Golden hour(s)

Twice a day, if the weather coöperates, we have the opportunity to go outside and take in our surroundings during what’s often referred to as the golden, or magic, hour.  These are the periods of time each day, the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, when the sun is lowest in the sky–roughly 6 degrees above the horizon–and paints scenes with warm, diffuse light and long, soft shadows.

A representation of 1) the three morning twilights,  2) the golden hour and 3) the blue hour.  In the evening, the same sequence plays out in the west instead of the east.     (Figure courtesy of

At these times of day, sunlight travels a greater distance through the earth’s atmosphere than it does at mid-day.


And in the course of traveling that longer distance, blue light–light of the shortest wavelength–is scattered, while the longer wavelengths (red, orange) pass on through and cast their spell.


One of my favorite places on the globe, Big Sur, was the location of my enlightenment (pun intended) vis-à-vis the golden hour phenomenon.  (Come to think of it, maybe that’s one of the reasons it is one of my favorite places on the globe.)  I took the shot below over thirty years ago, in the days before digital cameras, photo editing software, smartphones, and photo app filters with names like Clyde, Avenue and Key Lime (?!?).  As you can see, it’s two prints that I pieced together for the panoramic effect.  I’m certain I could have found a pristine shot on-line, but it wouldn’t have represented my memory of seeing that spectacularly beautiful vista for the first time.  And because it really is too beautiful for words, here’s a 2-minute film.

Big Sur, at the Bixby Creek Bridge, June 1986

Another favorite golden hour memory played out thirteen years later and over 6,000 miles to the east of that stretch of California coast, on the sand dunes at Erg Chebbi in Morocco, not far from the Algerian border.  I spent two weeks traveling through Morocco with an adventure travel outfit and we tent camped one night at Erg Chebbi.  The following morning, some of us hiked–unexpectedly hard work; a towering sand dune turned out to be the desert’s version of a StairMaster®–to the top of the highest dune to watch the sun rise.  I dug out the journal I kept on the trip to re-visit my impressions: “With the gorgeous light and rippled, undulating sand, the most apropos words are voluptuous and sensual…”

This shot and the two below: the dunes at Erg Chebbi, Morocco.  28 April 1999.


And of course the golden hour can be glorious right in our own back yard.

Old Saybrook, Connecticut, November 2015.  ( I think this was actually taken a bit past sunset, but the light is still lovely.)

Whether you capture it with a camera or not, this kind of beauty can be yours for the taking, twice a day.  You just have to pay attention.

Trivia tidbit: Medicine can also lay claim to a ‘golden hour’.  The term, in this very different sense, was coined by a trauma surgeon, R. Adams Cowley, and refers to the approximately 60 minute period following a trauma in which treatment aimed at preventing irreversible organ damage and improving the chances of survival is most likely to be effective.


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