Photography can be seen as the art of manipulating light to get the best photo possible. Experienced photographers can look at a scene and then beyond that to the light that’s shaping it. If you ask a photographer what the best time to take pictures outside is, they’ll more than likely tell you early in the morning or as the evening settles in.
However, there are a couple of helping hands along the way, with nature giving us some of the best lighting conditions we could ask for. The problem is, sometimes you have to work for it, often getting up early to catch the first rays of light.
This article aims to show you the best time to take photos outside if you want amazing light for your subject. Want to know more? We have an entire course dedicated to natural light portrait photography that you should check out if you’re serious about harnessing the light for incredible photos.
What is Blue Hour?
Blue hour is a term that generally describes the time right before the sun rises and right after the sun sets. As the sun falls further below the horizon, the sky will turn into a nice blue hue. This happens the majority of the time, although you may see other hues, such as red, pink, and orange.
This blue ambiance doesn’t necessarily last an hour, with the average time being closer to 20-40 minutes of optimal shooting time. Blue hour photography is a wonderful way to introduce color, clouds, and reflections into your shots. For photographers, it is a great way to express a combination of technical skills and creativity.
How to Get Great Shots During Blue Hour
Beginner photographers will quickly learn that shooting great photographs during blue hour takes a little more effort than just going out and shooting. There are several factors to consider before composing and taking the final photograph during this magical time.
Always bring a tripod – The light may be beautiful, but it’s not bright. In this case, you will always need a longer shutter speed to avoid motion blur. The average shutter speed during the blue hour is around 1-6 seconds. A tripod will eliminate any camera shake and allow you to compose a great photograph for up to 30 seconds and more.
Use a remote shutter release – A shutter remote is a standalone switch that acts like the shutter button without having to touch the camera. Camera shake can happen moments after you’ve finished hitting the shutter button as the camera settles. In the absence of a remote, you can use your camera’s timer option.
Shoot in RAW – Shooting in RAW gives you all the information from the photo. In post-processing, your editing program will have access to more information which makes bringing out details easier after taking the shot.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The main advantage of shooting during the blue hour is the softness of the light on your subject. The blue, diffused glow ensures an easy-to-achieve exposure while preserving light trails from any stars or car lights that might be in the shot.
The downside to shooting during a blue hour is that inconvenient time of day. Blue hour in the morning is when the nighttime starts to recede. This means you have to be up pretty early to make it to your location in time for photos.
If you’re waiting until after sunset, then it eats into your evening time, as you probably won’t be leaving the site until the light is completely gone.
What is The Golden Hour?
You’ll hear photographers talking more about golden hour photography than you will about a blue hour, and for a good reason. Soft sun rays create a dreamy atmosphere for almost any type of photography. Additionally, a golden hue will permeate the color temperature of your photo, adding a richness that you can’t get from other times of the day.
Much like the blue hour that succeeds it, golden hour lighting doesn’t last very long, only lasting around 35-40 minutes. During this time, however, you will notice that skin tones and lighting will be consistent.
Tips on Getting Great Photos During Golden Hour Light
Golden hour is a special time that requires a little bit of planning to get right. The magic time of a golden hour for outdoor photos is an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise. Here are some of the best tips for optimizing your golden hour time:
It’s all about efficiency – You don’t have a lot of time to complete your work, so be sure to understand what it is you’re trying to shoot beforehand. For outdoor portraits, this means getting your plan down before shooting (including poses, costumes, and accessories). When you shoot landscapes, it’s about capturing that perfect angle with the light, highlighting your subject.
Check out your location before – Any photographer can go out and just start snapping photos at golden hour, but a great photographer will scout out a location or make a note of a previous one that would look good at this time. Keeping a notebook or photo diary of locations with alternative lighting condition ratings can help you pick the best spots for golden hour.
Clients love golden hour portraits – This is one of the most popular times for engagement, wedding, or portrait photos to be shot. The reflective light can ignite hair tones, and the subject is generally more relaxed as there isn’t harsh light causing them to squint their eyes.
Are You Unable to Shoot Photos During Golden Hour?
Sometimes that perfect soft light only found in the golden hour can be tricky to get to just because of the times of day it falls within. People are busy and have families, which makes it difficult to get up that early for a sunrise or even run straight from work to meet the sunset.
If you can only get out in the times when outdoor lighting is a bit harsher, then try to find a nice shady spot that can help diffuse the ambient light. Other photographers will use an off-camera flash as a fill light to kind of wash out the harsh sunlight.
If you are faced with overcast light, then it might be best to bring a gold reflector or adjust the color temperature of the photos in the post.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Golden hour is one of the best times for outdoor photography for a few reasons. First and foremost, there are incredible photos to be taken, but that’s not the real joy. Every time you step out of your comfort zone and wake up early or change your routine and go shoot during sunset as it improves your skills by throwing you into a new situation.
Plus, some of the best photo stories can happen during these moments as they are unique each time.
However, spend too much time composing your shots, and the beautiful warm light could pass you by. Timing is everything, and sunset photography has to be planned out beforehand. Additionally, the light will frequently change throughout the golden hour itself, so it takes a balanced approach to make the most out of it.
The Worst Time To Take Pictures Outside
Some photographers can argue that there isn’t a “bad” time to take pictures outside, but there are some conditions that prove troublesome in terms of lens flare, tonal range issues, and hazy images.
In terms of natural lighting, the worst time to take photos outside is in the harsh midday light, where the sun is directly above you. Portrait and landscape photographers dislike this time as the sun is so powerful it can wash out other colors. Not to mention the sharp shadows that it causes, impeding the dynamic range of the shot.
The best example that comes to mind is photographing old churches during the middle of the day. The clear skies are so bright that it washes out the detail in the architecture, while the shadows in the doorways are so deep that you can’t make out anything inside them.
One way to combat this is to take an HDR shot where multiple exposures of the same photo are combined to allow for more control in the range. While this is an effective technique, it can look fake if executed incorrectly.
Editing these photos can be a nightmare, as trying to bring back the detail in such deep shadows often causes a lot of digital noise, creating an unappealing and unnatural look to the image.
That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot photos in midday light and still not come out with excellent results. It’s just best to stick to the magic hours at the beginning and end of each day if you want to capture the best natural light for your images.
Overcast lighting is hit or miss with photographers, especially when shooting landscapes. On one hand, a cloudy day can impart a moody tone, which is great for street scenes. On the other hand, it’s terrible for a portrait subject as there is no directional lighting to enhance the photograph, it all kind of blends in.
Even though overcast light may not be the best for stunning vistas, it does still have its place. The dull, soft light is perfect for long exposures of rivers, streams, and waterfalls since there is relatively little glare. Active wildlife is a great choice for overcast skies, as the muted forest scene makes it easy to detect movement through the trees.
The Best Time To Take Outdoor Photos by Niche
The best time of day to take pictures outside differs depending on the type of photography you’re shooting. Golden hour light and blue hour diffusion definitely can add some ethereal mood to your shots, but what works for one niche may not work for the other.
Golden hour is probably the most popular time for photographers to shoot portraits. The soft, golden light works well with most skin tones, providing an even consistency that makes subjects look radiant.
A professional photographer looking to bring out hair tones will take advantage of the great light as it reflects off your subject’s hair causing a halo to appear. You’ll want to be taking pictures as soon as golden hour starts since every few minutes, the natural lighting will change, and the shadows start to dance around.
Keep the aperture wide open for that great blurry look that comes with a shallow depth of field. With some skill, your outdoor portraits can have the famous bokeh effect, where motes of light will look like overlapping circles, providing a great visual appeal to your backgrounds.
Landscape photography enthusiasts are those people you hear about who wake up at ungodly hours to go trudging through the wilderness to start taking photographs just as the color starts to peek into the night sky.
This is one of the photography genres that use the golden and blue hour for taking incredible photographs. Golden hour is great for mountain shots as the sunlight reflects off the rock surface.
Outdoor photos during the blue hour, especially in the morning with some nice fog, can get you some stunning images as long as you have a sturdy tripod. Since it is the precursor to darkness, a lot of night photography enthusiasts will take part in blue hour photography.
Outdoor photography is best with an aperture that can get every detail in focus. Some images can benefit from focus stacking, where several versions of the image are stacked on top of each other. Each image has a slightly different focus, mainly in the foreground, midground, and background.
Wedding photography is an all-day event, with a lot of the photos being taken as the night starts and the party begins. Golden hour light is some of the only natural light that wedding photographers trust for staged or candid moments.
Sunset portraits for a wedding offer a unique sense of time standing still, where you can go back and enjoy those moments over and over again. It’s why many brides, grooms, and parents want these photos taken during this magical hour.
Photographic genres such as product photography you often hear about happening in a studio under bright lights in a very controlled environment. A lot of manufacturers are switching to outdoor photography to take advantage of natural light.
A good example of this can be seen in the outdoor equipment product market. Merchandise such as axes, knives, tents, and other camping gear photos are usually shot at the end of a sunny day in the flattering light when there is a low sun. The calmness of the blue light during the blue hour helps promote relaxation and peace, much like camping does.
Harsh shadows and strong light are not a macro photographer’s ideal environment. Details tend to get washed out when subjected to either extreme or macro photography is all about capturing the smallest details.
Golden hours such as that found in the early morning make for great macro photo lighting as the softer light helps capture the entire dynamic range.
The idea of wildlife photography is to be where the animals are when they are there. Early morning and evening photoshoots are the best times to photograph a variety of creatures, as this is when they are most active.
Many bird photographers will take advantage of a sunny day and will spend all morning and afternoon shooting. Since they use a longer focal length lens, they will usually have a lens hood on the end, meaning that lens flare is mitigated.
Black and White Photography
Shooting black and white landscape photos can be tricky depending on the time of day or even the ambient conditions. For example, shooting a black and white image on overcast days can leave a slight blue tint to your photos as the clouds act as their own white balance slider.
Some photographers like this for an old school vintage look, but it can easily be corrected in post processing or even with your automatic white balance camera settings.
Midday light is a good candidate for black and white shots because of the sharp shadows that it can cast. Dramatic scenes are what make black and white so empowering, and sharp shadows with bright highlights create a great mood, especially for architecture shots involving old buildings or churches.
Real Estate Photography
Real estate photography is one of those niches where shooting the subject really depends on the direction that it’s facing. Natural lighting is vital to a good real estate shot, so you’ll always want the sun at your back illuminating the structure.
For example, when shooting photographs of a building or home, you want to stick to these general rules:
- Keep to the morning photoshoots for any east-facing structures.
- Start shooting in the early to mid-afternoon for west-facing structures.
- 10 am and 2 pm are ideal for north-facing structures.
- South-facing structures should be photographed first thing in the morning or in the evening.
Avoid inclement weather, as most listings should be as clear as possible to fully display the qualities of the property in the photograph.
One of the most flexible genres, street photography is popular amongst large urban centers. The flexibility lies in that you can photograph it at almost any time of day, in any weather.
A large amount of activity is already catching for the eye, so the ambient only adds an accent to the photo. This is the opposite of landscape photography, where the time of day really determines the quality of the final photograph.
Try for early morning or sunset to add some drama to your photos. Midday is great for highlighting architecture and overcast weather works really well to heighten any moody tones.
In the end, you’ll want to use these tips as guidelines since the rules of photography are meant to be broken. Essentially, you decide what the best light is for you taking photos, even if it goes against the grain. The best time to take pictures outside is during the best lighting conditions, whenever they are.
Just remember to double-check your camera settings and don’t get caught in any adverse weather conditions, and you’ll be taking incredible outdoor photos during the blue and golden hours.