Photography literally means "drawing by light", and what better way to create a great photo than to draw with natural light. With its various hues, tones, and temperatures, natural light photography offers a diverse palette for creating awesome pictures. For natural light photography enthusiasts, the all-important question is - When precisely is the best time of day to take pictures? The answer is less than satisfying, but it's pretty simple. It depends.
Before you can determine when the best time to take pictures is, you'll need to decide what sort of photos you want to make. What is the mood you want to capture? What is your subject, and how do you want it to look in the images? These are artistic choices, only bound by your creativity and technical abilities with a camera.
One thing is certain, and that's that taking photos in harsh mid-day sunlight is less than ideal. But morning and afternoon light can produce beautiful, natural-looking images. Most photographers pick a golden hour to be the best time to take photos, but in truth, it might not always be right for your project. Blue hour and nighttime photography are some more options for natural light photography.
Ultimately, it boils down to figuring out what time of the day would be right for the photography you want to take. Let's take a look at the various options we have as natural light photographers and how we can use them to our advantage.
What's the Best Time to Take Pictures Outside?
For outdoor photographers, the time of day has one of the most significant effects on the photos you can make. Sunlight has remarkably different qualities depending on its angle from the subject. Just like the experience of being outdoors is remarkably different between high noon and sunset, and between dusk and midnight, so are the photos you can take. There's no limit to when you can take photographs.
With the right timing and the proper techniques, the best time to take photos outside can be any time of the day.
Is there a best time to take pictures? That entirely depends on the photo you want to take. Natural light photography is inextricably linked to the light nature provides. If you're looking for star trails, look for a moonless night. If you are searching for the best time for photography of people, consider how you want the portrait to be lit. Do you want the almost etherial warm glow that only a golden hour can provide? Alternatively, do you want a naturally lit outdoor portrait?
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Tips on the best time to take pictures outside with essential notes about technique and equipment:
Middle of the Day
The light in the middle of the day is challenging. With the light coming from directly overhead, the shadows produced are often awkward, especially on models and in portraits. Still, there are many times when the middle of the day is the best time to take photos. If you're shooting portraits on a tropical beach, the light flows through the water and makes incredible colors in the background. To get the lighting right on your subjects, however, you will need to use diffusers, reflectors, and possibly even fill lights.
The middle of the day is tricky, no matter what sort of photographer you are. Wildlife photographers would appreciate all of the light available to snap quick action shots. Unfortunately, most animals hunker down in the heat of the day. Those hot hours between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. are not the best time of day for photos. Early to mid-morning and mid to late afternoons have far more options.
The high sun angles can be used for shots in filtered light, however. If you're looking to do outdoor shoots at high noon, consider getting under the canopy of a tree or in a heavily wooded area. Here, the sunlight will filter through the leaves of the tree canopy and will lose their harshness. You might still have to use diffusers or reflectors if uneven shadows should fall on your subject.
Cloudy days diffuse the light for you. If you're looking for pictures of blue skies and good weather, this isn't the best time to take pictures. However, that wonderfully diffused light will make it a great time to take portraits. It's also fantastic if you're working on macros of flowers or wildlife. Waterfall photos will benefit from the fantasy-like wonder you can achieve with slow shutter speeds and flatter lighting.
Weather shots shouldn't be overlooked either. Thunderstorms raging might at first seem to indicate that your hopes of beautiful landscape pictures are dashed. But think again. Those dramatic clouds, swirling rain shafts, and bolts of lightning might add the perfect element of interest to take your landscape over the top. Cloudy skies can provide more attention to your background by adding new textures.
Golden Hour Photography
Golden hour is the most sought after time of day for photography. As a rough approximation, golden hour happens twice a day during the hour after sunup and the hour before sundown. During this time, the sun is at its most dramatic angle. Shadows are deep and dramatic, but they still fall naturally, and they aren't as harsh as they are in the midday sun. The light has a golden hue acquired as it travels through the atmosphere. Many photographers swear that the golden hour is the best time of day to take pictures.
Shooting during the golden hour isn't always easy. With such a limited time frame to work with, clouds and weather can rain on your parade. Additionally, with the sun so close to the horizon, things move quickly. You need to have shots set up in advance and work quickly, lest the lighting angles change and you miss your shot.
Another challenge involved with the golden hour is getting your camera to meter the light correctly. Before setting out on an important golden hour shoot, be sure to master the spot metering and manual exposure settings on your camera. You may also want to take your lens hood with you to avoid any flare.
Dusk or Dawn Photography
The golden hour begins or ends with dawn or dusk. The light qualities of dawn and dusk are roughly the same as during the golden hour itself and therefore is also the best time of day to take photos.
Dusk or dawn also represents the change from golden hour to blue hour. As the sun sets, the scene is going to get darker and darker. The light will gradually shift from direct sunlight to be more and more influenced by the light being reflected in the atmosphere. The later it gets to less light there is, and the more careful you need to be about your camera settings.
Of course, if your goal is the sunset shot, you need to be out there right at sunset or sunrise!
Blue Hour Photography
One of the most less known times of day for photography, blue hour is still a great time to take photos. Instead of the warm hues so ubiquitous during the golden hour, blue hour features a softer blue light that always makes stunning images.
Just like golden hour, blue hour's length varies depending on the time of year and your distance from the equator. Locations far north (or south) of the equator will get very long golden and blue hours, something that works well to the photographers' advantage. In tropical locations, these "hours' can pass very quickly!
Since the sun has set or has not yet risen, the light during the blue hour is much reduced from other times of the day. Expect to need a high ISO setting on your camera and be very wary of taking any handheld shots. A tripod is convenient here. However, don't let that scare you, as longer the exposure of the photograph, the more color, and fantastic light comes through on your photograph making it one of the best time of day to take pictures outside.
Blue hour photos can be of any subject, but they are especially unique for landscapes and seascapes. You begin to get some stars coming out, or the moon and planets. There is still enough ambient light that you have vibrant colors and details in your foreground and background. Blue hour, in essence, gives you the best daytime and nighttime photography rolled into one.
Night photos have a look and feel all their own. City lights make stunning landscapes, as does long-exposure star photography.
Many photographers work in the dark of night. If the foreground is too dark, but the background is fantastic, consider using light painting to put enough light on your subject to keep the shot interesting, just like in all photography, composition matters in night shots.
A specialized concentration of photography, astrophotography is the art of combining astronomy with photography. You can use anything from high powered telescopes with camera attachments to a regular landscape lens on your trust DSLR. The only key component necessary to start astrophotography is a good tripod.
Star photography is usually done far away from city lights, or at least in locations when you can combine the two. Light pollution from cities and towns often washes out the star field to the point where your camera will only pick up the dirty orange halo of lights reflecting in the atmosphere. The farther you can get from the light sources, the better it would be to the best time to take outdoor photos in the night.
There are also plenty of astronomical events that can help you make great images. Every month or so features a meteor shower, and if this coincides with a new moon, you will find it to be the best time to take photos. You can also look for lunar photography during various phases of the moon and don't rule out lunar eclipses, too.
Calculating When to Go
Now that you know what time of day is the best time to take pictures outside, you'll need a way to calculate when to go. Since sunset and sunrise vary by a few minutes every day, an almanac can easily give you the data you need to calculate those. However, your distance from the equator also affects when the golden and blue hours begin and end, as well as how long they are going to be.
There are many fantastic websites and photo apps for your smartphone that can help you figure out the best time of day for natural light photography. You can calculate not only the essential times of day but also actual sun angles and shadow angles. Many apps can use your smartphone to calculate sunrise or sunset over the terrain surrounding your area. Most apps use the earth's horizon, which is not observable to people in mountainous regions.
Overall, the deciding factor when you consider when the best time to take pictures outside is what sort of images you are interested in taking. An experienced photographer should be able to use their camera in any light conditions, from glaring sunshine to the darkest of nights. However, you need to know what you are trying to achieve in the image and what methods you need to use to make that look.
Don't immediately assume that the golden hour is the end-all-be-all best time of day to take pictures. There is no conclusive answer: it entirely depends on the image you want to create and the qualities of light that you want. So go out, experiment, and practice shooting at all hours of the day!