Best Times of Day for a Photo Shoot

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Photographing subjects out-of-doors is an excellent way to achieve the right composition for the perfect image. Complement your models with striking backgrounds and natural lighting. This can result in stunning images that your clients will love.

But leaving the controlled environment of a studio comes with its own set of unique challenges. Don't let this discourage you.

With a little bit of prep work, you can take the guesswork out of your next assignment by taking advantage of the best time of day for a photo shoot. Depending on the quality of light and atmosphere you're seeking, planning your shoot for various times of day will have drastically different results.

Professional photographers swear by the perfect light of the "golden hour," which lasts for about an hour right after sunrise and an hour right before sunset when the sun is low in the sky and offers a soft, diffused light.

However, other times of day also offer great options for shooting portraits outdoors, as long as you know what to look for and how to use the different qualities of light to your advantage.

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Take Advantage of the Golden Hour

As we just described, the golden hour is a period shortly after sunrise and shortly before sunset. Photographers love this time of day as it creates a naturally diffuse, pinkish light that is excellent for shooting portraits and weddings — with virtually no extra gear required.

The golden hour offers the photographer creative control and provides great lighting for shooting just about anything and everything out-of-doors, from landscapes and city scenes to outdoor portraits and fashion shoots. Also, fewer people are typically out around dawn and dusk, so you can capture your image with fewer background distractions.

Use the lighting to your advantage by keeping these points in mind:

  • Shadows create depth: During the golden hour, the sun is at a lower angle, and the light is traveling through more of the earth's atmosphere, which results in a softer and less-intense direct lighting. This creates less contrast and makes for a more even exposure. The angle of the light also produces nice shadows and pleasing contrast, adding depth to your images.

  • Timing is everything: Be sure to arrive early enough to set up and be ready to go the moment the light is right. Keep shooting constantly, as the light can change minute-to-minute during this time of day. Be sure to shoot through the full hour to capture the wide range of effects.

  • Natural light for beautiful portraits: The warm light of the golden hour is the most flattering for portrait and fashion photography. The softly diffused light makes skin look soft and allows subjects to look toward the sun without having to squint.

Use this lighting to your advantage. There are five creative lighting elements you can use to create striking images during this enchanting time of day:

  1. Front lighting: Just as the name implies, front lighting involves facing your subject into the sun, so they are bathed in the warm, flattering light.

  2. Backlighting: Backlighting is the opposite of front lighting in that you have your models pose with their backs to the sun, which will surround them in a soft, warm glow. Consider using a reflector or fill flash to keep your models from looking too dark.

  3. Rim lighting: This is similar to backlighting but shot against a dark background, achieving a soft glow around the edges of your subject.

  4. Flare: Flare occurs when the sun hits your lens directly. Typically, you want to avoid flare, but during the golden hour, sun flare can add visual appeal to your images.

  5. Silhouette: Because the sun is low in the sky, silhouettes are best shot during the golden hour or the blue hour. Position your subject in front of a brightly lit background to achieve this effect.

The golden hour offers some amazing lighting options, but it also comes with its challenges. The dramatic colors can be too distracting and can overpower your subject. It can also be harder to bounce light and fill the shadows on your model.

Though the dynamic range of the golden hour is great, light changes quickly during this time. Settings will need to be adjusted more often, meaning you spend more time on technical details and have less time for creative artistry. Also, depending on the time of year, the golden hour can occur quite early or late in the day, and sometimes schedules just won't allow for this timing.

Other times of day offer great alternatives that are more predictable and easier to control than the golden hour.

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Get Ready for a High Noon Shootout

High noon is often touted as the worst time of day to shoot a good photo. The direct light of the sun can be harsh, causing colors to bleed and resulting in images that are flat and blown out.

But don't be fooled. With a little extra effort, you can take your midday photos from overexposed perfectly composed.

  • Set the scene: The noon sun can create stunning and dynamic photos with deep shadows and bright highlights. Let your creativity run free in these situations. Scout the perfect location, consider the composition and then guide the subject into the image. Dynamic contrast will make for an exciting photo.

  • Play with lighting: Try to find a shady spot with enough coverage for your models. Or be brave and let them stand directly out in the sun. To compensate for the harsh lighting, use a reflector from the side or a fill flash to bounce light onto the subject, which will fill in the harsh shadows and make the colors brighter. Or use a white translucent bounce like an umbrella — hold it above the model to block the sun and create open shade.

  • Experiment with shadows: Play up shadows to your advantage. Bright daylight results in deep shadows that can create alluring compositions. Use them to guide the eye to your desired focal point within the image. Keep in mind that the eye will always look to the brightest part of the image first, so playing with lights and shadows can allow you to control the focus of the image carefully.

  • Find the perfect background: Use your surroundings to your advantage. Natural reflectors abound during the bright midday sun. Urban locations can be great for midday photo shoots, since sidewalks, reflective buildings and light-colored cement can all serve as natural reflectors. Water and sand are also useful tools. Also, the right background will complement your subject's clothing. For bright colors, find an equally bright environment to create some interesting contrast. Alternatively, shoot at a location that has a more subdued or monotone background to make your models pop.

Based on schedules and locations, shooting fashion-forward photography under the midday sun is sometimes unavoidable. Don't let this stop you from creating beautiful photos that your clients will love. Don't be afraid to experiment and find the perfect strategy for every assignment.

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Opt for Easy Light in Mid-Morning and Afternoon

Some photographers argue that this is the best time of day for general photography because the sky casts a more natural yellow light with fewer harsh shadows, so you can worry less about exposure. There's typically less humidity in the air in the afternoon, meaning the light isn't as diffused, which can result in wonderfully abstract shadows.

Because of the quality of the light can be more direct during these times of day, many of the same rules apply for shooting photos in mid-morning and afternoon as you would use when photographing models at high noon.

Pay particularly close attention to your background when shooting during these times of the day. You'll want to select an environment that enhances your model's appearance and features. Beware of bright sun and reflective backdrops, which can cause your model to blend into the surroundings.

Again, fill light — using a flash or a reflector — is your friend in these situations. Use it to enhance skin tones and avoid harsh shadows on your model's face. Since you won't have to worry so much about lighting during this time of day, pay extra attention to the framing and composition of your photos to keep them from looking flat.

Another way to do this is to keep the sun behind your subjects, so their faces are shaded. Depending on the angle of the light, this can also create stunning rim lighting around your model's hair and shoulders.

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Discover the Beauty of the Blue Hour

More commonly known as dawn, dusk or twilight, the blue hour is the time that precedes or follows the golden hour. This is the period before sunrise and after sunset. This lighting casts a cool, pastel-colored undertone. The light is very subdued because the sun's rays are coming from below the horizon, resulting in low contrast.

Since the sunlight is almost gone during the blue hour, your photos will have a blueish hue, and the difference between shadows and highlights is much less pronounced. The blue hour is great for shooting cityscapes and monuments or other static subjects in shutter priority mode.

Portraits are also possible. You'll need to use every bit of available light, so shoot toward the sun or shoot around water, which will reflect the remaining light onto your model. Set your model up in front of a background, like a cityscape, that creates visual interest and provides contrast to make your image more dynamic.

Photos shot during the blue hour are great candidates for conversion to black and white, particularly when shot with a cooler white balance. Black and white photos shot during the blue hour will have striking luminance, which can be particularly beautiful on bare skin.

Although it's called the blue hour, this lighting typically lasts only a few minutes, so be prepared to work fast, and as always, plan ahead.

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Nighttime Can Be the Right Time

If you're only shooting photos in the daylight, you're missing out on some great potential photos. Nighttime is an excellent time to shoot dramatic portraits and glamorous fashion photography.

When shooting at night, consider posing your model as part of a larger scene, with the light and crowd blurring around the model while they stay in focus. This will draw the eye to your subject. Or bring them closer to the camera and use bokeh in the background to create interest.

The absence of natural light gives you complete control over your light source and how it falls on your model or subject. A couple of strategies will help you capture fantastic night photos and help you get just the image you're looking for:

  • Use the right settings: Shooting at night will be easier if you have a good familiarity with your camera settings. Open up the lens aperture to let in as much ambient light as possible. Consider using a low-power speed flash off-camera to provide better light for your models without washing them out and causing overexposure.

  • Use environmental light: Photographing people at night using environmental light sources — such as street lamps or headlights, light streaming out of windows or light from flames — can create dramatic effects. Find a location with a pleasing light source, and pay close attention to how it hits your subject. In this case, avoid using a fill flash. Instead, opt for a reflector if your model needs a light boost.

One beautiful thing about night shots is that you have plenty of time to stage the perfect shot — there's no waiting for the sunlight to change just-so.

Tips for Shooting at Any Time of Day

When properly equipped and prepared for the time of day for your scheduled photo shoot, you can create stunning images that capture the beauty of your models and will ensure that clients return to you whenever they need a versatile and creative photographer.

No matter what time of day you're shooting, a few simple tips will prepare you for whatever assignment comes your way.

  1. Do your homework: Always scout your location before the session itself, preferably during the same time of day you're scheduled to shoot.

  2. Tell a story: Use your surroundings to create a visual narrative that captures a unique brand or theme.

  3. Highlight the outfit: Be sure to emphasize the fashion and prioritize how you want the clothing presented. Get close when necessary to highlight patterns and don't obstruct the details that are the selling point of the garment.

  4. Create movement: Ask your subject to move and capture the action of the fabric in the photo. Or pose the model in a way that accentuates their natural curves and mimics natural movement.

Photographing the full potential of an image is about much more than having the newest SLR camera and the priciest lens. Capturing expressions and body language as well as movement in a static image is the hallmark of a great photographer.

Contact Mark DeLong for Your Next Project

If you have an upcoming fine fashion project and want to showcase beautifully designed products paired with talent and skill, contact Mark DeLong Photography. Mark is a commercial photographer and director who specializes in celebrity, fashion and beauty.