covers and to see page previews. If you already know how to control your depth of field, then consider using a thin slice of focus during the golden hour light. Your results might be a pleasant surprise.

alternate perspectives

There are many other opportunities to photograph the golden hours without the sun (or even the sky) in your composition. A common misconception about this time is that it’s limited to sunrises and sunsets, as that is what most people associate the golden hours to: a stunning show of color and light in the sky. While the sun is the source of the golden hours, it is not a necessary part of your composition. This golden light illuminates the entire landscape, and has the power to transform any subject you choose.


low vantage point A technique that I use often to feature the texturizing ability of the golden hour is to get low with my perspective. You can find much success in complimenting the sharp angle of the sun by positioning your camera close to the ground as opposed to standing height. Not only are you capturing the high-contrast tonal range and texture of the golden hours, but this vantage point allows you to create depth in your image by framing the immediate foreground elements as it leads to your focal point, and finally to the distant elements in the background. If I composed my example image here at a more overhead angle, I would have lost much of this depth from front to back.

front lighting If you turn your back to the sun, you’ll often find beautiful front-lit compositions that would otherwise go





overhead light. Texture is added, colors are warmed, and highlights illuminate




exaggerating the shadows - all of these qualities come together to create depth and intrigue, and with a fantastic tonal range that is lost with other qualities of light.

In this image of a sandpiper, you can see the immediate foreground water with the crashing waves in the background. In addition to the dramatic light of the golden hours, I added much depth from my low vantage point that would have been lost if I captured this while standing upright. When combined with some fantastic front lighting, the entire image is enhanced with golden color and detailed texture.

focal lengths Longer focal lengths will decrease your depth of field, but also bring forth the background/foreground elements. In other words,

you’re essentially

compacting the distances, making objects around your focal point appear to be much closer to them than they really are. Alternatively, wide focal lengths (right) will exaggerate those distances, making objects appear to be much further away.

Here is an example of how different your compositions can be by simply changing your focal length. The image here and on the next page were taken on the same evening, within minutes of each other. The scene on the left was captured with the Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens set at f/11, with the focus locked on the foreground wheat. Since I was focusing so closely, I was able to obtain a shallow depth of field with a relatively small aperture, throwing the lighthouse and sunset sky into some degree of obscurity.

Alternatively, this vista below had a much different approach. The encroaching thunderstorm made for quite a sunset display, so the wider focal length of my Canon 24mm f/1.4L lens was needed to capture the entire scene. Using a deep depth of field at f/16, the foreground to background is in sharp focus. The distances between the foreground, lighthouse, and background have been exaggerated, making the environment seem much deeper than it was in reality.

beyond the sun Any







your be









apertures, focal lengths,

from grand vistas to


small pieces of foliage.

The opportunities are

The golden hours limit

endless, and are only

your photography to a

limited by the creative

certain window of time,


but it does not limit your

define for yourself. Look





subjects or compositions. In fact, the golden

around your environment and fully embrace this

hours are quite liberating, transforming mundane

light; try new techniques and subjects, and don’t

subjects into textured focal points of light and

let the quality of your skyline determine your

shadow, or setting the stage to create intricate

workflow. If the sun is uninteresting to you, explore

bokeh. This is a time to try many photographic

the other parts of your environment. You may be

techniques (long exposures, macro, panoramics)

pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Here is an example of this philosophy in the field. The light was disappearing after photographing a sunset, and I was preparing to depart my location. Although I was parked deep in the woods with no skyline in sight, I noticed that the tall trees basked in the golden hour light were reflected in this small puddle - a scene that may go unnoticed if your focus is solely on sunrises and sunsets.

perspectives Even with the same lens, you can drastically alter the composition and content of your environment simply by changing your perspective. The golden hours provide you with ample opportunity as it turns your scene into a field of texture and interest, as you’ll see in the next two images. The image to the left was taken under sunset light filtered by a thin layer of clouds, side-lit as it descended towards the horizon. I used my Canon 24mm f/1.4 lens with the aperture set wide open to capture this unique shoreline rock.

This photo was taken the same evening and with the same lens as the previous scene. Instead of focusing on the rock and making that my main focal point, I turned towards the setting sun and set my aperture to f/16. By simply changing my perspective (moving away from the rock and widening my frame to include more of my environment) I was able to create two entirely independent images from the same location and conditions without ever changing my lens or gear.

blue hours The blue hours are quite different from the golden hours, despite that only minutes separate these two times. When the sun is below the horizon line (just before sunrise or after sunset) the intense, direct sunlight disappears, which drastically changes the lighting across your landscape. Instead of powerful highlights and shadows, you now have soft, overcast light which creates an entirely different atmosphere.

The blue hours are more accurately referred to as the twilight hours (specifically, civil twilight) when the sun is 0 to 6 degrees under the horizon. There is still enough light to brighten your surroundings, and the sky retains those deep blues and vibrant oranges. As the sun gets closer to 0 degrees and prepares to breach the horizon, the color begins to shift towards the warmer hues of red and yellow (at sunset, the inverse would occur). If you would like to read more about the different types of twilight, The Photographer’s Ephemeris wrote this incredibly helpful post. Since you’re working with a limited amount of light (much less than what is available when the sun is above the horizon line) motion blur and other low-light camera concerns come into play, especially when trying to capture a deep depth of field. You should be prepared to use a typical long exposure workflow during this time to ensure that camera shake does not affect your image quality.

the portfolio

You already have the creative knowledge to

It is my hope that by explaining how I

make beautiful images, but you may just not

photographed each of my images, you can

know how to tap into that yet. Or perhaps you

expand your knowledge of golden hour

do, but find it challenging to decide on which

methods and apply them in the field to create

direction you want to take your image in.

your own successful photographs.

In this section, my goal is to help bridge the

When you’re equipped to handle a situation,

gap between your vision and your creation

you feel empowered and excited about

by explaining how I approached each of my

photography, which is the most important

golden hour images in their own unique way -

part. Landscape photography is, in part, about

and more importantly, why. By reading about

creating for your own enjoyment, and if you

my camera workflow, you can learn how to

can approach a scene objectively and not feel

critically analyze a scene and decide on the

blocked, your creativity will flow and flourish.

best method for you to use.


The images of this monographic collection are grouped by similar key learning points: a common trait that they exhibit, allowing me to highlight certain factors that led to their development so that you can identify them in your own work. In addition to a detailed description for each image, you’ll find some helpful EXIF data: the focal length, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and metering mode used. On the second line, I also indicate if any additional workflows were applied: “Tripod” indicates that a tripod was used, “Exposure Blend” means that I applied my exposure blending workflow (detailed in the Exposure Blending eBook) to regain a more complete tonal range, and finally “Stitch” refers to combining several frames together in order to get a broader scope of my scene. Lenses used are highlighted in red, and are clickable links which lead to a more detailed page about that specific lens, including customer reviews and technical specifications.


table of contents 94

shallow depths


blue hours

116 weight and balance 127


139 side & front lighting 149

sky texture



166 low perspectives

shallow depths The golden hours are a time for dramatic shows of light and shadow - an ideal subject for deep depths of field, translating every bit of detail that one can find. However, my connection to bokeh and thin slices of focus will often influence my work during this light. The intense tonal range of the golden hours can create a mosaic of colors and shapes in a painterly fashion, cultivating an ethereal interpretation.

bailey island v

Canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/1.4, 1/4000s, iso 100, aperture

For this image, I knew I wanted to achieve an extremely thin slice of focus to isolate one dandelion among a dreamy, blurred environment. In order to achieve this level of soft bokeh, I needed to do more than simply shoot wide open. I also had to get extremely close to my focal point - within a few inches. My Canon 24mm f/1.4L allows me to do that as it combines the vast view of a wide angle with the ability to use f/1.4. For this scene, it’s the perfect combination to get an extremely thin slice of focus.

The position of the dandelion was a strong consideration as well. I chose to place one flower in the lower right corner for two important reasons - to balance the image, and to create a flow. The dandelion is turned slightly towards the left (into the sunlight), so a left placement would interrupt the flow. Exploring alternate vantage points interests me greatly - specifically, how differently a scene can look by simply changing the perspective. By getting down low and shooting towards the treeline, I was able to decrease my depth of field to be extremely thin. Also, this perspective added much depth by including the treeline, sky, and field of dandelions in the background. This unique vantage was only achievable by laying flat on the ground, which is always an interesting angle to consider when photographing a landscape.

autumn morning

For this autumn vista, I knew that the sun filtering through the leaves would create some welldefined bokeh. I approached the scene with a shallow depth in mind, and wanted to frame my image with this rocking chair facing towards the rising sun. I tried different focal lengths with my other prime lenses, but again the 24mm provided me with the distances I desired. The sky and trees were just far enough away to not overpower the Canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/1.4, 1/8000s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

rocking chair, but weren’t too distant so that they faded into a sea of blur.


Sometimes, even the most profound image is about what is implied rather than being shown explicitly. Wide apertures allow me to apply this method and obscure parts of my scene in order to direct the focus onto others, instilling a sense of depth and mystery to an otherwise identifiable landscape. As I often find, the distance between the camera and my point of focus (the rocking chair) was quite close. In order to create this shallow depth of field and retain this balance, I could not move further back to widen my frame. Instead, I stitched multiple frames together in order to keep the balance, depth of field, and perspective I wanted to convey.

doubling point light II

While it’s easy to assume that bokeh is a direct effect of wide apertures, that is not always the case. Bokeh is also dependent on distances - particularly, the amount of distance between your camera and your point of focus, and also the distance between your point of focus and the background. Depending on these distances, you may find yourself using an unconventional aperture for the type of bokeh you want to create. canon 85mm f/1.8 @ f/11, 1/200s, iso 100, manual exposure blend + tripod


For example, this image was taken at f/11, which is an aperture that would typically produce a very sharp image with a deep depth of field. For this scene however, the results were quite shallow, and any wider would have rendered the lighthouse as an unrecognizable subject. I set up my tripod as close as I could to the swaying grass as my Canon 85mm f/1.8 prime lens would allow. The more you compact the distance between your lens and your point of focus, the more shallow your depth of field will become for a given aperture. I gradually increased my f/stop from 1.8 until the lighthouse was brought into enough focus so that you could still identify it. Surprisingly, that aperture was f/11. So although your aperture has much control over your depth of field, it is still limited by your environment - specifically, the distances between each element. The relationship between your distances and your depth of field can be quite profound.

One of the many qualities that I enjoy when using a shallow depth of field is how it affects the sun. It will soften the rays for a very dreamy effect, one that blends the defined, contrasting edge of the sun into the sky. This will lighten the heavy weight the sun has on your image, and allows more attention to be shifted onto other elements so that they become a more powerful focal point.

I set out early one spring morning to Jesup Trail in Acadia

jesup trail

National Park searching for signs of spring. The morning air was clear and crisp, and trees were just beginning to bud. It’s difficult to find small focal points like this during the summer. A few weeks later these leaves were in full bloom, which would have taken away from the delicate nature of this image. I love using strong lines with bokeh, especially when light is reflected off of them. Paths, buildings, and other subjects with well-defined outlines work exceptionally well when you obscure their appearance with a thin plane of focus. By lightening the weight of this boardwalk, I was able to direct more attention onto the tree buds which would have otherwise been lost in the busy background if this were shot with a deeper depth of field. canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/1.4, 1/1600s, iso 100, aperture stitch

Although I advocate strongly for tripods when working with shallow depths, it’s not always the most practical decision. I could not get this perspective with my tripod due to the boardwalk I was on, so I decided to go handheld. It wasn’t my shutter speed that had

photograph the environment frame by frame,

me concerned, it was that I knew I would be

making sure not to lift my finger all the way off

stitching this shot later in editing. This photo

my shutter button which would call for a new

is actually about 15 frames stitched into one.

metering. If that had happened, the camera

When you’re working with such a thin slice of

may have chosen a different shutter speed for

focus, even the slightest forward or backward

each frame. This would give me inconsistences

movement can redefine your point of focus.

in my exposure, and complicate my stitching

If the focus isn’t uniform across all images, it

with distracting changes in tones. Of course,

makes for extremely difficult stitching.

I could have just switched into manual mode, but I was racing the golden light and welcomed

After I did a prefocus on the budding leaf, I

the opportunity to skip the input process of

switched into manual focus and began to

manual without sacrificing image quality.

blue hill When photographing a landscape with a shallow depth of field, selecting your focal point can be a powerful way to adjust the balance, flow, and overall impact of your image. By adjusting your slice of focus and purposefully obscuring elements, you can create an entirely unique image within the same composition. For this scene, I selected a background focal point in order to soften the wildflowers in the foreground. If I had pushed my focus to the foreground instead, I would have lost all the canon 85mm f/1.8 @ f/1.8, 1/60s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

detail of the setting sky and texture of the cabin.


Another reason why I wanted to keep the cabin and sky in focus is that they create strong counterpoints: focal points within an image located on opposite sides of the frame. This encourages the viewer to look at all aspects of your frame and draws attention from the eyes as opposed to resting in just one place. Although most of my golden hour photography is done with my 24mm lens, I found that focal length to be too wide for the image I wanted to create. It pushed the background elements (the cloud interest and the cabin) too far into the distance, and made them less powerful focal points. By using my 85mm, I was able to compact the distances between the foreground lupines and the cabin, making them appear closer to each other than they were in person. Selecting your focal length is more than just a way to widen or narrow your frame. It also allows you to bring forth important elements that you want prominent in your image, or push them back if you want to lighten their weight.

blue hours The soft light just before sunrise or just after sunset can completely alter your landscape, and is quite different from the direct light of the golden hours. Civil twilight is a time of intense transformation where warm and cool color temperatures slowly melt into one another. The sun is just on the cusp of breaching the horizon, but without the sun in direct view the light cast is soft and saturated. This means no deep shadows or distracting highlights that need to be recovered.

five island sunrise

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/14, 1/125s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

When I arrived at Five Islands, I had intended to strictly capture the blue and purple hues of civil twilight, but I decided to wait until the sun was just below the horizon line. As I was setting up my camera and tripod, I noticed the orange color begin to develop. The longer I waited for the golden hour to approach, the stronger these colors became. It’s an intense experience to see the sky transform in such a short period of time, and you’ll find that the resulting image you’re presented with can be equally as powerful.

The curvature of the coastline here was something that always inspired me, and to see the hundreds of sharp, imposing rocks now covered in a smooth blanket of snow was a rare sight. While my main intent was to capture the rising sun before it broke open in the sky, I also wanted to showcase the snow-covered coast and the delicate curve it created. I positioned myself with a panoramic in mind as I wanted to photograph as much of the skyline as possible. To create balance, I found a vantage point where the curve of the coastline created a “U” shape, with one side rising up to mirror the other. This created a natural frame for the bottom of my image and also helped to balance the drama and light of the sunrise sky.

Although this scene is exposure blended (one exposure for the foreground snow, one for the water, and another for the sky), I wanted to retain a natural-looking balance to the light. In my slowest exposure, I had recovered the shadows of the islands and boats. However, I felt that if I added this detail back to the image, it would detract from the balance of light and create an unnatural appearance. Finding balance in your exposure blending can be a challenge, but you’ll find a steadiness in your workflow that allows you to use this method to enhance and recover the image your eyes saw rather than create an artificial one. With this in mind, I felt it best to retain the silhouette effect as that is how the tonal range appeared in person.

bar harbor sunrise For this scene, I wanted to let the foreground detail lead the image. Since this was taken at low tide, the hidden beauty of the sea bed was visible with much texture and color being revealed. With this in mind, I composed my image so that the line of rocks and sand led to the horizon - more specifically, to the small island that interrupted the otherwise flat skyline. This very small window of time, just moments before the sun rises, allows you to photograph both the blue hours and the golden hours as they transform into one another. The golden light along the horizon combined with the surreal hues of blue and purple canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 2.5s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

make for an otherworldly environment to capture.

Maine is abundant with rocky coastline detail and texture. This not only provides ample opportunity to frame your image with strong interest, but also helps to stabilize your tripod. If you’ve ever photographed on a beach, you know that sand (especially wet sand) will move with any small shift in your weight. For my image here, I stood on top of two rocks so that my tripod would be unaffected by my feet in the wet sand. Since this image was stitched as well as exposure blended, it was imperative that my tripod was stationary throughout the entire process. While I usually enjoy much cloud interest in my sky, the almost translucent group of clouds in this image evokes a different response. It helps to create the environment of a serene, quiet morning - the water is still, the lighting is soft, and the sky is a smooth transition of tones and color. If this was a dramatic sunrise with layers of clouds and texture, it would detract from the calm and quiet mood the rest of this image represents.

autumn sunset

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/11, 1/60s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

The blue hours (civil twilight) is a time that I love to be outdoors. The drama of the sky still lingers and light becomes soft and overcast, leveling highlights and shadows from the direct sun. Within a few moments, this twilight transforms the atmosphere into a surreal interpretation of the golden hours – and for me, the world just seems to slow down and be a witness to this transition.

For this image, my 24mm lens was too constricting of a frame to capture the entire blue hour scene without some stitching. I’ve been stitching multiple frames together more often in my work when there is much I want to encapsulate in a photo, and not just for traditional panoramic crops. Simply widening my focal length isn’t always a viable option as that will also affect the balance and flow of my image: wider focal lengths exaggerate distances, while longer lengths compact them. To photograph this 180 degree panoramic scene without sacrificing my perspective, I combined 27 individual frames – and since this was still a large tonal range, I bracketed each frame for a total of 81 images on three stitched layers (one for each shutter speed), and then combined the exposures together using my exposure blending method.

after sunset

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 3.2s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

The need for a tripod is paramount for any landscape photographer, but almost a necessity if you want to photograph the blue hours and be able to recover any lost detail. Additionally, the low light situations that often surround this time will allow camera shake to become a factor, which can be eliminated with a stable camera mount. It’s not uncommon for an exposure to extend beyond one full second during the twilight times, so stability is needed for sharp detail and successful focus.

Finding balance in your exposure blending is a process, but with practice you’ll find a workflow that allows you to enhance and recover the scene your eyes saw rather than create an artificial, over-processed image that is sometimes the result of automated HDR software. For example, the deep shadows along this horizon line would look unnatural if they were increased in exposure, which is why I chose to keep that area underexposed.


weight & balance Redistributing weight to alter the balance of a composition is an important aspect of photography, and I find myself constantly challenged to manipulate balance in the landscape - a challenge I enjoy. It pushes my creative boundaries and encourages me to pursue out-of-the-box thinking since the environment is a subject that can not be altered physically. Instead of simply adding an element to create balance, we are invited to seek out our own harmony with what nature has given us.


One of the greatest joys of photographing Maine is how easily accessible a body of water is, whether it be the open ocean or the countless fresh and saltwater lakes, streams, inlets, and lagoons. Water has the ability to add great interest to the landscape, most notably due to its ever-changing state. Tidal fluctuations can transform the ocean into a raging sea of power, or subdue it to a glass-like stillness that can mirror your sky with a surreal interpretation. There is much power in water, and one could spend a lifetime capturing the many states it transforms into from day-to-day, and season-to-season. canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 1/80s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

“Grounding” your image is an important compositional method to practice, especially around the golden hours. It’s easy to frame your photo around the sun itself during a spectacular show of light. However, without a foreground subject to reference, your image has no depth and appears to float. While this theory is not true for every golden hour image, it’s something to consider when composing your frame as you could miss an opportunity to add depth and intrigue. For this sunset scene, I wanted to capture the intense show of light and color of the sunset sky, but lacked a strong foreground element that could help to balance out the weight. Instead of trying to search for a singular, prominent element that could draw attention away from the sky, I decided to make the entire foreground my collective anchor by applying the rule of thirds. With nothing specific in my foreground to help anchor the photo and redistribute balance, I adjusted my crop to include more ground than sky. This added interest of the reflection and helped to shift weight for a more harmonious image.

My perspective played an important part to this not able to recover as much detail as I wanted photo - more than just offering a distinct vantage to. If I had captured an additional exposure two point. Since my camera was so close to the water stops faster, I would have had more cloud detail to (only inches above it) the reflection of the tall sea exposure blend in process. grass was elongated and exaggerated. This created a powerful collection of leading lines and added The histogram is an important tool (both for learning much interest to counterbalance the detailed sky.

and for creating) and would have displayed these blown highlights if I had remembered to check.

If I had the opportunity to take this photograph Your exposure may look perfectly balanced on again, I would have adjusted my bracket to lessen your LCD screen, but your histogram will display the exposure for the sky. While I was able to recover

any part of your image that can’t be recovered. It’s

most cloud detail with the -2 stop autobracket, a fantastic guide that is especially beneficial during there is still room for improvement. Although my the golden hours when your exposure differences bracketing set was shot in RAW format, I still was can vary greatly.


the lagoon

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/11, 1/500s, iso 100, aperture exposure blend + tripod

When I composed this image, I wanted the guard tower to be a prominent focal point, one that balanced out the intense colors and tones of the setting sun and fantastic cloud texture. With this in mind, I chose a very low vantage point to make the guard tower appear tall and imposing. I chose a 24mm focal length as I knew that this would exaggerate the distance from the sun and lighten its weight a bit. These two methods redistributed the balance between the sun and the guard tower for a more uniform, level flow of interest.

With the great difference of light between the shadow side of the guard shack and the intense highlights of the sun, I autobracketed this scene to exposure blend later. While blending exposures is an innovative method to recover lost data, it can also offer you a way to redirect the focus of your image. Since you’re working with different amounts of highlights and shadows with each exposure, you can blend them creatively to bring more attention to certain parts of your composition - or alternatively, darken sections that you want to be minimized. It’s a way to dodge and burn your landscape without having to brighten or darken the pixels in your image, which can lead to a damaged photo.

For this sunset scene, I decided to create a spotlight effect onto the guard tower as I wanted to make that a prominent focal point. Rather than exposure blend to simply recover the blocked shadows, I increased the tones on the central part of the tower by blending in the +2 EV exposure with my brush tool, which created a soft vignette effect that surrounded this point. Typically, I don’t use exposure blending to add an unnatural amount of light to a scene and instead limit this workflow to recover data that was lost. However, this





benefited from my detour. This is why I never refer to my workflow as a set of “rules”, but rather a guide that can (and should) be altered to compliment each unique landscape that you encounter.

stillness of summer

The ability to layer with your camera is one of the most intriguing aspects of photography for me. Delicate adjustments in your perspective and focal length can completely change the size - or “weight” - of your layers. When using thin slices of focus, your layers become blurred and painterly, creating a mosaic of colors and tones fusing together. A shallow depth of field is one method you can use to creatively establish harmony by bringing together elements in your image that would be lost or unrecognizable if they were shown individually. canon 85mm f/1.8 @ f/1.8, 1/2500s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

The golden hour light contributed to the quality of each layer - more specifically, the texture of the immediate foreground focal point. If it wasn’t for the sharp angle of the light, the small bokeh reflections would be lost, which add a considerable amount of interest to this minimal composition. Additionally, the photo would appear much more “flat” from the lack of highlights and shadows, which are the result of the grass being side-lit by the setting sun. While I initially approached this image with my 24mm f/1.4L, I decided that the perspective was bothersome. The horizon line was thrown much further into the distance, which affected the balance and flow. Although my 85mm f/1.8 focal length brought the sky and horizon closer, this change in perspective also came with a much tighter frame, so stitching was needed in order to capture the entire scene in front of me.

after the storm

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 1/60s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

The late afternoon light of summer is a favorite of mine - one reason being the effect it has on water. It can be changed into a mosaic of colors and tones, especially when disturbed. This quiet lagoon, fed by the ocean waters, provided a tide that was gentle enough to reflect the light of the sky and with just the right amount of gentle waves to add layers of interest.

When I approached the scene, I was instantly drawn to the exploding sky and incredible cloud texture. I knew that in order to create a balanced image, I needed a strong anchor to “ground” the composition - an added focal point that pulled the viewer away from the sky, inviting them to explore the entire frame as opposed to being drawn to just one portion. The rock in the bottom right corner provided just the anchor I was searching for, one that helped to balance the intense sky drama above. I used my 24mm f/1.4L lens (which I use for most of my landscape work) but that focal length was not wide enough to capture the entire scene. With my camera mounted on my pistol-head tripod, I methodically captured each frame, working left to right, top to bottom, for stitching later in process.

stitching Stitching





workflow that is not reserved for skylines, mountaintop vistas, or 360 degree views. It disproves the notion that you are limited by your frame by offering a way to circumvent this barrier and capture as much golden light as you desire. If the size of your sensor is the only limitation standing in your way to the image you want to create, a stitching workflow can easily be applied to break through that wall and overcome the confines of your sensor.

autumn skies

When I photograph a golden hour scene for stitching later, I like to move in layers from left to right - first capturing the sky layer, then the middle ground, and again for any foreground interest. Not only is this easier for exposure blending (if necessary), but it helps to keep a uniform appearance when the sky is rapidly changing. If I was shooting vertically (working my way up and down as I move from left to right) the sky could change its appearance from when I start to when I finish, which would produce some unwanted sky ghosting when blended together. While this is less of a concern with flat, uninteresting skies, it is almost imperative when there are quickly-changing clouds, like in this image. Canon 17-40mm f/4L @ 17mm, f/11, 1/5s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

I’ve been a witness to many sunsets here in Maine but this particular show was one of the most memorable. The clouds were quickly shifting and swirling, and when the sun disappeared behind the horizon, the light transformed the sky into a textured mosaic of colors and tones. It can be difficult to capture this kind of image on Penobscot Bay as the tide constantly fluctuates, so for the water to be still enough to mirror the sky in this glass-like fashion during the golden hours is a rare occurrence. This is the result of stitching 11 frames together (3 exposures each for 33 total images on three separate layers). I then blended the three stitched exposures together, both manually and with luminosity masks as detailed in my Exposure Blending eBook, and then processed for colors and tones.

islands of eagle lake

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/14, 1/50s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

Location scouting is an important part to my photography; it’s something that I do often even if I don’t have a specific image in mind. Since the golden hours is dictated by light, you want to know where the light is going to be and at what angle it will hit the landscape. You can put yourself in the most beneficial environment to capture this light, and location scouting can give you a clear idea of where that will be.

I wanted to find a location at Eagle Lake that was hidden from the Carriage Roads, one that not many had seen. By using The Photographer’s Ephemeris to display where and when the sun would appear along the horizon, I was able to spot a small group of islands located in the lake: something I had never seen before. Without TPE, I most likely never would have found this hidden treasure of Acadia. I had intended to scout the islands to see how accessible it was as the sky did not look particularly interesting, but when I arrived I noticed a show beginning to form above me. After traversing through the woods with no trail to follow, the trees opened up to this spectacular view.

I quickly began to search for a strong focal point

point for depth and perspective, but it also helps

as the clouds began to swirl around the sun in a

to balance the group of pine trees to the right of

painterly fashion. After searching for a notable

my frame. The starkness of the silhouetted tree

focal point with no result, I decided that this

against the bright sky draws the eye away from

scene deserved to be captured in its entirety.

the burst of clouds and texture, and invites the

Instead, I chose to widen my sensor and stitch

viewer to tour other areas of the landscape.

multiple frames together, making the coastline my foreground focal point which also acted as a

This photograph became one of the largest

strong anchor to frame the bottom of my image.

stitches in my collection, with almost 150 separate

Additionally, the curvature of the coast became

images combined into one since each frame was

a leading line for the eyes to follow, encouraging

also autobracketed for exposure blending. The

the viewer to look across the entire scene.

scene before me was too majestic to limit myself to just a handful of frames. By widening the

The tall tree to the left, seemingly unimportant in

constraints of my sensor, I was able to capture

person, became one of the strongest elements

this entire waterscape without having to sacrifice

in this photo. Not only does it act as a reference

important elements.


tidal pool Stitching is an alternative to cropping out important or interesting elements in your frame. Working with a wide angle 24mm lens and setting my tripod close to the ground helped here, but I still couldn’t capture everything I wanted within one frame; the dramatic sky and the texture of the sand in the foreground was lost, even with a full-frame sensor. Lowering my perspective helped to achieve the vantage point I desired, but I still could not canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/1.4, 1/2000s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

fit all this interest into one composition.

Although it may not look as though this image was stitched, it is the collaborative result of roughly 15 different frames. After I mounted my camera, I noticed that I was not able to capture everything within one frame. If I chose a wider lens, my perspective and distances would become more exaggerated and





thought would not enhance the scene. I moved fluidly from left to right in three rows - one for the sky, one for the middle ground, and another for the foreground.

Although the sun was filtered behind

shadows need to be exposed more - and

a thin layer of clouds, the sky was still

if they do, you can continue to check

overexposed when I metered for the

your histogram with each increase of

shadow side of the rock. Both bracketing

exposure until you reach a suitable result.

and exposure blending were needed to eliminate the shadows and highlights

If I exposed for the sky and did not

that were pushed too far.

bracket each frame to exposure blend later, I would have lost the interesting

This image is another example of

detail in the shadow side of the rock.

why reading your histogram is so

Also, the subtle reflections in the water

important - not just for highlights but

surrounding the rock would have been in

for underexposed shadows, which can

complete darkness. These are small, but

be just as distracting. By checking your

important accents to this shallow depth

histogram, you will be able to see if your

image that I did not want to lose.


eagle lake iii

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 1/125s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

Using nature to frame the borders of my image is a technique that I enjoy greatly. At times, however, the limits of my viewfinder are too constricting and I can not capture my surroundings in its entirety. By processing a scene as a stitch, you can expand the boundaries of a single frame and translate a 180 degree view as a twodimensional presentation, retaining a natural perspective and depth without sacrificing your composition.

After I set my focus on the foreground tree trunk on the right side of my frame, I switched into full manual mode (both focus and metering) and started to capture the environment frame-by-frame. Both manual mode and manual focus are imperative when photographing for a stitch as a new meter and focus are called for each time you press the shutter button. If you’re working in any form of auto (for example, aperture priority), your settings could change and produce inconsistences in your exposure, making it extremely difficult to stitch without distracting changes in tones and focus. I typically use a 24mm lens for my landscapes on a full-frame sensor, which offers a wide angle view that is just on the cusp of being distorted. Rather than use a wider angle lens and risk applying the “fish-eye” effect for an unnatural looking landscape, I will instead photograph the scene as a stitch. Another reason why I do not use a wider focal length is that it affects the distances between elements in my photo - more specifically, how they relate to one another. The wider your focal length is, the more exaggerated your distances become. If I used my 17-40mm f/4L lens set at 17mm for this image, not only would my perspectives become distorted, but the distant mountain range would be almost unnoticeable along the horizon.


For this particular image, I stitched a 180

photograph the entire view and capture the

degree view in order to capture the entire

desired content without having to sacrifice

vista. Specifically, I wanted to include the

my viewpoint.

prominent branches of color extending over Eagle Lake, acting as a natural frame to this

The foreground tree is large and imposing, so

scene. Also, the fallen leaves floating in the

I added a bit of negative space to the right

lake act as their own border, almost mirroring

of my image to help balance the weight.

what the branches above represent. In order

Additionally, I didn’t want the image to feel

to get this perspective and depth, I needed

“blocked”. In other words, I wanted to show

to set up within a close distance from the

that the scene continued past what I captured

tree which limited my frame greatly to only

here. If I cropped this space out of my image,

a small portion of what you see here. By

the tree would act as a definitive end to this

applying a stitching workflow, I was able to

autumn lake view and interrupt the flow.

side & front lighting While the focus of the golden hours is on the sky for sunsets and sunrises, the light at this time has the ability to transform any subject across your landscape. When the sun is at such a sharp, directional angle during this window of time, it lengthens shadows, brightens highlights, and adds layers of texture and interest. With this in mind, you will often find strong subjects to photograph if you look at alternative angles of light.

eagle lake iv

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/1.4, 1/8000s, iso 100, aperture

In most situations, I find light to be the first aspect I consider when composing my image, and the golden hours provide an exceptional canvas to create with. You typically have just ambient light to work with in landscape photography, so you need to rely on your camera skills to manipulate the elements in your environment. When I saw the incredible side lighting that was being cast on the individual leaves here, I switched my aperture to something more appropriate for shallow depths (f/1.4) and began to search for symmetry between the maple leaves and the coastline, which had just fallen into shadow.

I decided to frame this image in a way that balanced out the weight of the busy pattern that was created by the leaves. The coastline to the right had already fallen into shadow, so it became a solid, dense shape with no distracting highlights. This provided the symmetry and balance I was looking for. When your histogram is within a reasonable range (meaning you do not have to take extra steps to correct for under/overexposed areas of your frame), then your workflow becomes much less complicated and more free flowing. This photo was taken handheld with auto-focus; two things I typically do not do with my camera. However, since I wasn’t limited by exposure differences, I did not have to bracket the frame. Instead, I had the freedom to shoot quickly and without a tripod set up.

Although there was still some direct light from the sun, the treeline along the coast blocked it from being cast onto the water. This lack of reflected highlights helped me to avoid the need to exposure blend, which would have been quite difficult as the height of my tripod could not get this particular vantage point. If the sun was still being reflected off of the water, the highlights would not only be distracting, but could have blown my exposure.

five islands ii

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 1/180s, iso 100, manual stitch + tripod

I always find it fascinating how the golden hours can transform an entire landscape no matter what direction you look towards. The sun has a powerful magnetic quality which we can easily succumb to, but if we turn out backs to it and view the landscape as a front-lit canvas, you can often find a composition that is equally as powerful.

A benefit to photographing front-lit subjects during the golden hours is that the shadows fall behind your focal points, which means that you rarely have to compensate your exposure to recover lost detail. Additionally, the sky is absent of the imposing sun, which is not only a strong focal point that needs to be balanced out but also creates the need to compensate your exposure for intense highlights. With these two factors in mind, you can see that this scene is more evenly lit than if it was taken at sunrise. When the lighting is more uniform, your exposure differences become less - which means that the need to exposure blend or use other means to recover lost detail is less. For this scene I did not need to exposure blend, which is a rare occurrence during the golden hours. I did, however, use a tripod as the seascape before me was quite vast. In order to capture both the small islands and the cloud interest up above, I needed to photograph several frames for stitching.


Although front-lit subjects are flattened under this light, I didn’t see the need to convey depth in this particular photograph. There is no main focal point, but rather all elements in the image work together to create one collective scene. The gentle waves in the water, mirrored by the clouds in the sky, provided enough texture and interest. The rule of thirds was applied carefully here in order to compose a balanced image. Since I was shooting away from the sun, the sky focal point was light in weight, even with the cloud interest. By filling two-thirds of my frame with the sky, I was able to obtain balance to the heavier ground-level interest: the boats, islands, and deep colors of the ocean.


I wanted to photograph a sandpiper under the golden hour light, and this late summer afternoon provided the perfect opportunity to do so. The gentle waves combined with the setting sun provided much interest. The reflected sunlight created some wonderful bokeh in the background and added some dramatic golden highlights to the sandpiper. Given the behavior of the sandpiper, I knew that my 300mm prime lens would be my optimal choice as these birds move quickly and are rather small in height. The distance of this sandpiper from the background was ideal for the photograph I wanted to create - just far enough away from the waves to create a painterly background. canon 300mm f/4L @ f/4, 1/500s, iso 100, manual

Since I was laying close to ground level, you’ll notice that this perspective allowed for a layered effect which added depth to counteract the “flattening” of the 300mm focal length. The ability to compose a distinct foreground, middle ground, and distant background would have not been possible if I captured the sandpiper at waist level. This vantage point, in addition to the shallow depth of field, provided me with two distinct ways to create depth in a two-dimensional art form.


While I always advocate the use of a tripod in landscape photography, there are instances where it would be counterproductive, and this image serves as a good example. Sandpipers follow the waves as they come ashore and race after them as they depart. This fast movement, combined with the limited scope of a 300mm lens, required me to be extremely flexible with my composition in order to follow the sandpiper as it moved. With all the wonderful benefits a tripod can provide, being restricted to a fixed point can certainly have its limitations. This is one example of why it’s important to be able to adapt to your environment rather than expecting the environment to adapt to you. Not every situation will be consistent from photo to photo, so the versatility of your portfolio will be dependent on your ability to adapt as a photographer - and your ability to adapt will be dependent on how creatively you can apply your knowledge an environment.


sky texture During the golden hours, clouds can be transformed into an incredible display of light, shadow, and texture. When a storm is approaching or just departing during these hours, expect a show in the sky. The sharp angle of the sun combined with layers of clouds can produce an incredible sea of texture and interest. Even if it appears that the sky will remain overcast, I often find that the sun will break through the clouds in the most spectacular way as it nears the horizon. However, the magnetism of a golden hour sky with intricate sky texture requires an equally powerful focal point at the ground level in order to achieve harmony and balance across your composition.

doubling point light

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/11, 1/250s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

For this image of Doubling Point Light, there was a late summer thunderstorm approaching rapidly. With the sun illuminating the swaying grass in the foreground, I knew the dramatic, dark clouds would provide a stunning contrast to the golden hour light. To help balance the intense drama of the sky, I settled on two powerful focal points: the solidarity of the lighthouse, and the heavy weight of the pine trees.

In order to create balance between the left and right sides of this vast scene, I framed my crop so that the towering pines took up a good portion of my composition. Not only does this help to anchor the landscape, but it takes some attention off of the lighthouse and exploding sunset sky. As you can see, the approaching wall of clouds added much texture and interest to the sun itself, transforming it from an intense circle of light to a filtered focal point. Many photographers are ecstatic to capture clouds during the golden hours as their unpredictable nature can present a phenomenal show. Many environmental variables contribute to the visual quality, and you as the photographer can capture and process a scene in many different ways. This leaves you with an infinite amount of possibilities to express your creativity and connection to the landscape.

penobscot bay ii

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 175s, iso 100, bulb exposure blend + tripod

“Texture” refers to the quality of detail and can adopt several different definitions. Although I typically enjoy photographing the intricate details of clouds, I find the heightened drama and moody atmosphere of long exposures to be hypnotic as clouds begin to lose form and definition. The results can be both extraordinary and entirely unpredictable.

When I compose a long exposure, I typically include a strong, stationary subject to play against the movement I want to capture. I find that this method creates strong counterpoints of an otherwise busy environment. If I had used a faster shutter speed here, the texture of the clouds would distract from the pier and create an entirely different atmosphere. For this image, I found the sun to produce a lackluster show of color and intrigue: the clouds were not particularly interesting, and the light was muted and soft. By transforming the sky with a 175 second shutter speed, I was able to add interest and drama to an otherwise mundane golden hour image.

thomaston pier

Photographing the golden hours during the summer provides ample opportunity to capture stunning sky detail - most notably because of thunderstorms. They are frequent and depart just as fast as they arrive, leaving a trail of incredible cloud formations that are only enhanced by the sharp angle of the sun. Even during the darkest of storms, the sky will often break open as the sun approaches the horizon, almost as if the storm grants the sun its moment of glory.

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 1/13s, iso 400, aperture exposure blend + tripod

In this image, a strong storm had departed just before sunset. I wanted to capture the intense rays of light contrasting with the darkened thunder clouds, so I had to work quickly before they moved further away. When I came across this small group of wildflowers, I knew that they would make some fantastic foreground interest to help frame my image with. I decided to use a wide aperture here to blur my foreground. Not only does this present an image that has visual interest with the a painterly layer of flora, but it also adds depth by making it apparent that the flowers are in the immediate foreground. If this image was shot with a deep depth of field with all layers sharp in detail, then the uniform focus would make the image appear more flat than the results here.

Using a thin slice of focus is another way we can

Although the light of the sky seems to be bright

alter the balance of an image and redistribute

from the setting sun, the ambient light was very

the weight. I wanted the clam shack and

minimal due to the heavy cloud coverage. At

dramatic sunset sky to be my main focal point,

f/1.4, my shutter speed was only 1/13th second

with the foreground flowers only complimenting

for my base exposure. Even if I did not exposure

the scene rather than becoming a focal point

blend here, I would still need a tripod to eliminate

themselves. With the ability to choose what

camera shake. My only alternative would be

elements in my frame I want in sharp focus, I

to increase my ISO greatly, which would have

can even out the balance of a disproportionate

produced some obvious ISO noise since there

image by a simple change in aperture.

are many dark tones in my image.

sunstars Creating those visible rays that surround the sun is a powerful way to add sky interest when clouds are absent from your golden hour window. As your aperture becomes smaller, light diffracts as it enters through the lens - and when the sun (or any bright light source) is rendered onto your sensor, beautiful, elongated rays stem from the center and create a stunning focal point. When combined with the golden hue this time provides, a sunstar can completely transform your landscape, offering yet another creative path to pursue with your camera.

spring’s arrival

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 1/13s, iso 100, aperture exposure blend + tripod

The golden hours have the unique ability to add warmth to any scene no matter how cold and desolate the environment is. This beach was captured during the doldrums of winter at Reid State Park with the temperatures well below freezing. As the sun began to near the horizon, the sky and water exploded into a surreal combination of red, orange, and magenta.

As with most of my golden hour images,

a manual bracket, keeping my aperture

the vast exposure differences between

constant and manually adjusting my shutter

the shadows and the highlights require an

speed as necessary. As a result, I had four

exposure blend, with four stops difference

images, with the fastest exposure being

between my fastest and slowest shutter

shot just for the sun.

speed. This is the standard range for my images, but I will sometimes have to

The key to blending exposures so that

expand on this in order to recover very

they appear natural is to have a gradual

deep shadows or intense highlights.

transition of tones and color. If I were to blend the sky exposure with the ground

For this scene, the area around the sun was

with no gradient in between, the transition

still too overexposed to register the sunstar

would be harsh. This harshness has an

rays that I wanted to capture. Instead of

unappealing look and distracts the viewer

allowing my camera to autobracket, I did

from the content of your image.


Another key piece of information for the golden hours is how your focal length can greatly change the weight (or size) of the sun. Longer focal lengths will increase the size, while shorter lengths will make it appear smaller. Depending on the intensity of the sun and the weight of other elements within your scene, the size of your sun can greatly shift the balance and flow. For this image, I knew that I wanted the sun to be relatively small in comparison to the entire frame since it was quite strong and intense. If the sun appeared any larger than this, it would have overpowered my foreground interest with its sunstar effect. Having the sun graze a hard edge, such as the horizon line here, also contributes to a crisp and clear sunstar.

penobscot bay iv

One of the many reasons why I love Maine is for its rocky coastline. From a photography standpoint, it provides me with ample opportunity to create a unique composition; I could easily visit the same location many times over and still discover something new. Differing combinations of focal length, depth of field, shutter speed, and light can contribute to an entire portfolio of the same location, with each image having its own distinctive character. This photo was taken at sunset, where once again a completely empty sky suddenly exploded with fast-moving clouds. canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/14, 1/100s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

What initially drew me to this scene was not only the composition, but the calmness of the fluctuating bay waters. At low tide, the usually-textured seawater can resemble a lake with glass-like reflective qualities. The double sunstar here is perfectly mirrored in the water, which creates a surreal focal point among this engaging composition. I enjoy the desaturated hue that the sun can cast during this time and view select flares as interest points that amplify the emotions I wish to convey with a golden hour image. However, some flares may be too distracting or you may wish to achieve a cleaner, more vibrant image. By blocking the sun from your composition (either waiting until it is obstructed or using your hand to cover it), you can take an additional exposure with no flares, which can then be exposure blended together with your original sunstar image.

before sunset The quality of your sunstar is not only dependent on your chosen aperture, but also any atmospheric elements that interrupts the light as it travels to your lens. Thin clouds, fog, mist, and even humid summer evenings can diffuse your sunstar from producing those fantastic streams of light, despite using a small aperture. Although I photographed this scene at f/16, notice how the rays are subdued when compared to the previous two images. The thin layer of clouds passing across the sky masked the sunlight enough to soften the light and remove distinctness. The more pure your sunlight is, the more defined you sunstar will be. canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 1/13s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

When I settled on this vantage point, I found that the crashing waves created a strong leading line that led directly to the sun. Using elements in the landscape to direct the flow of your audience can create a narrative to your image. It provides a path to follow and guides them through the entire frame for a complete visual experience. With this in mind, I found that a vertical crop would suit the scene best since the line traveled from bottom to top, leading to the intense focal point of the sun. Choosing your orientation (landscape, square, or portrait) is more than just for aesthetic reasons. It can greatly affect the flow, balance, and overall impact of your landscape.

One goal I had with this image was to create movement in the water by slowing my shutter speed to 1/13th of a second. When waves cascade over rocks, it creates a surreal fluidity and allows one to convey motion through the camera. I used a small enough aperture of f/16 to limit the light entering through my lens, which slowed down the movement just enough to soften the crashing waves. However, the shutter speed was still fast enough to render the fantastic water texture and detail.

low perspectives The vantage point you select can completely change the balance and flow of your image. Focal points can be transformed when you alter your view, and this change affects more than the visual quality to your photograph - it can also affect the interpretation and overall impact in a dramatic way. By exploring lower vantage points, you can instantly deepen your frame by shifting attention onto foreground details. When presented with a powerful background focal point, (which is quite often during the golden hours), this method can add significant balance to an otherwise disproportionate weight of interest.

summer solstice

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/1.4, 1/200s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

In addition to adding depth and interest, the low vantage point of this scene also allowed me to capture the sky in my composition within the same frame. If I had shot this at waist level, it would have been difficult to include the horizon line and sunset sky as my background. Secondly, this perspective allowed me to capture the intense shadows and highlights, adding texture and creating a more engaging photograph.

Since I was shooting directly into the sun, I knew that I needed to exposure blend in order to balance out the highlights and shadows. Oftentimes, I’ve found that autobracketing a scene will not give me enough of a range in exposures to properly blend my image and recover all lost detail. On certain cameras, the exposure difference of the autobracketing feature is two stops under and over your base exposure. During the golden hours, there is usually a much larger difference between an image exposed for highlights and one for shadows, so a manual bracket is better suited than your camera’s autobracket feature. I try not to worry too much about the center of the sun as that is near impossible to render without having some highlights blown. Additionally, it would look rather odd to have a sun which is not a bright focal point. Once I have my two extreme exposure times noted, I then execute a manual bracket of each frame in manual mode - changing my shutter speed from the slowest, to the base, and finally to the fastest. It’s also important to note that your slowest shutter speed may come hand-in-hand with camera shake, so long exposure methods should be used to compensate.


I decided to stitch this image as I wanted to capture both the sky and ground, and my 24mm focal length was not wide enough. I could have positioned my camera further away, but not only would that have affected the perspective, but also would have deepened my depth of field and counteracted my bokeh.


potts harbor

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/11, 1/250s, iso 100, aperture exposure blend + tripod

The golden hours can expand your creative horizons greatly by blanketing the landscape with its surreal light. While some foresight and location scouting certainly has its benefits, I would not rule out an opportunity to photograph a scene simply because your shoot wasn’t planned. The most successful images can be the result of a spontaneous adventure where your only guide was the light of the sun.

My focal points and general composition were already chosen as soon as I walked up to this pier, but the height of my vantage point was up to much debate. As I crouched down and up again, I decided on this slightly lower perspective in order to create the layers I wanted. Any lower, then the pier would appear to be more flat, eliminating the three-dimensional appearance you see now. Also, I wanted the ocean to be a prominent layer between the foreground and the sky. A lower perspective would have diminished its width, and thus alter the balance and flow of the seascape.


downeast sunset

canon 24mm f/1.4L @ f/16, 1/2s, iso 100, manual stitch, exposure blend + tripod

The late afternoon light of summer is a favorite of mine – one reason being the effect it has on water. It can be changed into a mosaic of colors, especially when disturbed. This quiet salt water inlet, fed by the ocean tide, provided water movement that was gentle enough to reflect the light of the sky and cloud interest without any texture from ripples.

Perspective can redistribute the weight of your composition in a profound way, which is especially beneficial during the golden hours - a time when the sky dominates attention. Not only did this large, imposing rock provide a strong border for the left side of my frame (opposite the pine trees), but the lower vantage point enlarged its size, providing some much needed visual draw away from the setting sun. The height of your camera determines how much of a landscape you’re able to capture within one frame. Lower perspectives can increase the depth and drama, making foreground elements appear larger and background focal points appear smaller. Additionally, a lower point of view can include more distant layers of interest in your composition that would have otherwise been excluded if you framed your scene from a taller vantage point.

There’s a plethora of information out there on how to become a “better” photographer, from in-camera techniques to powerful workflows in the digital darkroom. These libraries of knowledge give you the power to capture a scene the way you would like, but it doesn’t create the scene for you. Landscape photography is entirely dependent on nature, the environment, and they perform when we’re in the field. While knowledge and gear can help you create the image you want, sometimes the most successful photographs are simply the result of being at the right place, and at the right time. It’s easy to dismiss an impromptu opportunity to photograph a landscape due to a lack of planning. However, when these excuses start to become a habit, you can be missing out on a surreal opportunity to use this light to create a timeless piece of art. Even the most intricate, sound location scout can prove to be fruitless if nature doesn’t cooperate the way we expect it to - and more often than not, it doesn’t. That is the beauty of landscape photography - the ability to let nature dictate the light and guide us through an unexpected adventure. As photographers, we must learn to apply our skills to compliment the changing scene instead of trying to force nature to accommodate our plans. When you can find joy in this process, your creativity will flow and flourish - and this will become evident in your work.

final thoughts With all of my eBooks, my goal is to explain my workflow and the thought process behind my images: how I create and execute, and what I look for in the field when composing a photograph. This book isn’t meant to be a concrete set of rules, but rather an explanation to eliminate roadblocks and provide you with the means to create. Another goal of mine is to inspire you to learn. Much frustration stems from having a limited amount of creative avenues to pursue when you approach a scene. Since the environment has countless variables, your creative process is more likely to become blocked when the workflows you have learned do not apply. I hope to provide you with new ideas and creative paths to take, and to inspire you to overcome any limitations.


You do not have to reach a certain “level” to create art in photography, nor do you have to put in a certain amount of hours to be successful in your pursuits. Those are limitations that we place on ourselves. The key to being happy with your photography is knowledge: the power to approach a scene and not only know what you would like to capture, but how to execute it successfully. This is usually the source of many roadblocks for photographers: the “how”. You see an image that speaks to you, but can’t visualize the path that the photographer took in order to create it. This is what inspired me to start writing eBooks and to explain my camera workflow so that other photographers can create without hitting an unconquerable plateau.

The knowledge in this eBook is not limited to the

of ideas and inspiration for you to build upon.

golden hours or landscapes in general. These are workflows that you can apply to any area of

When you’re equipped to handle a situation, you

photography, and the best part is that you can

feel empowered and excited about photography,

adapt them to your own preference. You are in

which is the most important part. Photography is

control of the camera and how it is used. It’s up

largely about creating for your own enjoyment,

to you to decide which methods work best and

and if you can approach a scene objectively

which you can do without.

and not feel ill-equipped, your creativity will be nurtured and refined.

At the same time, using the techniques described in this eBook may spark entirely new ideas of

With this eBook, it is my hope that I was able to

your own creation that are far more successful for

open some doors for you with your photography.

your unique style. Experimentation is a powerful

If you still have questions, you are more than

catalyst for creativity, and can set off a fire storm

welcome to email me directly by clicking here.


subscribe via email Make sure to subscribe to my email list by clicking here and you’ll receive the following: 10% discount code that you can apply to any of my eBooks. This code will never expire, has unlimited uses, and can be combined with other discount codes during special promotions. Exclusive content such as free eBooks and helpful tutorials. By signing up, you’ll also be entering my quarterly contest where one subscriber wins either a free mediumsized print of their choice or my entire eBook collection. More details on the contest can be found here. My newest articles, tutorials, photographs, and eBook announcements are conveniently delivered right to your inbox as soon as they become available. Click here to subscribe

about christopher Through my work, I like to show a vantage point that is rarely seen in reality; a show of beauty, emotion, and serenity. There are countless mesmerizing scenes among us that are often hidden from society. My goal is to expose them to the world so that I may share the wonders I have seen. My work changes like the seasons of New England, which always presents me with surreal opportunities to create something unique. I encourage you to visit my website for further learning as I have written several articles on the basics of photography and beyond, as well as to see my latest work.