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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUE: The Magic Hours, Story and photographs by F. M. Kearney

By June 12, 2015No Comments

S_121-200x300Most nature photographers know that the best light of the day occurs during the first and last hours of sunlight—sunrise and sunset. During this time, the sun is low on the horizon, and its light travels through more of the atmosphere, creating brilliant shades of red, yellow and gold. For that reason, photographers fittingly refer to this time of day as the golden (or magic) hours.

I was recently in Atlantic City and captured “bookends” of the same day on the beach. In the morning, I shot a photo (above) of the sun rising above the Atlantic Ocean. When shooting directly into the sun, it’s best to use manual exposure. Auto modes will go haywire in this type of light. Although it’s been said many times before, some advice bears repeating: Never look directly at the sun in the viewfinder. This is especially true if you’re using a long lens, which will, of course, magnify the sun’s intensity. A spot meter, which measures a small portion of the frame, is also helpful. I spot-metered a clear area of the sky next to the sun, then locked in that exposure on manual.


You don’t always need the sun in the shot to get an interesting sunrise/sunset photo. Sometimes, the color in the sky is so intense that it is just as (maybe even more) interesting. I shot this sunset in an area not far from where I shot the sunrise. I’m still facing east toward the Atlantic, but the sky was ablaze with color. I used the same metering technique as before and spot-metered the yellow area of the sky in the center of the frame. This method worked well for both images, because the sky and the ground were fairly close in tone. Had the contrast between the two been more extreme, graduated neutral-density filters would have been necessary. I sometimes hesitate to use HDR software for these types of images. While HDR works beautifully for twilight shots of city skylines, I feel it is better to retain some natural shadows in nature scenes. Of course, it all comes down to personal preference.

As beautiful as most beginning and end-of-day photos are, they can usually be enhanced with interesting foreground elements. Look for nearby trees, rocks, tall grass, or anything else that can serve as a strong graphic. Two seagulls seemed to realize that I didn’t have anything like that around me and graciously agreed to step in early in the day. I repositioned my tripod after almost every shot as the two birds followed me along the beach. I was joined by an even larger group of birds in the evening. Seconds after I took my last photo they all flew away.

The warm tones of magic-hour photos can be a bit deceiving—suggesting that they were taken on a hot summer day. The reality? These photos were shot in the dead of winter on a cold day in February.

F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit