When planning a portrait shoot, I've been asked, “what's the best time to take our portraits?”
Some have heard that you should shoot at sunrise or sunset, some have heard that a cloudy day is best, and still some people have heard other advice.
My advice is basically as early or late in the day as possible so the sun is low in the sky, the most important thing is what you want the images you want to look like.
If you are looking for golden colours in the sky then the best time of day to take portrait photos is in the couple hours around sunrise and sunset.
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 colours 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 bright 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. 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.
- 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.
- The colour can be too much: Colours 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.
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.
What if I have to schedule my shoot around 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.
- Shoot in 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 favourite sources of shade are large trees, sides of buildings and park pavilions.
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.