Macro Photography Lighting: The Ultimate Guide to Golden Hour Light

If you want to capture consistently gorgeous macro photography, then you need to master lighting.

And one of the best types of macro photography lighting?

Golden hour.

If you shoot during the golden hour, your chances of getting incredible photos go up astronomically.

But there are a few things you should know about golden hour lighting. Things that will help you take even more amazing macro photos…

Let’s go.

What Is Golden Hour Lighting?

Golden hour refers to the hour or two just after sunrise, and the hour or two just before sunset.

And golden hour is a macro photographer’s dream.

You see, when the sun is high in the sky, it produces harsh, unpleasant light. Light that makes for bad macro photos.

But once the sun drops, so that it’s low on the horizon…

Well, that’s when things get exciting.

The setting (or rising) sun produces beautiful, warm light–and this is perfect for capturing macro photos. It’ll help you capture lots of detail. Plus, it’ll give your photos a lovely orange glow.

Now, the precise time for golden hour lighting changes depending on your latitude and the season.

During winter, the sun sits lower on the horizon. This means that golden hour starts sooner and lasts longer.

During summer, the sun moves high overhead. So golden hour is much more fleeting.

However, golden hour exists in every location! You just have to look for it.

One more thing to note:

Golden hour only works if the skies are clear. If there’s cloud cover, then the beautiful golden light will be far more muted. While you can still use this for beautiful photos, it’ll be much harder.

Types of Golden Hour Lighting

All golden hour lighting works for great macro photos.

But there are actually a few different types of golden hour light. And each type of light will give you a different effect. They are:

  • Frontlight
  • Sidelight
  • Backlight
  • Shade Plus Sun

Let me tell you a bit about each type of lighting–and how you can use them for stunning macro photography.

Frontlight

Frontlight is a staple of macro photography. It’s the go-to light for most photographers.

And for good reason. Because frontlight works really, really well.

You get frontlight by letting the sun fall directly on the subject. That is, position yourself so that the sun is over your shoulder (behind you), and shoot in the direction of your shadow.

Frontlight is great for capturing detail. You see, frontlight is soft and golden, which means that it’s extremely easy to create nice, detailed exposures. You can capture both darks and lights in the same frame, without having to worry about heavy contrast.

Frontlight is also great for another reason:

The light is soft, but it’s still powerful. Which means that you’re able to increase your shutter speed beyond what other types of light allow.

So if you’re photographing moving insects, frontlight can be fantastic. Because it’s bright enough to get you a shutter speed in the 1/1000s (and greater) range. And this will allow you to freeze the insect’s motion.

The main drawback of frontlight is that it’s used so often. It creates a standard image, but not a unique one.

For more interesting photos, you should look to the next type of golden hour lighting:

Sidelight

Sidelight is golden hour light that comes from the side.

That is, it comes from off to the right or the left of the subject.

Now, sidelight is not a very common type of macro photography lighting. But that doesn’t mean it’s unusable.

Far from it.

You see, sidelight is fantastic for capturing drama in photos. When the light comes from the side, it illuminates part of the subject–put leaves the rest shrouded in shadow.

And this makes for some striking macro photography.

Try underexposing your sidelit photos. That way, you’ll get a darker, moodier, more dramatic photo. Something that’s stunning and unique.

Sidelight is also great for emphasizing texture. Sidelight creates a strong three-dimensional effect–one that offsets any edges or curves that already exists on your subject.

I’d recommend using sidelight on subjects that are full of curves. The sidelight will illuminate aspects of the subject, but will leave parts in shadow.

And this will make for a gorgeous macro photo.

Sidelight can also help you create a dark backdrop. Because the light comes from the side, it won’t fully illuminate the background. And then, with a bit of underexposure, you’ll be able to easily create a black backdrop.

Now, if you want to create dramatic macro photography (with a slightly different flavor), you should try:

Backlight

Backlight is a type of dramatic lighting.

Backlighting is when light comes from behind your subject. That is, your subject sits between you and the sun.

But there are two broad styles of macro photography backlighting:

Backlighting With Silhouettes

When most photographers think of backlighting, they think of silhouettes: dark subjects before a bright sky.

And it’s true. You can create some gorgeous macro silhouettes using backlighting.

Here’s how it works:

First, find a subject (ideally, a subject that stands alone and doesn’t intersect with any other elements).

Second, position that subject so that the sun sits behind it. Feel free to experiment with different sun placement. The key is to include a sky that’s bright–far brighter than your subject.

Finally, darken the photo using exposure compensation or by exposing for the bright sky.

Then take your shot.

You’ll capture a gorgeous silhouette.

Backlighting With Detail

While backlit silhouettes are beautiful…

…my favorite type of backlighting doesn’t involve silhouettes.

Instead, I like to use backlighting to capture shots like this:

Notice that the main subject includes some nice detail.

Here’s how you do it:

Position your subject between you and the sun.

But make sure that the sun is blocked by your subject. That way, you’ll have a fairly bright sky, but no ultra-bright zones.

Then…

Expose the shot for your subject, not for the background behind it.

You want a subject that’s well lit. And you want a background that’s very bright.

If you can do this, you’ll get a beautiful macro photo. One with a nice, golden halo.

A photo that you can be proud of.

Shade Plus Sun

I have one more type of golden hour lighting to talk about.

It’s special, not because of its drama, but because of its subtlety.

I’m talking about shade-sun combinations.

Here’s how it works:

Find a subject that sits in the shade.

And then look around…

Until you find a nice patch of golden hour sun–off in the distance.

You then want to position your subject so that it remains in the shade. And it has the golden hour sun in the background.

Then, if you take a shot, the main subject will look nice and beautiful. And the background will have something of a golden glow.

Like this:

Now, you want to make sure that you don’t blow out (overexpose) the background. Because you do want a bit of background color. Otherwise, the shot will lose its subtlety.

It can help to choose a lighter-colored subject. That way, you minimize the contrast between the subject and the background–and maintain that lovely sense of subtlety.

Golden Hour Lighting: Conclusion

You should now have a sense of the four main types of golden hour lighting for macro photography.

And hopefully, you know how to use this light to spice up your macro photography!

As I said in the beginning, you must learn to use light to your advantage.

And now that you know the main types of golden hour light, you are on your way to capturing gorgeous macro photos.

Now you just need to get out and practice!

Also…

If you want to keep improving your macro photography skills, then you should sign up for my newsletter! I’ll send you lots of tips, tricks, and secrets, all designed to get you capturing gorgeous photos (as fast as possible!)

(Oh, and you’ll receive my nature photography eBook, free of charge!)

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