Best time of day for outdoor photography – portrait tips

The truth is that any time is the best time of day for outdoor photography. It just depends on the look you want to achieve, the mood of the photo and who you’re photographing. Of course each time of day has its own unique challenges for a photographer, but once you know how to handle different lighting conditions, you can photograph whenever works for you.

There’s no one ideal time for outdoor photography, there are lots! Aside from the look you want for your photo, the main factors affecting when is a good time for outdoor portraits are:

  1. Time of day
  2. Weather
  3. Type of light
  4. Time of year

Quality of light, and how to use it, is the common thread in all these factors for determining the best time of day for outdoor photography. By quality I don’t mean how good or bad the light is, but whether it’s hard light or soft light.

We’ll look at each of these factors and I’ll give you some tips for photographing at different times of day so that you can photograph all day long if you want.

portrait at best time of day for photography
Outdoor photography in open shade with flash as key light and late afternoon low sun for backlight

1. Best time of day for outdoor photography

As I mentioned, the best time of day for photography outdoors depends on the look you want in your image, plus both the quality and quantity of the available light. Weather also impacts on the best time of day for pictures outdoors, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

The best times of day for outdoor photography are:

  • Early morning blue hour
  • Sunrise
  • Early morning golden hour
  • Midday (yes, despite what you’ve heard)
  • Late afternoon golden hour
  • Sunset
  • Evening blue hour
blue hour time of day photoshoot
Evening blue hour portrait with bokeh from lights in the background

Blue hour photography

During blue hour the sky is an amazing deep blue, almost purple. It’s particularly effective to photograph in the blue hour in cities as street lights will be on at this time. So the oranges and yellows of street lights contrasts beautifully with the purple/blue sky, because they’re complementary colors.

Blue hour isn’t an hour long, or anything like it, but it does happen twice a day. It’s actually quite short, so you have to be ready for it when it arrives. When is blue hour?

  • Morning blue hour – just before sunrise
  • Evening blue hour – just after sunset

Although it’s quite dark, it’s sill light enough to photograph with the right camera settings. Ideally you need a slow shutter speed, wide aperture and possibly also a higher ISO.

evening golden hour photo shoot
Warm glow of evening golden hour

Golden hour photography

I confess to being one of those photographers who just loves golden hour photography. The warm light of golden hour is beautiful. Not only is the color of golden hour light beautifully warm and flattering, but the angle of the light works well for portraits.

Golden hour is absolutely the best time of day for photographing at the beach!

Like blue hour, there are two golden hours each day, but golden hour lasts longer:

  • First golden hour –  just after sunrise
  • Second golden hour – just before sunset

It’s not necessarily an hour long. Where you are in the world determines how long golden hour lasts, with countries closer to the equator experiencing the shortest golden hour.

Even though in the early morning there are fewer people around, I prefer to photograph outdoors from late afternoon until after sunset, rather than the morning golden hour.

hard light portrait photo at midday
Direct sunlight at midday – she closed her eyes every few seconds to give them a break from the sun

Middle of the day photography

Many portrait photographers feel that the worst time of day to photograph outdoors is at midday. This is because midday light is harsh and directly overhead, so shadows can be unflattering. But that doesn’t have to be the case!

The biggest thing to watch out for when photographing in the middle of the day is raccoon eyes – on bright sunny days as well as cloudy days. When the light is straight overhead eye sockets will be in shadow, especially for subjects with deep set eyes.

However, even high noon on a sunny day is a good time for outdoor photography, if you know how to use the angle of the harsh light to your advantage. And of course if you want hard light.

If you don’t want hard light, find open shade for your subject. The soft, diffused light of open shade is very flattering on skin and you’d never know how hard the light was by looking at the photos.

sunrise photo shoot
Sunrise photo shoot at the beach – flash and natural light

Sunrise and sunset photography

Who doesn’t love a good sunset photograph? We all know how great the sky looks at sunset, so it makes a fantastic backdrop for portraits. Likewise for sunrise.

Sunrise and sunset are great times to add a little flare to your portraits, quite literally, because of the low angle of the sun. To capture lens flare ensure that the sun shines into the lens, but not full on. I find lens flare most effective and attractive when the sun only just touches the edge of the frame.

Plus, sunrise and sunset is the best time of day for photographing silhouettes, especially if you’re out in the open, like the beach or the countryside. For great silhouette photography:

  • Concentrate on the shapes created by your subjects against the sunset background for the best silhouettes
  • Expose for the sky in the background so that your subjects are dark

After dark photography

Just because the sun goes down doesn’t mean you have to put your camera down, especially for city photography. Night time city lights offer wonderful opportunities for beautiful bokeh in the background of portraits.

Bokeh is caused by out of focus spectral highlights. So with night photography in cities, the street and shop lights in the background create spectral highlights, and therefore bokeh.

sunset photoshoot
Sunset photoshoot with natural light only

2. Best time of day for photos in different weather conditions

Professional photographers very often have to work with whatever weather they’ve got, especially wedding photographers.

Sunny day outdoor photography

As a wedding photographer I used to dread a cloudless sky for outdoor photos. Sunny day photography can be quite challenging if where you can photograph is limited, because on sunny days shadows can be hard and very often unflattering, especially on older skin. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done though.

As a portrait photographer, however, I can decide the best time of day for a photo shoot. So sometimes I specifically plan outdoor sessions for a sunny day, because the hard light is exactly the type of light I want. It’s edgier and more suited to fashion. Plus if you’re incorporating sky into an image, a blue sky is nice.

I’ve listed the times of day for different portrait lighting patterns with natural light further down the page.

Tips for sunny day portrait photography:

  • To avoid harsh shadows find open shade and place your subjects in the shade for soft, diffused light
  • Photograph subjects with their back to the sun, so their faces are in shadow, use the sun as a hair light and a reflector for fill light to bounce light back into their faces
  • Embrace the hard light and use your knowledge of portrait lighting patterns to position your subject, but be aware that a butterfly light pattern will be difficult for them to maintain in direct light

Shadows in photography aren’t a bad thing, because they give form to the subject, which adds a three dimensional feel to an image rather than flat light without shadows. However, some shadows are good and some not – unflattering shadows, whether hard or soft, should be avoided.

So you really need to know about portrait lighting patterns, regardless of whether you’re using natural light, flash or ambient light (more on this in a moment).

soft light portrait with cloud cover
Very soft light as the sun had already set and the cloud cover was thick. I used a reflector to bounce light back into her face

Cloudy day outdoor photography

Cloudy days produce the most flattering natural light for portrait photography, because the sunlight is diffused by the cloud cover. So it’s very soft light, which is especially great for older skin.

But remember that, just because you can’t see hard shadows, doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention to light direction. The dynamic range of a camera sensor isn’t as great as human eyes, so camera’s don’t see as well and there’ll still be shadows.

What might look perfectly well lit to you could be too dark for your camera and you run the risk of raccoon eyes if your subjects are positioned with their backs to the light.

Because there’s less light on cloudy days for photography, your camera settings will be different from sunny days when there’s a lot of light. If you like to shoot wide open at maximum aperture, a cloudy day is the ideal time for outdoor photography.

Tips for cloudy day portrait photography:

  • Use a slower shutter speed and/or a wide aperture on very overcast days.
  • As with sunny days use a reflector for fill light to bounce light back into faces if subjects aren’t facing the towards the light
  • The best way to work out light direction on very cloudy days, is to hold out the the palm of your hand, point it slightly upwards and turn full circle while observing your palm. When it’s facing the light source it will be lightest and this is the direction your subjects need to face.
  • Try to exclude the sky on dull, overcast days as it won’t add anything interesting or dramatic to the image. Heavily overcast stormy skies on the other hand can be wonderfully moody and dramatic.

Natural light family photographers often favor a cloudy sky soft light with less contrast, which feels happy and carefree.

You just need to be careful not to photograph too late in the day on a cloudy day as there might not be enough light.

4. Type of light outdoors – best times

If using indirect light, like open shade, you don’t have to worry as much about what time of day it is, because the light won’t be directly on the subject. However, with direct light, time of day is really important.

I touched on portrait lighting patterns earlier, which is really important to know when using direct light to light subjects in portrait photography. However, the type of light that you’re using will determine when you can use the different lighting patterns. This includes:

  • Natural light
  • Ambient light
  • Artificial light

Let’s take a closer look…

midday photo shoot
Butterfly lighting pattern from direct sunlight

Natural light outdoors – direct sunlight

The first rule of natural light is that, as you can’t move the light, you have to move the subject in relation to the light. Secondly, time of day dictates which portrait lighting pattern you can use…. because you can’t move the light.

This is a rough guide on how to use the sun’s position to light portraits as location and season will affect times of day for photos, but it gives you a starting point.

Flat light

  • Early morning from blue hour to sunrise
  • Late afternoon from sunset through blue hour

Further reading: Flat light photography – how, when and why use it

Loop lighting

  • Shortly after sunrise
  • Shortly before sunset

Further reading: Essential loop lighting tips for better portrait photography

Rembrandt lighting

  • Mid morning
  • Mid afternoon

Further reading: Rembrandt lighting – what is it and how is it set up?

Butterfly lighting

  • Mid morning up to nearly midday
  • Shortly after midday up to mid afternoon

Further reading: Butterfly lighting for portraits – how and when to use it

Ambient light outdoors

Ambient light in photography is whatever light is present without the photographer adding light to the scene. So ambient light includes natural light, but for now the type of ambient light I’m referring to is street lights, shop lights and neon signs.

The best time of day for this type of lighting is in the evening from blue hour onwards.

photo at best time of day for outdoor photography
Photographed in the shade of a tree with sunlight filtering through from behind and lit (from front) by flash with reflective umbrella

Artificial light outdoors

Even choice of artificial light, such as off camera flash or constant lighting, for a photo shoot is affected by time of day.

The best time of day for constant light, such as LED lighting, is from blue hour onwards as it’s not powerful enough to use during sunlight hours.

Speedlights might not be powerful enough to use during the day in the direct light of the sun. So the best time of day for speedlights, when balanced with low ambient light, is during golden hour, blue hour and after dark.

Because strobes are more powerful, the best time of day for flash photography outdoors is during full daylight hours, through golden hour and blue hour. After dark powerful strobes will overpower the ambient light, resulting in a well lit subject against a very dark background.

4. Time of year

Some countries have very definite changes in seasons and each of the four seasons presents a different type of light, as well as a changed environment. In other countries it might not be such a dramatic change.

The color of light changes with the seasons, and the extent of the variation depends on where you are in the world:

  • Summer – warm, golden light
  • Winter – cooler, more blue light

Leave a comment

Any time of day is a great time for outdoor photography, but your subject and the mood you want to create will determine which time of day is the best time for an outdoor portrait photoshoot.

If you have any questions about the best times for portrait photos outdoors, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my outdoor portrait photography tips have helped you decide on the best time of the day for your photoshoot, share that too.

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