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The Best Time of Day for Outdoor Portraits: Golden Hour

Photography is all about creating with light, and light is probably the most important aspect in producing amazing portraits. Here we will discuss when and why golden hour is the ideal time to shoot for stunning portrait and wedding photography.

Generally speaking, the best time of day for outdoor portraits is golden hour, which is about one hour before sunset or one hour after sunrise. You can still create beautiful photos at other times though. We’ll talk about how to take advantage of the best time of day and also how to work with other times to create your best outdoor portraits.

What’s In This Guide

What and when is “golden hour?”

There’s a little secret in how photographers get that magical, perfect, flattering lighting in their outdoor portraits, and much of this is due to when the photos are taken. There is a short window of time on every sunny day called “golden hour.” This is approximately one hour before the sun sets or one hour after the sun rises.

Golden hour varies by location and weather conditions. It requires bright and mostly clear skies, with few to no clouds, and a location that allows the sun to shine through or at least peek between trees and structures. Overcast days or heavily shaded locations will produce a drastically different overall look than golden hour light.

Warm, gorgeous, and happy light

Golden hour sunlight can produce a warm and soft glow that is ideal for portrait and wedding photography. During this time of the day, the sun is low in the sky. This enables photographers to block harsh light on the subject, avoid shadows on the face, and prevent subjects from squinting; while still maintaining an overall well-exposed look.

young woman posing for photo at golden hour
Golden hour lighting is ideal for portrait photography.

This light tends to invoke a happy and comforting mood that is desirable for portraits. It also allows for pretty bokeh or specular highlights that are present in areas of the background where light filters through foliage.

It is typically easier for photographers, especially those using only natural light outdoors, to get quality images during golden hour. Conversely, shooting a session closer to mid-day when the sun is high and bright can make it difficult to avoid harsh and unflattering shadows on the face or body. Golden hour is preferred by both beginners and seasoned professionals alike. And it also seems that clients love it due to the influence of social media.

Shooting during golden hour and utilizing lighting patterns

Golden hour light is very directional and easy to control just by paying mind to composition or with the use of reflectors. This is why it’s especially favored among natural-light photographers.

photography reflector
A reflector is a great tool for capturing portraits at golden hour.

Experiment with various directions of light: backlight, side light, and front light, to find what looks best. Use a reflector to bounce light as well as to block unwanted light.

Backlighting is a popular look. The subject should be placed with their back to the sun, and you must compose the shot making sure the brightest area is completely blocked by the subject’s body or an object in the background. With strong backlight, a reflector will be needed to bounce some of that light back onto the subject’s face for even lighting and proper exposure (as well as getting those lovely catch lights in the eyes). The position of the reflector will create brightness on just the right areas of the face, while leaving other areas softly in shadow (like the neck/chin area), giving contour to the facial structure. Backlighting like this may also create rim light around the subject, further separating them from the background.

Adjust your camera settings for proper exposure and for the overall look you desire. Meter for the subject instead of the background for proper exposure of the face. Set your white balance to “shade” or “cloudy” to preserve the warm tones. And remember, bokeh can look quite pretty at golden hour, so open up your aperture.

senior portrait in wildflowers
Backlit photo at golden hour

Use off-camera flash for fill light as needed if you want to maintain more details in the background or to bring more exposure to the face.

If you want to learn some more about sunset portraits, check out How To Take Portraits At Sunset.

senior boy posing for photo
Portrait utilizing front light at golden hour

Challenges of Shooting During Golden Hour

Just the right amount of sunflare.

While golden hour might be the most controllable time to shoot, that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park (well, you might be walking in a park, but…). It still requires understanding of directional light and mindful composition.

Too strong of backlighting can cause the subject to be lost in the shot without adequate contrast. Strong backlighting may also confuse your camera’s light meter, causing underexposure of your subject, if you’re not metering correctly.

Front lighting can be harsh and cause squinting or intense orange skin if the sun is still too bright and direct. Move to an area of open shade or wait for the light to change.

While a little lens flare can be desirable, too much lens flare can occur if bright sunlight enters your lens from an angle. This will cause a hazy or totally unfocused image, or colorful artifacts in the photo, especially with entry-level lenses. Using a lens hood and adjusting your composition will help prevent this.

Golden hour light can still limit where you can shoot and what direction you and your subject need to be facing. Scout locations a few days prior to the session to make sure it will work.

Because it’s such a short window of time, you can lose your light before your session is complete! The light will change rapidly during the session. It’s all about balance; you want to create a relaxing and fun environment to get those genuine expressions, but don’t let travel times between locations or outfit changes to take up all your precious shooting time.

What If You Can’t Shoot During Golden Hour?

Schedules don’t always work out, and neither does the weather! Here’s what to do if you lighting isn’t ideal.

If it’s close to mid-day, find an area of open shade. This means an area where bright sunlight can be adequately blocked or filtered by trees or buildings. You can also use your reflector or a large object to block or filter the light. Or, use off-camera flash to overpower the sun.

If it’s overcast, try using a gold reflector or off-camera flash to bring more warmth and light to your subject.

Reschedule your session if you can! Look at the forecast and plan for a day that’s predicted to be clear and sunny.

Choosing The Best Time To Shoot Portraits

portrait of woman at golden hour
Strong backlighting at golden hour

Many photographers will schedule sessions during the evening for the best light. (Some even consider golden hour light to be part of their brand, and will reschedule a session if the weather conditions are not ideal to produce this look!)

There are apps available for photographers to download which will give ideal times and directions for the type of lighting desired. Using apps, tools, or sunset calculators can help in scheduling a session and planning for how long you’ll need to be at each location for the best possible results.

Keep in mind that golden hour light isn’t right or best for every type of photo session. For example, blue hour (which is before sunrise or after sunset) can lend itself best for calm or emotive portraits, midday light might be better for sports and action photography, and night photography can look amazing for events and urban locations.

Paying attention to sunset times throughout the year, as well as personally checking out desired locations to see how the lights hits at different times, will help you choose the best time to shoot for every type of session.

Roxanne Abler

Roxanne Abler

Roxanne Abler is a nationally published portrait photographer from Fond du Lac, WI. Roxanne has been a professional photographer since 2011, specializing in senior portraits and personal branding photography. You can check out her work on her website.

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