The recipe for getting the perfect photos at golden hour is one part shooting, one part editing. In order to create those dreamy, Pinterest-worthy images you need to master both shooting and editing golden hour photos.
Part II of this ultimate guide to golden hour photography is dedicated to sharing some tips and tricks for editing timeless, golden hour photos. Whether you are a professional family photographer or a hobbyist photographer, this guide is for you.
In case you missed it – check out Golden Hour Photography – Part I: Shooting. Part I of this ultimate guide includes tips on finding great locations for beautiful light, how to shoot during golden hour as well as how to prepare your clients for these gorgeous sessions.
How does editing golden hour photos differ from a standard portrait session?
Light plays such a critical role in creating beautiful photos but the variability (and beauty) of the light at golden hour can be challenging to work with. Variations in lighting can be drastically different from shot to shot and session to session.
Unless you are working in a studio, with controlled lighting, golden hour light varies and your approach to each situation will be a little different. Here are a few common differences when it comes to editing images that are backlit.
Backlit photos merge two extremes into one image. With the light hitting your subject from behind, the background is often brighter than your subject, often leaving faces and details in shadow. In Part I, I encouraged you to use spot metering and slightly underexpose your image based off your subjects face. This will save some of your highlights in the sky but also keep some details on your subject. In editing, we will have to correct the exposure for both elements, subject and sky.
Any time you let light into your lens (aka – shooting towards a light source) you have the risk of creating haze. Haze can add a soft and romantic feel to your images but too much of it can degrade the clarity of your image. I personally do not love a very hazy image and will work on dehazing the image in post production. Depending on how cloudy, or hazy an image is, I will use the dehaze tool or just brush on the dehaze on the subject. Caution needs to be used however, as it’s very easy to overdo it!
The sun is colorful and the color casts can get more and more intense as the sun moves closer to the horizon. Whether you shoot in Kelvin or Auto White Balance, you may need to color correct your images a little different than a standard portrait. Although I strive for timeless and clean edits, I often embrace the warmth of golden hour and try to preserve the colors of the moments.
With the presence of the sun and a directional light source in your photos, you can add some enhancements to your image for added effect. Using an inverted radial filter with a soft feather, slightly warmer temp and even a cast of color will add emphasis to the beauty of the image. I will occasional use this to enhance my images ever so slightly.
Finding Your Own Golden Hour Style
As a photographer, you are an artist and will undeniably develop your own style. This applies even moreso to how you handle the variations you will see in golden hour photography. The combination of how you shoot and how you edit your work will develop your unique style.
As a Pittsburgh family photographer, I strive for a timeless and natural edit where I aim to recreate the beauty I saw in person. Personally I try to maintain a level of clarity in the details and try to avoid too much haze.
The step-by-step edits I suggest next are simply what I use. I encourage you to find a style and look that works for you and fits your unique style.
Step-by-Step Example to Editing Golden Hour Photos
For this example, I will be using Adobe Lightroom which is what I use primarily for editing.
Step 1: Color Correction + Exposure Compensation
I do all my white balance corrections based off the skin tone. This image was shot in Auto White Balance, prior to me making the big jump to shooting in Kelvin! The image was very cool, especially given the warmth and color of the sun setting.
Step 1 Adjustments: I changed the Temp from 4200 to 5350 to warm up the image. I also adjusted the Tint slightly from +14 to +7. When I warmed up the image, the skin tones were pulling too much pink. I will continue to recheck my Temp and Tint balance throughout the full editing process as changes happen.
I also adjusted the exposure of my image. It was overexposed in camera and needed brought down a good bit. I took the Exposure down a whole stop to -1.00.
Step 2: Apply Preset
Over the years I have slowly built a custom preset that works best for my editing style. After color correction is complete, I will apply my preset and continue to tweak Temp and Tint to compensate for any adjustments.
Step 2 Adjustments: My base preset uses lowers highlights, slightly bumps shadows and lifts whites. It also applies a series of s-curves to my tone curves and slightly the yellows and greens on the HSL slider.
Step 3: Use Adjustment Brush to Pull Focus
When you underexpose an image for the sky, this often leaves faces and details slightly darker. Use an adjustment brush to bring clarity and light back to where you want focus.
Step 3 Adjustments: In this image I applied an adjustment brush with the following adjustments. [ Exposure +.05, Shadows 3, Clarity 5, Dehaze 4] These small adjustments were enough to bring some light onto the little girls face and bring back a little clarity to further draw focus. Because I overexposed the image so much, the adjustments here were very minimal. If I had exposed the image a little different, these adjustments would have been greater.
Step 4: Use a Radial Filter for Drama and Focus
Golden hour gives the opportunity for beautiful artistic images. I love using a radial filter in these images. It not only accentuates the subject but by darkening the rest of the image, it brings out a richer color of the sky and surroundings. This can be accomplished with either a radial filter or a graduated filter.
Step 4 Adjustments: For this image, I loved the richness of the evergreens so I wanted to darken more than just the sky. I used a radial filter do so. I dropped the Exposure to -0.60 and use a fairly big feather at 68.
Step 5: Enhance the Light
For a more dramatic image, you can enhance the light by adding some color and warmth to the light. I don’t do this with all of my golden hour images but sometimes it’s fun to add a little extra something.
Step 5 Adjustments: This image didn’t need a lot and actually it’s barely noticeable but I added a tiny bit of enhancement just for fun. The color of the sun this evening was vibrant and rich to start. I just simply added a Graduated Filter to the skyline with Temp at +5 and a slight hue of orange color at 11%.
So there you have it! Like I mentioned, all photographers will have their own way to use the light at golden hour. Gorgeous golden hour photographs are a perfect blend of how the photographer captures that image at the session and how they choose to edit it.
If anything I hope this 2 part Ultimate Guide to Golden Hour Photography helped inspire some ideas of your own whether you are shooting for your own family or for your clients.
Did you miss Part One? Check it out here: Ultimate Guide to Golden Hour Photography – Part I: Shooting
If you have any questions, or want to see another example? Please let me know in the comments below!
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