Wanna be a light hunter?

We all know that light is the essential element in photography. Understanding how it acts and the factors that influence it is mandatory.

For sunlight, we can distinguish the following light phases depending on the elevation of the sun: golden hour, blue hour, twilights, daytime and nighttime.  Starting time and duration of these light phases depend on the location. Predicting them is required in landscape photography.

Wanna be a light hunter? The following list shows the different light phases depending on the elevation of the sun

  • Nighttime (below -18°)

  • Twilights (from -18° to 0°)

    • Astronomical Twilight (from -18° to -12°)

    • Nautical Twilight (from -12° to -6°)

    • Civil twilight (from -6° to 0°)

  • Magic hours

    • Blue hour (from -6° to -4°)

    • Golden hour (from -4° to 6°)

  • Daytime (above 6°)


Twilights happen between night and day, before sunrise and after sunset.  Also the sun is below the horizon but it does light up the atmosphere.

Civil Twilight

Civil twilight describes the time that the sun is at -6° to 0° below the horizon. If you remember, that includes the last bit of the golden hour and all of the blue hour. The sky is changing colors quickly at this point and there is enough light to move around without having really any trouble. Planets in the sky will be visible and some stars, especially those on the opposite horizon of the sunrise/sunset. The sun has passed the horizon line, but there is still plenty of good light for photos if you are willing to stick around.

Nautical Twilight

When the sun is -12° to -6° below the horizon, we find ourselves in the time known as nautical twilight. Sailors could really begin to make accurate star readings for navigation, so it seems like that is where the name comes from. Light is showing clearly on the horizon is often described as “first light.” The sky is a dark blue hue and now you can really get long exposures without resorting to using a Neutral Density filter.

Astronomical Twilight

At this point, the line between night and astronomical twilight is very hard to distinguish. Officially, the sun is -18° to -12° below the horizon. Most people at this point would just call this night. The stars are out, the horizon shows basically no light, and if the moon isn’t out, then it’s really hard to see. Constellations are visible and the Milky Way can be seen if there isn’t a moon (or light pollution). There is a small difference though between now and night time, but you probably would only notice it if you stayed up all night and watched the transition in the morning from night to astronomical twilight to nautical twilight to civil twilight to dawn.

Magic hours

Magic hours are a more diffuse concept than twilights.  The blue hour and the golden hour are considered, especially by landscape photographers, the best moments to take pictures, because lighting is soft, diffused, and warm.

Golden Hour

The golden hour is the period of time the color of the sky goes from red and orange to yellow or, as its name suggests, golden tones, having a warm color temperature. Lighting is soft, diffused and with little contrast, since the sun is low in the sky.  Due to the type of light that exists during this period of time, that doesn't produce strong shadows and harsh lighting, it's ideal for landscape photography.  This occurs when the sun is at -4° to 6°

Blue hour

During the blue hour the sky has a deep blue hue with a cold color temperature and saturated colors. At the beginning (evening) and at the end (morning), a gradient of colors, from blue to orange, can be seen right in the place of sunset and sunrise.  This occurs when the sun is -6° to -4° below the horizon.

Here's a secret about know when these will occur: use an app.  There are several out there from free to paid apps.  The ones I use are: Magic Hour, Photopills, and The Photographer's Ephemeris (TPE).

Now you are armed to be a light hunter, so go out and hunt the light.


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