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Why time of day matters for portrait photography

(Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome this guest post from Darlene Hildebrandt. Darlene is a long time pro, now educator, who teaches aspiring amateur and hobby photographers how to improve their skills. She offers weekly articles on her website, Digital Photo Mentor, and offers live workshops and photography tours to exotic locations. Sign up for one of her free email courses on beginner or people photography.)

Whether you enjoy doing posed portraits or snapping people photos on your travels, the time of day that you shoot does matter. In this article, I’ll show you how you can take your people photos to the next level just by waiting a little while.

Light is everything in photography; it can make or break your photos. For people photography it’s all about finding light that is flattering for your subject or model.

Using natural light only

That is why I recommend shooting at the edge of the daylight, either just after sunrise or just before sunset (dusk). It will make your photos better, and your shoot a lot easier.

ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/320s. This was taken at roughly 8:30 p.m.

The sun is lower on the horizon so it’s coming from a better angle. It’s also usually not as harsh because the atmosphere is filtering it more or the sun is behind a building or hill.

Take a look at the image above. It was shot just before the sun went below the horizon. The light is very harsh and contrasty. This is known as hard lighting.

The direction of light is good as the side lighting adds depth and shape to their faces. However, it is not very flattering to the couple. Not only are they squinting in the bright light, but the shadows on their faces are quite dark and the bright highlights make them look shiny.

Now look at the second image taken literally minutes after the one above. Do you see the difference?

ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/100s. This was taken at 8:40 p.m., only 10 minutes after the last image.

Both images were shot without any added flash or a reflector and are almost exactly as they came straight out of the camera. In fact, I’ve actually added a bit of contrast to the second one by lowering the Blacks in Lightroom.

See what a huge difference those 10 minutes makes? No more squinting, no dark shadows, no shiny faces; just nice soft light from the side.

If you follow this tip it means you will have less photo editing to do later as I won’t have to fix anything. It will also allow you to focus on your subject and not be fumbling around with lighting equipment like a flash or reflector. That in turn translates into better interaction between you and them, and better expressions.

They will also feel a lot more comfortable, which goes a long way to helping them relax. That also means better expressions and more cooperative models.

Let’s look at another example.

Balancing flash and natural light

Sometimes you just need to use a little flash. If the light is coming from the wrong direction or your subject’s eyes are dark those are good times to add flash.

However, once again time of day matters.

In the image below, my subjects requested photos at this iconic bridge in our city. It’s brand new and has interesting lines and shapes. But this was shot too early again.

ISO 200, f/7.1, 1/340s. This was taken at 7:30 p.m.

See the harsh light and strong shadows? Not only are the shadows on their faces not flattering, the ones on the ground are quite distracting making the shot very busy.

I live pretty far north (in Canada) and sunset was at 9:41 p.m. that night. So waiting a few minutes wasn’t enough. So we did a few other poses in another location and came back nearly two hours later.

The images below were taken between 9:20 p.m. and 9:35 p.m., and you can see by the color in the sky that the sun had gone down behind the city buildings off to camera left.

But because the light was mostly coming from behind them, their faces were too dark. This was the resulting image below.

ISO 400, f/5.6, at 1/125s. This was taken at 9:21 p.m. without flash.

So I added some flash off-camera using a small umbrella to soften the light. I had an assistant hold the light for me.

Tip: If you don’t have an assistant, bring along a photography friend or ask your models to bring a friend to help out.

I would not have been able to achieve these images by shooting earlier. The light at sunset was much lower contrast, making it easier to balance with the flash.

Make your life easier; don’t fight with the light. Use it to your advantage and work with it. Work smarter not harder.

So I hope you’ve gotten some good tips for the next time you are doing people photography. Plan ahead, find out the time for sunset and aim to start shooting about 60-90 minutes before that time.

Bonus tip: If you can go to the location ahead of time to check the light even better! But remember to do so at the time you want to start shooting so you can see how it looks at that time of day.

Good luck, keep shooting, and keep having fun. Photography is fun!

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