Because I’m a natural light portrait photographer, I prefer to schedule my outdoor portrait sessions during or close to golden hour — when the sunlight gets all warm and glowy as it dips low along the horizon. But not all sessions can take place during golden hour. Here’s what it typically looks like to shoot natural light outdoor portraits at different times throughout the day*.
*On sunny/partly sunny days. If a day is overcast, the particular time we shoot won’t really impact the overall quality of the light.
SunriseThis is golden-hour primetime. The best of the bright, colorful glow doesn’t last that long — it can be anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes. But I like to start shooting a little before the sun officially rises, and the light stays soft long enough for us to get in a gorgeous portrait session. At sunrise, we can shoot anywhere that is unobstructed: on the beach, in fields, along the river, in a park. Sometimes sunrise is fiery; other times it’s whisper-soft. It’s always ideal.
Early-to-Mid Morning – (2-3 hours after sunrise)As the sun gets higher in the sky, the light becomes harsher. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be beautiful or that we can’t use it, but it does mean that I want to move my subjects into some open shade, where the light’s strength won’t be quite so intense. So at this time of day, we’ll want to shoot in shaded parks or woods, or in a downtown city — anywhere that isn’t completely open to the strengthening sun.
Given the right setting, I’ve shot some stunning portraits at midday — but when the sun is that high in the sky, what I can do with the light is far more limited, and so are the places where I can take my subjects. That’s why, as a general rule, I don’t typically schedule full-length outdoor portrait sessions for midday.
Mid-to-Late-Afternoon (2-4 hours before sunset)Just as with mid-morning portraits, mid-afternoon portrait sessions can work beautifully, provided we have some shade to work with, whether from trees or buildings. But this is not the time of day to be on the beach for portraits — you’ll squint in your photographs, because everywhere you look will be eye-watering bright.
SunsetAnd we’re back in golden-hour primetime. As with sunrise, we never know if the sunset will be colorful or if a bright blue sky will simply fade, but without exception, the light at sunset is flattering. And again, we can shoot anywhere open that the light can reach: on the beach, in a field, on a rooftop, on a dock. The sky’s the limit…except that, at sunset, it will be too late to be shooting deep in woods or surrounded by skyscrapers, because they’ll be deep in shadow by then. Bottom line: we can create stunning images at any time of day, but the time of day you choose for your session will directly determine the overall aesthetic of your portraits. We can’t artificially replicate the watercolor glow of sunrise if we shoot at 10:00 a.m., and we can’t recreate bright, crisp afternoon sunlight if we shoot as the sun fades behind the horizon. So choose your session time based on the look you want to capture!
And I go over the pros and cons of sunrise vs. sunset with all my clients who are on the fence about choosing their session time — so if you have any questions for me, ask away!