You may have heard about golden hour, that special time before a sunset or just after a sunrise. For many photographers, golden hour is a great time to get a wonderful, warm, and beautiful photograph. But what is magic hour? Surely you must have heard of it, especially if you have also heard of golden hour. These two hours have a lot in common, but they’re not the exact same thing. So let’s dig further into what is magic hour and how it differentiates from the golden.

Magic Hour Meaning

A important distinction to make

A definition of magic hour photography will be needed before going into more detail. A big reason is because magic hour is actually different from golden hour. The problem, however, is that magic and golden hours are similar enough that they are often used interchangeably. 

It’s true they’re similar, but there are some notable differences that can make you choose one over the other.

MAGIC HOUR DEFINITION

What is magic hour?

Magic hour is the time just after sunset and just before sunrise, producing warm colors of gold, pink, and blue. For photography, this specific time can be ideal for matching the hues and colors of lights and buildings. As a result, the glow of magic hour photography is less intense, not as bright, and less yellow than that of golden hour. Additionally, it does not usually last an hour, and can actually last less time than golden hour.

Magic and golden hours get used interchangeably, but as our definition points out, magic hour is after sunset and before sunrise. Compare this to golden hour, which is before sunset and after sunrise. It should also be said that when is magic hour and where it happens depends on your location in proximity to the sun’s altitude.

Magic Hour Characteristics:

  • Golden, blue, and pink hues
  • Warm, low-angle light
  • Not always lasting a whole hour
  • Different intensity depending on the time and location

Magic Hour Example

Magic in action

Probably the most immediate difference between magic and golden hour is, well, the look. This might be obvious on paper, but it comes with understanding that the sky does look differently before and after sunset.

Golden hour, as the name might imply, emphasizes the golden bloom that the sun will give off. Magic hour’s name doesn’t really imply it, but once the sun is out of view, a different hue takes over the skies.

What is magic hour A magic hour sky

What is magic hour?

The hues and colors that come from magic hour photography are put to very good use in urban environments. While golden hour is great for more natural outdoors, this type of lighting shines when it is used to bring out the lights and architecture of a city.

What is magic hour Magic hour city

What is magic hour photography?

Still wondering “what is magic hour” and what it can look like? Some of the best cinematographers also love to capitalize on that beautiful light. Take a look at some of these images and see how StudioBinder’s storyboard software can help you set up your shots just the way you want them. 

Follow the image link to see the complete collection of images and download a PDF for reference.

Shooting Magic  •  See the Entire Collection

Tips & Techniques

Making magic

If you want to make this amazing light, you’re going to want to keep a set of tips and tricks in mind when you set out to shoot.

Prepare

Scope out your location before you shoot anything. It sounds obvious, but you should definitely make sure to do it so that you’re as prepared as possible. This includes paying attention to sky patterns and how things look when it reaches a certain time of the day.

Schedule

Since this narrow window is just after sunset or just before sunrise, you have to have a solid schedule before venturing out. That magic hour could slip away if you don’t have everything planned out, so make sure you know exactly what you'll be shooting. There are fantastic apps that will help take away all the guesswork and frantic searching, "When is magic hour?!"

Cloudy

We can’t control if there’s clouds in the skies, which is why adjusting your white balance is important. In this way, you don’t risk not taking advantage of the look the magic hour photography provides.

Flares

Depending on what you’re looking for, you might be trying to avoid or use lens flares. Those rays of light that sneak into your field of view can either be very attractive or terrible distractions. Therefore, make sure your setup is ready for them (whether you want them or not).

Experiment

There are many types of shots you can use to create something special. Try out different low-angles, try to achieve bokeh, or whatever else. You don’t have the rest of the day to see what could be, so if you’re in the mood, see what you can pull off during the hour.

UP NEXT

Filmmaker’s Guide to a Cinematic Look

Now that we have answered “what is magic hour," “when is magic hour,” and have a good idea of what magic hour photography looks like, take a look at some of the best film lighting techniques around. Our filmmaker’s guide to achieving a cinematic look comes with top talent tips and examples to help your project look as good as can be.

Up Next: Get that cinematic look →
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  • Rafael Abreu received his B.A. in English from Florida International University, along with certificates in Film Studies and Asian Studies. He’s written reviews, scripts, and analytical essays focusing on all aspects of cinema. He can’t stop talking about aspect ratios.

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