Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Magic Hour

For the purposes of a post I am working on, I looked up the definition of the "magic hour", which is also known as the "golden hour" and wound up scratching my head. There is some confusion about the meaning of the term.

Wikipedia defines it thus: "In photography, the golden hour (sometimes known as magic hour, especially in cinematography) is the first and last hour of sunlight during the day, when a specific photographic effect is achieved due to the quality of the light."

At the website, the definition is more exact: "In photography the Magic Hour is the first and last hour of sunlight during the day."

At another website,, some photographers give their responses to the question "When is the magic hour?" One of them states:

"The term refers to the time when the sun is low in the sky. The exact time depends on geography, time of year, and weather conditions. It may only be a couple of minutes long, or the good lighting conditions may stretch for several hours (in the far northern summer, for example). There's a magic hour in the morning, too, but not as many people are awake and out taking pictures during that one."

Another response states:

"In a nutshell, when the term 'Magic Hour' is used, it is generally referring to the 1st hour of daylight and the last hour of daylight."

As I always understood it, the magic hour is actually the short period after the sun has already set, when the sky illuminates the earth. But since the light doesn't come from a single source, it is diffuse and creates no shadows. Everything seems lit as if from within.

In my DVD collection, I unearthed (almost literally, since the case has been mouldering in a corner for years) the disc of a documentary called Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography. Made in 1992 for NHK, the Japanese PBS, it is a splendid exploration of the history and art of cinematography. It contains numerous invaluable interviews with great cinematographers from all over the world, including one with NĂ©stor Almendros, the Spanish-born Cuban genius who photographed some of Truffaut's and many of Eric Rohmer's best films.

The story goes that after seeing Truffaut's The Wild Child (1970), Terrence Malick wanted Almendros to be his cameraman for Days of Heaven (1978).* Many of the outdoor scenes in the film were shot during the "magic hour", which was defined by Almendros himself in the film Visions of Light:

Magic hour is a euphemism because it's not an hour. It's about 20 or 25 minutes at most. It's the moment when the sun sets, and after the sun sets. Before it is night. The skies have light, but there's no actual sun. And the light is very, very soft. And there's something, as you say, magic. It limited us to 20 useful minutes a day. But it paid on the screen.

All this is tempered by the knowledge that, while making Days of Heaven, Almendros was going blind.

*The still at the top is from Days of Heaven.

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