Why Magic Hour is Overrated

Ask 100 photographers when to shoot and 99 of them will tell you the same thing: at sunrise or sunset. “But WHY?” you might ask and they’ll roll their eyes at your ignorance. “Because it’s the MAGIC HOUR… the time of day when the light is unequivocally, unquestionably, objectively BEST. Duh.”

And you know what? I get it. The idea that magic hour has the absolute best light of the day has been drilled into our heads so long as photographers that asking most shooters to shoot outside that time is like asking a fish to swim through the air.

Well, I am here to tell you that magic hour is overrated. I want to help you break the shackles of sunrise and sunset photography and show you that wonderful photographs can be taken around the clock.

Don’t get me wrong… shooting during magic hour can certainly lead to beautiful and engaging photos. I personally enjoy shooting then if conditions warrant. But one of the biggest problems with sunrise and sunset photography is that it always leads to the same look – a glowing, colorful sky sitting over some lovely landscape.

Why is this a problem? Because we’ve been tricked into overlooking the fact that, while the sky may be quite dynamic, the light on the landscape at this time of day is often flat, flat, flat, flat. Even using a graduated ND to equalize the exposure across the frame simply helps disguise the fact that the landscape is just sitting there in shadow while all the light is beaming through the sky. The more I look at magic hour photos from this perspective, the more they feel like each photo contains two separate halves instead of being one cohesive whole.

For me, this is the primary advantage of shooting outside of magic hour – it allows the light to interact with the landscape, creating a unique look and unified feel throughout the frame.

  • The lightbeams touching the ground in this late afternoon photo are what make the image.

  • Dappled light dancing on Los Cuernos del Paine, Chile.

The following photo was taken around 11 am in some of the harshest, brightest light I’ve ever photographed. But using that to my advantage to backlight these cactuses helped me create an interesting exploration of shape and pattern.

Isla Incahuasi, Bolivia.

Speaking of backlight, it’s some of the best light to make colorful foliage pop.

That Wanaka Tree, shot with an underwater housing.

Midday shooting can also lead to incredible atmosphere if you have the right conditions.

  • The Minarets in California on a hazy afternoon.

  • Carson Peak and Spindrift.

Midday lighting can also bring out wonderful textures, such as those present in lenticular clouds or desert landscapes.

  • These clouds were photographed around 2 pm.

  • Colorful Patterns in Death Valley at midday.

Don’t forget about rainbows or spotlighting either!

  • Rainbow in New Zealand.

  • Sunrise was about three hours ago. Damn, I guess I can’t shoot!

  • Hours before sunset and the clouds are painting amazing shapes on the mountains.

These are just a few examples grabbed from my portfolio to illustrate my point. Given time, I could show you a hundred more. The main thing they all have in common is that they were all shot well outside the magic hour.

So don’t be afraid to take the camera out whenever you see interesting light. And don’t feel guilty about missing a sunrise or sunset here and there. If you’re looking, you can find great conditions at all times of the day.

About Author Joshua Cripps

Joshua Cripps started making remarkable photos while he was still in the womb. His first significant image, titled Sonogram, was praised for its graininess, deliberate blurring of details, and gritty black and white mood. Earning two thumbs up from his parents, this photo only hinted at things to come. Since then Josh has won countless awards and accolades, including more than one “Certificate of Participation,” dozens of “Good Sportsmanship” plaques, and the coveted “Busy Bookworm” award. His mantel long ago collapsed under the weight of gold-painted, plastic trophies.

Currently Josh spends over 700 days every year in the field seeking out the finest landscapes on earth. He has a mighty beard and sings in a rich baritone. Hiking at least 45 miles to capture every photo, Josh ensures that every image he crafts represents the very heart of the wilderness. While you were reading this Joshua Cripps did 93 push-ups, won more awards, and became internationally re-renowned.