Sunrise and Sunset: What is Golden Hour, Blue Hour, and Twilight?

As landscape photographers the transition from night to day or day to night are our favorite times to shoot. Why? Because the light during this transition makes the world look amazing! Mountain faces light up and skies come alive at the beginning and ending of the day. It is incredibly satisfying to be outside during these times and doubly so if you get some amazing photos, especially if you decided to get up hours before daybreak just to get a shot.

Sunrise and sunset are a little more complex than just “day to night” or vice versa, at least for photographers (and navigators), because there are different types of light and the illumination of the sky doesn’t just simply go from daylight to the black of night. I did not fully understand this for awhile, but when I began to learn about the different parts of the transition I wanted to get out in the early morning and evening to shoot even more. I knew about the “Golden Hour” (that magical time that everyone with a camera knows about) and “Blue Hour” (the not as well known cousin that people get less excited about), but I didn’t know about Civil, Nautical, and Astronomical Twilight. 3 twilights?! Yes, 3! Well, maybe 3 distinct parts that together make up the whole. When I learned about the differences, I immediately began thinking about all the mornings and nights I had spent watching the sky change and could absolutely make sense of the times and changes I had witnessed in times passed. Now, whenever I am out late or up early, I try and watch the sky change and determine the exact change from one to the next, but that is pretty difficult.

So what are the characteristics and differences of each of these times? Well, let’s take a look…

Golden Hour

Golden hour…. that time of day when scenic overlooks are overloaded with photographers trying to get their tripods in the best possible spot. Sometimes it’s annoying because there are entirely too many people around you, but the light is good and so why not set up for a shot? Golden hour is a great time to shoot because the sun is low and creates a nice, warm light (golden) without the hard shadows that you see in the middle of the day. Really each day has two Golden Hours….. one at sunrise and one at sunset, they don’t only happen with the sun above the horizon, and they aren’t strictly an hour. Sometimes they are more than an hour, and sometimes they are less.

Technically speaking, the golden hour happens when the sun is below 6* in the sky. In the morning the “hour” will begin before the sun breaks the horizon (when it’s about 4* below the horizon) and then ends when it goes above 6*. Just reverse that for the evening golden hour. The actual length of the “hour” will depend on the time of year and your location on the globe. This will apply to the rest of the discussion as well. If you’re somewhere in Alaska during the summer, then you could have 24 hours of golden “hour.” The golden hour is a great time to shoot and probably is the time when most people get great landscape shots, but don’t forget about what happens in addition to golden hour!

Blue Hour

Sometimes I feel bad for the blue hour because people forget about it. Or maybe they don’t care. Perhaps they just don’t know. In my opinion, people are missing out if they don’t take advantage of this time. Instead of golden tones across the landscape, there is a cooler color across everything giving a bluish, nighttime feel. The sky is transitioning from night to day or day to night and there is a nice gradient from blue to orange. City lights are will be on but the last light from the sun will still allow things to be visible without any outside help. Shooting photos during this time will give some cool silhouettes for anything on the horizon, and can lightly illuminate a scene depending on the length of your shot.

Blue “hour” is an even shorter time than golden hour. Shorter because blue hour describes the sun from 4*-6* below the horizon. The sun travels a shorter distance during this time, so naturally it takes up less time.


(Here is this handy-dandy drawing I found in my research. Visualizing helped me get a better understanding.)



Civil Twilight

We haven’t talked about civil twilight yet in this post, but really we have because civil twilight describes the time that the sun is at 0*-6* below the horizon. If you remember, that includes the last bit of the golden hour and all of the blue hour. The sky is changing colors quickly at this point and there is enough light to move around without having really any trouble. Planets in the sky will be visible and some stars, especially those on the opposite horizon of the sunrise/sunset. The sun has passed the horizon line, but there is still plenty of good light for photos if you are willing to stick around.

Nautical Twilight

When the sun is 6*-12* below the horizon, we find ourselves in the time known as nautical twilight. Sailors could really begin to make accurate star readings for navigation, so it seems like that is where the name comes from. Light is showing clearly on the horizon is often described as “first light.” The sky is a dark blue hue and now you can really get long exposures without resorting to using a Neutral Density filter. You can get objects in the sky that you may not be able to actually see yourself depending on how you shoot.

Astronomical Twilight

At this point, the line between night and astronomical twilight is very hard to distinguish. Officially, the sun is 12*-18* below the horizon. Most people at this point would just call this night. The stars are out, the horizon shows basically no light, and if the moon isn’t out, then it’s really hard to see. Constellations are visible and the Milky Way can be seen if there isn’t a moon (or light pollution). There is a small difference though between now and night time, but you probably would only notice it if you stayed up all night and watched the transition in the morning from night to astronomical twilight to nautical twilight to civil twilight to dawn. And I would actually suggest doing that if you have nothing important that you need to get to the following day. You’ll probably be very tired.

The overlap between nighttime and daytime is a fun time to shoot because there is a lot of great light and a lot of changing light that makes for a fun time and variety of shots. Educating yourself about the Golden Hour, Blue Hour, and Twilights is helpful in planning shots as well. The more you know about photography and things related to photography, the better photographer you become.