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The Magic Hour

The ‘magic hour’. You may not have heard of it, but you’ll probably have experienced it. No it’s not the time of day when the likes of Derren Brown and David Blaine are most likely to appear on TV; it’s the period just after sunrise and just before sunset when the light is at its very best. Maybe you walk your dog at the crack of dawn, or perhaps you like to take him or her out late in the evening; in which case, you’ll know this can be a very special part of the day. It’s a good time to have your camera handy.

 

The fells ringing Wastwater in the Lake District glowing in the magic hour

 


Landscape photographers often wax lyrical about this period – sometimes they call it the ‘golden hour’ – when the angle of the sun adds an extra dimension to their art. They talk about the longer shadows lending the scene greater definition; about the more diffuse light adding softness and colour to the landscape; some will attempt to explain the difference between direct light and indirect light, and they’ll start getting all technical.

 

Keep your camera or mobile phone handy if you're walking your dog early or late in the day

I don’t pretend to understand the science of it, but I know from experience that these are the best times of day to be out with a camera – when the sun is low in the sky. Not only will the colours and ‘textures’ of your photographs be more interesting, there’s less chance of highlights being over-exposed or shadows being too dark.

In summer, you’ll need to set your alarm clock ridiculously early or stay out late in the day to appreciate the magic hour. In winter, it comes at a more civilised time. And, the closer you are to the poles, the longer the magic hour lasts. (The term ‘hour’ is a bit of a misnomer.) So, for example, if you’re standing close to the equator in March, it’ll last 45 minutes or so, but if you’re in northern Scotland, you’ll enjoy almost two hours of that exquisite glow. Travel beyond the Arctic Circle in June, when the sun barely sinks below the horizon, and the magic hour lasts most of the night.

 

A romantic sunset is best shared with a friend

My terrier Jess isn’t an early riser – well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it – so I don’t often get to experience the magic hour in the morning, but we often walk late in the day when the setting sun turns the countryside pink or orange or even a fiery red.

 

The Lake District fells seen in a 'new' light after a wild camp above Angle Tarn

My most memorable experience of the magic hour came while camping with my partner high on the Lake District fells. As I emerged from our tent soon after dawn, I was left speechless – the area we were in was familiar to me, but I was literally seeing it in an entirely new light. Here and there, what looked like tiny clumps of cotton wool clung to distant fell-tops; lines of pure white cloud streaked across an otherwise perfect azure sky; and the first rays of the day were bringing the colours in the landscape to life in a way I’d never experienced before. I still can’t find the words to describe the green I saw that morning. The light had cast its spell; it was simply magical.