When planning a portrait shoot, I've been asked, “what's the best time to take our portaits?” Some have heard that you should shoot at sunrise or sunset, some have heard that a cloudy day is best, and still some have heard other advice.
The best time of day to take portrait photos is in the couple hours after sunrise and the couple hours before sunset. Within that time, it is better to shoot after the morning golden hour or before the evening golden hour.
What is golden hour?
Golden hour is a time of day when the sun is low in the sky. It happens twice a day, at sunrise and at sunset. Despite the name, it can last longer than an hour depending on where you are on the earth and what time of year it is. Because the sun is low in the sky, shadows are softer, and the angles and length are more flattering. As the name implies, the warm colors are more prominent at this time of day, which gives a flattering look to portraits.
Why is the best time not golden hour itself?
Golden hour is a great time to make portraits, but there are a few reasons why you are probably better off focusing on the time immediately after morning golden hour, or immediately before golden hour.
- Golden hour is a time of extreme dynamic range: When the sun is overhead, there isn't usually a big difference between the brightest brights and the darkest darks in the scene (dynamic range). When the sun gets low in the sky, this changes. One of the reasons why photographers love golden hour is because of this very phenomenon. The trouble is that cameras struggle in this dynamic range. Some of them are much better than they used to be, but none are as good as the human eye. Choosing a time where the sun is a little higher in the sky will help give the look of soft light, but without as much trouble with dynamic range.
- Fill light can be harder to obtain: With a lower light source, everything will feel much more directional. There is less light just bouncing around to fill in shadows on faces. You can mitigate this by using a reflector, but this is a little easier when the sun is a little higher. Don't underestimate the effect that a low sun can have on your subject as well. Having a low sun means that every time the sun is in their view, they are going to have to work hard not to squint.
- Light changes quickly during golden hour: Golden hour is a fleeting moment, especially when doing a portrait shoot, and it is a time of constantly changing light. Shooting during golden hour requires that settings are changed frequently, and it can be easy to spend too much time on the technical details and to not have time for the artistry. Choosing a time where the sun is a little higher in the sky gives a pleasant light, and one that is more consistent and predictable.
- It can be very early or very late: This may not always be a problem, but golden hour does come early and late in the day, especially in summer. It is possible that your client may not be up for meeting you at 5:30 A.M. to take those senior portraits. It can also be hard to get access to some of the places you might want to shoot very early or very late in the day.
- The color can be too much: Colors at golden hour are beautiful, but they can be overpowering and distracting. In portrait photography, your goal is to focus on the person or people that are your subject. A crazy, explosive sunset in the background is not always a complimentary choice. You want nice color and interesting sky, sure, but if the sunset is more interesting than the subject, you have a problem.
- You can run out of time: As mentioned above, golden hour is typically pretty short. If you aren't on your game, you will run out of time. In the morning, you can just continue shooting, but in the evening, you will be out of luck.
Choose the time after morning golden hour or before evening golden hour
Those times that are next to golden hour will give a similar look to golden hour, but without the problems mentioned above.
The times after morning golden hour and before evening golden hour will give you the best combination of soft, direction light, and bouncing, ambient light. The light will be warm, but not distracting. The dynamic range of the scene will be a little bit smaller, meaning that your camera will better capture the brights and the darks in the image. Your subjects won't have the sun in their eyes.
The look you get during these times is still similar to golden hour. The sun is still relatively low in the sky, the light is still pretty soft, but the light is more consistent and the scene is easier to capture.
Another nice feature of shooting near golden hour is that depending on the work you are doing, you can choose to include golden hour as a part of your shoot. You can use the time next to golden hour to get your bread and butter shots, and then do something more bold and stylized as the sun gets low.
How to calculate the actual time to shoot
Using an app or website that will give times for sunrise and sunset, as well as times for golden hour, is the best option to determine when to go out and shoot. Here are some good options:
If you only have your sunrise or sunset time, which is easily obtained from a google search or even by asking Siri, Alexa, or your preferred virtual assistant, you're pretty safe in most parts of the world to assume that golden hour runs about one hour after sunrise, and about one hour before sunset. You can figure out your shoot time based on that information.
Incidentally, there is also a skill for Amazon Echo that can give you the time of golden hour. If you have an echo, it's worth checking out.
How to use the sun at this time
It may seem like an odd thing to think about, given that we use the sun every day, but when shooting portraits, it is important to consider how you will use the sun as a light source. At the time of day I am recommending, there are a few different options that may work well for you.
- Sun as backlight: This is my favorite way to shoot in this light. Place your subject between your camera and the sun. You can play with the angle here, so the sun could be directly behind your subject, or somewhere behind your subject but in frame, or behind your subject and out of frame. These will yield different looks. Backlighting really shows edge detail, so make sure that stray hair and other potential distractions are under control. The important technical detail in this setup is to make sure that you set your exposure to properly expose the subject, not the background. Spot metering can help to dial this in properly. It is possible that your background will blow out to white when shooting this way. If you want to keep that under control, use a reflector to put some light on your subject. This will reduce the dynamic range between the subject and the background.
- Sun as key light: Putting the sun behind you or to your side can work in certain situations as well. Anywhere that you would put a key light (directly over your camera, off to the side at 45 degrees, or an even more extreme angle) is a place that you can put the sun. The sun will probably still be low enough that this can be a fairly soft light. You'll most likely want a reflector to soften shadows on the face. I like to put the sun at a more agressive angle, like 60 degrees to one side of the subject, and make sure that I can fill in the shadows with a reflector. Keep in mind that a strong angle will accentuate potentially unflattering detail on the face, so use this setup with caution. Also, do pay attention to the intensity of the light. It's possible that it will be too strong and your subject will be forced to avoid squinting. This setup won't always work.
- Sun hidden: Another thing you can do is to put the sun behind something, like a tree. Of course, you can shoot in shade in any time of day (more on that below), but by putting the sun behind an object, you can get interesting glow and ambient light off of that object. I like to put the sun behind a large tree, and then put my subject in front of a tree. The shadows should be OK because the sun is blocked, and the tree will give an interesting, rim-lit glow.
What if I have to shoot midday?
Taking portraits midday is more difficult, but don't let anyone tell you that it is impossible. You simply need to know the limitations of that type of light, and find ways to work around it. Here are three quick tips on shooting midday.
- Find the shade: If the transition between light and shadow is harsh and ugly, the easy solution is to go somewhere that is pure shadow. This is a limitation you will have to consider when choosing a location to shoot. My favorite sources of shade are large trees, sides of buildings and park pavilions. When shooting under something like a tree, be sure that you are in pure shade. If the leaf cover is not dense enough, you can be left with a splotchy mess, so do watch out. If you are somewhere where there is no shade, you can always make your own. For shooting up close, it can be as simple as using a reflector to block the sun. For larger setups, you can purchase or make a light tent or other large diffusion panels. These are essentially pieces of translucent rip-stop nylon on some sort of frame that will diffuse sunlight. You can make them with supplies from your local hardware and craft stores!
- Get fill light: At midday, the shadows everywhere are harsh, but they are most noticeable on your subject. Using a reflector or fill flash if you have one will eliminate the worst of the problem.
- Post-process: Editing your images in a program like Lightroom can help eliminate the distractions of harsh shadow. Even if you have to shoot in a less than ideal situation, you can boost shadows, bring down highlights, reduce local contrast, and use tools like the brush tool or the radial filter to bring emphasis to the right place in the photo.
Are there other great times to take portrait photos?
Sure there are! Here are some other good options:
- Cloudy weather: Sun, you just scored yourself a giant softbox! On a cloudy day, there is shade everywhere, so you can shoot any time of day. Keep in mind that if the sky is drab, thing will look drab, so unless it is interesting, try not to include too much of the sky. Also, the light will be very blue, which is not a flattering portrait light, but you have some leeway to adjust this in post-production.
- City at night: Today's cameras are good enough that you can take night portraits without flash if you have other light sources available. I realize this is not “natural light” in the strictest sense, but is is light you can access without flash gear. Try taking portraits under city streetlights, or next to the marquee of a theatre. These photos can be unique and compelling.
- Next to any big window: When the sun is high in the sky, consider going inside and shooting next to a large window. Window light is nice because it is usually soft and even. You get the brightness of midday light without the harsh shadows. Consider using a reflector to even out shadows on your subject's face.
I hope you've found some helpful information in this article about the best time of day to take portrait photos in natural light. Let me know in the comments what time of day you prefer, or if you have any natural light photography techniques that you really like!