5 tricks to take better photos at ‘golden hour’


Navy cobweave blanket Decorator's Notebook shop

It’s been a busy few weeks for Decorator’s Notebook with some exciting developments on the horizon. We can’t wait to tell you all what we’ve been up to and what we’re planning in the months to come, so keep an eye out for updates here on the blog.

You might not know that Bethan and I do nearly all our own product photography and styling for the Decorator’s Notebook Shop so we’re always looking out for new ways to stretch our photographic abilities and create more interesting shots. Recently we took some of our new woven wool blankets and recycled sari kantha quilts out into the Somerset countryside and I thought I’d share some lessons I learnt shooting pictures in the fading summer sunlight.

Kantha sari blanket

‘Golden hour’  – just after sunrise and before sunset – is a well documented time for shooting lovely photos. The light tends to be warmer and softer than daytime sunshine and the angle of the light provides the opportunity to try out some fun techniques like backlit portraits, rim lighting and lens flare.

1 | Break the lighting rules

I wrote a post earlier in the year after a particularly snowy trip to Scotland about breaking the conventions of portrait photography to get more dynamic photos. In many ways, backlit photography goes against the rules too by shooting into the lightsource, rather than having it behind you, lighting the subject. Although this sounds counter-intuitive it can produce some really great effects. Because evening light is softer you can shoot towards the sun without creating a silhouette and set the exposure on your subject without having a ‘blown out’ background. Also, having your subject’s face in the shade will mean a gentler light preventing the harsh shadows you will get when facing the sun, so it’s generally more flattering too. Try to focus on and expose to the eyes and you’re ready to start shooting.

Cob weave navy blanket Decorator's Notebook

2 | Shoot against the clock

When the sun is low in the sky it’s amazing how quickly it will drop below the horizon. In reality the golden hour can in fact last two or three, but it’s better to shoot with a matter of urgency… lots and often is the secret here! The two pictures below were taken just 15 minutes apart, but during that time the sun slipped below the cloud line, giving the later shot a lot more contrast, better definition and generally a lot more ‘life’. Clouds can cause frustration, but can also add welcome drama to a sunset scene.

How to use evening light to take better photographs3 | Move your feet

I love shooting on film, but the great thing about digital photography is that you can learn in real time. Use the idea of back-lighting a starting point, but don’t think that this means you have to stay in one place. Have your model move around freely and position yourself to shoot from different angles too. You might find that at certain points you’ll get a better photo with the sun lighting from the side or front. Once you’ve tried some of the shooting angles in one spot then move to a different location. Experiment with full sunlight and partial shade, with elements in the foreground and different backgrounds. Shooting against the clock won’t afford you the luxury of honing a particular scene, so have fun exploring the different possibilities and learn from your experience.

Kantha Bangladeshi beadspread

4 | Change your focus

Shooting into the light will mean that different parts of your image will be picked out by the light. Use a wide aperture, get close and play with the focus to draw attention to different areas of the composition. Often the most interesting photos can be ones with unconventional focus, so if you have an SLR, try switching to manual focus and shoot each composition with different focus depths.

Backlit Portrait Photography

5 | Be playful with light

Rim lighting and lens flare are two photographic tricks that polarise photographers. They might be a little gimmicky, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fun to try! Try to get the sun to light up the edges of your suject, highlighting them and separating them from your background. The halo of light created around the rim (particularly noticable on hair) can give your photos a magical, ethereal quality, especially in warm evening light. Another thing to look for is anything floating in the air. Pollen, smoke from a fire or insects can all be picked up in the foreground of your photograph to add depth and interest. Finally, you may want to experiment with lens flare. Create it by facing your camera into the sun (usual warnings apply!) and moving it slightly away in one direction. The light will pass through your lens at such an angle that it can produce a string of light spots across your image. The effect will be exaggerated with longer lenses and will change depending on the aperture you use, so have a play around.

The stressful aspect of doing any photography against the clock is remembering all of the different exposure and aperture settings under the pressure of time, but when shooting at this time of year as the sun goes down the natural light is doing most of the work for you. The key is to experiment and take as many pictures as possible in the hope that you’ll get a few good ones and learn something in time for the next sunny evening. Visit our Backlit Photography board on Pinterest for more ideas and inspiration.

Photographs Bethan John and Joe John for Decorator’s Notebook. Styled with Navy Cobweave Blanket, £60 and Vintage Kantha Quilt, £165 from a selection, both available from our Decorator’s Notebook Shop

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