Here Comes the Sun: Chris McLennan’s Guide to Photography During The “Magic Hour”



Elephants at sunset, Khwai, Botswana, Africa

Elephants at sunset, Khwai, Botswana, Africa



Chris McLennan loves shooting in the early morning and late evening. He believes that magical twilights along with sunrise and sunset can add more emotion and drama to his images. “The golden glow and soft warmth gives you the ability to connect with the environment and to share your visions with others,” he enthuses.

 A professional travel photographer with 25 years of experience, Chris has worked commercially in over 50 countries and has shot in some of the most exotic and often challenging locations on the planet. The Nikon Ambassador loves coming up with new ideas, and is constantly exploring novel ways of photographing things differently. In addition to photography, he also enjoys documenting his adventures on film which are immensely popular, especially “Car-L Meets The Lions” which has had over 6 million views on YouTube. In this piece, Chris McLennan shares his tips on the five fundamentals of ‘Magic Hour’ photography.



My positioning for magic hour photography really depends on the subject I am photographing.  I choose my angle to make the best use of the light whilst always keeping in mind the composition of the overall scene.  It also helps if you can compose your subject matter so that it is enhanced or framed by the background light – which can be very dramatic at this time of day.

For example with the elephant image I stood on the roof of our safari vehicle to get enough height to be able to place the elephants cleanly against the glowing water behind them.

The magic hour is also a good time to include the sun in the image if you are shooting just after or just before sunrise as it will be very low on the horizon and much less harsh in your image.


My equipment normally consists of one of my favourite cameras, either the Nikon D800e or the D810.  I choose my lens to suit the scene and how I want to frame it, but it is generally a wider angle lens for this type of light.  This is because using a wide angle lens allows me to include more of the ambient light and dramatic skies common to magic hour photography.

For example my picture of the gannet colony at Muriwai Beach has been composed to include not only the misty water created by the longer exposure, but also the drama in the sky that evening.  A good solid tripod is a must as the shutter speeds during these lower light situations can be very slow.

Muriwai Beach at dusk on a stormy night.  Auckland, New Zealand.

Muriwai Beach at dusk on a stormy night. Auckland, New Zealand.



The timing for these shots is very important as the light changes very quickly and it can all be over before you have the shot you were after.  I recommend knowing what you want to shoot and being set up well in advance, and of course the better you know your equipment the quicker you can react and not miss the moment.  My favourite times to shoot are the 30-40 minutes before the sun rises and again 30-40 minutes after sunset.  This is when the light is low but has very soft and warm characteristics and it allows me to balance foreground elements with the morning / evening skies.


My main technique revolves around preparation and thinking of the look I want to achieve in the final image.  Sometimes this may involve waiting for a perfect exposure balance for the interior lights of a building to match the outside scene.  Other times it is about composition and choosing the right location to create an image that has good subject matter yet makes the best use of the dramatic light at this time of morning / evening.  It also requires an understanding of your camera settings and the length of exposure necessary to create the look you are after.  For example, although exposure time is usually longer at this time of day anyway, I will often choose to make them even longer by using a neutral density filter combined with a low ISO and small aperture to get the effect I am after.  If managed correctly these longer exposures can give a really soft and dreamy effect to any moving water in the image, and even to the clouds in the sky if the exposure is long enough.  As mentioned earlier a good tripod is essential!


There are numerous subjects to shoot at the golden hour.  Like all photography it comes down to imagination, foresight and preparation.  My personal preferences in the “golden hour” often include water for that dreamy feel.  I also like silhouettes when you can isolate a distinctive subject against a clean “golden” backdrop.  It is also the perfect time to shoot those special “hero” images if I am on a commercial shoot, as the more dramatic lighting will often make the final image much more memorable than if I had photographed the same scene or activity during normal daylight hours.