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Of all of the decisions you make in regards to your upcoming photo shoot, I will argue that choosing the time is the most important. Why? Because the question about the best time to take photos outside is really a question about light. While weather and other things can (and do) impact the lighting of your photos, time of day is a consistent factor to consider, even if you aren’t going to be able to totally plan around it.
Without me becoming Bill Nye the Science Guy, the simple explanation is that the sun is at different places in the sky during different times of the day. Where the sun is in the sky changes how harsh the light is and the color temperature of the light. If I’m already starting to lose you, come back to me. We will get into those concepts in another post. For now all you need to know is that sun position matters.
Depending on where you live and what time of year it is, the amount of sunlight you’ll have during the day varies and so will the best time to take photos outside. If you want to speak in generalities, early morning and early evening are good times to shoot and the afternoon generally isn’t. How do we turn those vague generalities into an actual time that could be put on a calendar? Two words: Golden Hour.
Golden hour is just what it sounds like – that hour or so after the sun rises or before it sets when everything looks glowy and, well, golden. Light around golden hour is softer. It has to do with sun and the horizon, but, again, I’m not here to give a science lesson. If you are able to choose whatever time you want to shoot, then the best time to take photos outside is around golden hour.
How do I know when golden hour is? There are plenty of websites out there that can tell you when it is. They can also project into the future. I use an app called PhotoPills that, among other things, gives light projections for any location on any date. It is $10 to purchase, but it is absolutely worth the money. I never schedule a shoot without consulting it.
Do you start taking photos right at golden hour? No. Depending on how long the shoot is, I try to start the shoot at least thirty minutes earlier, if not more. Generally my shoots last about two hours and I plan on shooting during golden hour for about forty-five minutes, so my shoot would start an hour and fifteen minutes before golden hour (plus a fifteen minute buffer). Example: Golden hour is at 5 PM. I would tell the client to meet me at 3:30 with a goal to start shooting around 3:45.
Why do you shoot plan for forty-five minutes if golden hour is an hour? I always plan to have more time instead of less. If golden hour is really great that day, then I will keep shooting until I can’t anymore and the client gets a little bonus. Depending on the clouds, sometimes golden hour doesn’t last as long as I’d like. Forty-five minutes gives me enough time to get the most out of it without losing light at the end and shorting my clients on time.
Does golden hour happen every day? I think the answer is technically yes, but, in terms of the golden light that you can actually see, that can be very hit or miss. I always prep my clients that golden hour is finicky and there are a lot of factors that can lead to us not getting that super golden light.
All of the advice I’ve given you is if you have total control over the circumstances and can schedule around the best time to take photos outside. Obviously this isn’t always possible. Don’t worry, we will cover all of your lighting questions in the upcoming blog posts in their series.
For now, just start noticing what light looks like at different times during the day. Specifically early morning (just after the sun has risen) or early evening (right as it is setting). Starting to recognize the different kinds of light was a huge step forward for me and made a huge difference in my photos.
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Hi, I'm Dylan, a photographer in the Philadelphia Metro Area. I love iced coffee, red wine, and am always up for binging Gilmore Girls or Parks and Rec..