As good as gold

For a few weeks every February photographers from all over gather to view Horsetail Fall off to the side of El Capitan at sunset. The falling waters catch rays of light of the so-called golden hour turning them into a cascade of what can look like liquid fire spilling over the fall.

Ask any number of professional photographers what the single most important thing is in a great picture, the vast majority of the will say: light. Lighting can make or break a photo. Many people who have had problems with their pictures being too dark may think that it’s just about the amount of light, but it’s about the quality of light as well. The best natural light comes from what’s known as the “golden hour,” which is also the subject of the latest Readers Photo Challenge assignment. The golden hour (also know as the magic hour) refers to the time just after sunrise and just before sunset when light is infused with a golden hue giving color and warmth to everything it touches.

14 people sent in 72 photos of the golden hour. Here are some of the best examples.


I think most people tend to think of the golden hour as an evening thing. Like me, they probably like to sleep in and wait until evening for the sunset. Not Dave Skinner of Stockton. Skinner rose early and headed out to the Cosumnes River Preserve off of I-5 and Twin Cities Road near the small town of Thornton to capture the sunrise. Armed with a Nikon D5100 DSLR camera he photographed the breaking sun which provided a warm glow as it cascaded though some valley oak trees. The light spread across some dried wild grasses on the valley floor and made the scene warm and inviting. I may not be an early riser but Skinner’s photo makes me glad that he is.


Like Skinner, Darrin Denison of Stockton is also a morning person, at least for this photo. Unlike Skinner, he didn’t travel too far from home. Denison used his iPhone 4s to photograph a yard sculpture of a sleeping cherub in his from yard. The warm morning light gives the picture a dreamy yet fresh quality.


Teresa Mahnken of Morada approached the golden hour from the evening side. While on a trip to Fort Casey State Park on Whidbey Island in Washington state she used a Nikon D3200 DSLR to photograph a sunset sinking towards the horizon on the Pacific Ocean beyond a light house and some cypress trees as orange hues graced light wispy clouds in the sky.


Using a Canon Rebel DSLR Susan Scott of Stockton photographed a sunset near Buckley Cove in Stockton. Set against a stand of trees in the foreground and a heron gracefully soaring in the sky on the left the palette of gold, yellows and oranges of a prototypical sunset picture.


Sydney Spurgeon of Stockton didn’t shoot the sunset it self but rather she turned things around and used the light from the sunset to illuminate her subject. In a field in Yolo County she photographed a large sunflower bathed in the light of the golden hour. Not only does the color of the light give the flower that aura of warmth but the low angle and side lighting helps to give it some depth and substance to its form.


Although the warm tones of sunrise/sunset gives the golden hour its name, there can be many other colors involved as well. The later a sunset goes on the more the colors morph into other tones. Stocktonian Jim Johnson’s photo of the sunset over the deep water channel Stockton shows just that. He used a Canon EOS-M digital camera to capture the subtle colors of pinks and purples along side of the oranges as the sky was painted with the last vestiges of the sunset.


The same goes for Kelly Helsing of Reno, Nevada (Helsing’s mom, Mary Paulson of Valley Springs submitted her daughter’s photo for her). Helsing used a iPhone 4s to photograph a sunset through some trees in her front yard just before the sun sank below the horizon. Not only did she capture the fiery reds and oranges of the sun but more subtle blues and purples in the sky and clouds as well.


As always there is a gallery of all the entries at Stay tuned for a new challenge assignment on next Monday.

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  • Blog Author

    Clifford Oto

    Clifford Oto, an award-winning photographer, has been with The Record since 1984. Through the changes from black and white to digital photography, he’s kept his focus on covering the events, people and life of San Joaquin county. This blog deals ... Read Full
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