What’s the Best Time of Day For Outdoor Portraits? (The Answer Might Surprise You)

Ever wondered what’s the best time of day for outdoor photos, amazing wedding shots, and outdoor photography in general?

This article will explain and give you everything you need to harness good natural light that will make your photos stand out. The concept of golden hour applies to both photo and video, and it’s super useful both for self-portraits, mobile snaps, and professional photoshoots.

Let’s illuminate the topic in some more detail.

Golden Hour Demystified

As you’ve probably noticed, soft light helps enhance portrait photos, while the midday sun makes it difficult to get a flattering photograph.

But luckily, there is a particular time of day that we refer to as the golden hour.

More specifically, the last hour before sunset and the first hour during sunrise are both within the magical hour for outdoor photos.

Although, the exact timing varies depending on the season, weather conditions, and location.

There are several technical reasons why the golden hour works like a charm for weddings and portraits alike.

Firstly, when the sun is sitting low in the sky, it produces gentle, warm light – which creates pleasing outdoor pictures, with little harsh shadow to speak of. 

The natural light white balance varies throughout the day. During sunset, it tends to have a warm, almost golden hue – hence the name. In the early morning, the light produces pastel-like, soft, desaturated colors.

A bit later, though, it might get replaced by a warm glow.

While those golden rays can do wonders to a portrait, it can still be challenging to get a good exposure.

In particular, with backlit outdoor shots – this is when a golden-colored reflector or even a speedlight comes in handy. But more on this later.

Technical Quality vs. Aesthetic Quality

There can be a massive gap between technically excellent quality and a beautiful image that evokes emotion in personal forms of expression like music or photography.

For example, a professional passport headshot made in a studio – versus a cozy mobile sunset photo at the beach. Or even a moody, desaturated capture full of mist and morning fog.

In practice, striking a balance between the two can be difficult. Usually, it’s best to expose for the model’s face using spot metering mode.

However, this tends to blow out the background highlights in the process. And yet, by using exposure bracketing, you can often save the background.

Alternatively, you can add some drama to the shot by letting the light hit from the side. Front-light is definitely also a thing.

If unsure, simply experiment your way through the scene and find what produces the best results.

Breaking the Rules

In outdoor photography, like in any creative craft, breaking the rules may lead to unexpected results and help establish your personal style.

However, before breaking them, you should be intimately familiar with them first. Make sure you understand composition and lighting, learn to communicate effectively with your model, and of course, master your equipment.

Having a solid understanding of the exposure triangle and basic camera settings is vital.

Regardless of what camera you are using, it’s entirely possible to consistently produce fantastic outdoor portraits. The clouds on an overcast day work as a gigantic softbox, creating soft, gentle light.

Although, it can come across as cold and dull. Of course, portrait photography is possible in direct sunlight, too.

But then, you’re either restricted to high contrast shots – or need to either find shade or use a reflector or a flash to help open up any harsh shadows.

Interestingly, the shots that convey the most mood and feeling are often the ones that are technically speaking imperfect – perhaps even with vignetting or crazy flares.

Somehow, there is an air of authenticity to them. But when it comes to lens flares, not all camera glass is created equal.

Lenses That Produce Nice Flares

How to get beautiful lens flares in portrait photography? Actually, it depends. While many modern lenses attempt to combat flaring via lens construction, coatings, and lens hoods, vintage lenses tend to make dramatic flares.

Simply shoot against the light and try. Some of the vintage glass that is notorious for making nice flares is PENTAX Super-Takumar 28mm f/3.5 and HELIOS 44-2 58mm f/2. Nikkor glass is also generally known for being strong in this area. 

You can always check out Flickr – simply search for ‘flare portrait’ or ‘sun flare.’ If you search for the lens name simultaneously, you’ll get a good idea of how a specific lens performs in terms of flares.

Also, try stopping down your lens at or close to its minimum aperture while shooting against the light. This tends to produce spectacular star-shaped flares that look pretty cool.

What Is Blue Hour?

Now that you’re familiar with the golden hour, you might be surprised to know that there is also something called the blue hour. To see it for yourself, simply stick around after the sunset.

You’ll notice that the sky and overall light gradually transition into cool, blue hues. This happens when the sun is below the horizon – and the rays of light hit the atmosphere at a certain angle, resulting in the blue spectrum becoming dominant.

While the blue hour might not have the magical glow of the golden hour, it can create a rather unique look and feel in any outdoor photo. Both landscape and wedding photographers like to leverage the brief opportunity. 

What’s the catch? Since the ambient light rapidly decreases during blue hour, those stops need to be gained elsewhere. By slowing the shutter speed way down, it becomes easier to get proper illumination. It also helps to bump up the ISO to 800-1200 and go nearly wide open on the aperture.

Reflectors won’t do much good at this stage, but a flash or LED-based fill-light light with a diffuser can drastically improve the shot.

Additionally, if using a tripod, you can stack exposures taken at higher ISO in Photoshop to eradicate the noise.

Accessories for Outdoor Portrait Photography

One of the challenges of shooting during golden hour is dialing in the correct exposure. This is where accessories can save the day. A golden-colored reflector will set you back around 10 bucks, and it can help bounce light onto the model’s face for a warm, even glow.

With side-lighting, a reflector can help open up the shadows from the opposite side. You can even make your own upcycled reflector in a pinch. Simply grab the foil-covered cardboard pieces from supermarket salmon, pastries, etc.

It’s a common misconception that speedlights are only for dark conditions. They can help a lot in opening up shadows and producing an even, diffused light on the face.

All while the background is glowing with that magical sunlight. A flash is a highly portable and customizable device. Combined with a reflector, it can make or break a photoshoot in any kind of challenging light condition.

Oh, and other gadgets such as photo props and lens balls are fun to bring, too. In particular, items like vintage bicycles, guitars, and umbrellas, can really add something special to a picture. And visual elements like silhouettes and reflections can turn any good photo into extraordinary. 

Apps for Golden Hour Photography

Since the golden hour is a relatively short-lived phenomenon, it pays to come prepared. Apps such as PhotoPills and Google StreetView let you find the composition ahead of time – and simply show up on location in good time.

There are also exposure calculators for both Android and iPhone. Those come in handy when taking extremely long exposure photos.

As for flares, they don’t actually need to be authentic. Loads of great and easy-to-use mobile apps let you add in and adjust different lens flare and starburst effects. Or even a moon and other celestial objects.

Although it can feel like cheating, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Many of the legendary photos throughout the times have been intentionally set up and edited.

The most important thing is telling the story and creating an emotional response with the viewer.

Conclusion

Golden hour is known as the best time of day for outdoor wedding photos, portraits, and even landscapes and street photos. And once the sun has set, there is a brief period called the blue light, which can help produce rather unique images.

While even the golden hour can make it hard to nail the exposure, essential accessories like a tripod, a reflector, and a fill light, can help illuminate the subject correctly.

When shooting in broad daylight, overcast skies produce soft, flattering light – although lacking the magical glow found during golden hour.

Finally, mobile apps like PhotoPills can take the guessing work out and let you dial in a shot ahead of time.