Photography is all about understanding light and how to utilize it properly. This is true when it comes to portrait photography.

That is why we often ask, when is the best time to shoot outdoor portrait photographs? Is it during the golden hours? Or can the striking noon sun provide flattering light as well?

Let's dive into that today.

Outdoor portrait photography is all about preparation

Getting ready for an outdoor portrait adventure demands careful planning, much like orchestrating other outdoor photography escapades. The interplay of weather and sun positions guides our creative canvas.

First off, checking the weather forecast at your chosen spot before you set off is key.

As the shoot hour approaches, forecasts get more accurate, but setting a cutoff time is wise to avoid last-minute surprises, especially in team projects.

Plotting how the sunlight will move across your shot will help you visualize your shots. There are apps out there that will help you with this.

They let you trace the sun's journey across the year, wherever you're shooting. The ability to play with time lets you prepare well ahead of your shoot, avoiding any last-minute slip-ups.

What is the golden hour?

Golden Hour portrait

One cherished timeframe in portrait photography is the golden hour, a brief interval just after sunrise or right before sunset.

During this magical phase, the sun's shallow angle casts a soft, golden hue that bathes scenes in an enchanting glow.

Often dubbed the "magic hour," it's hailed as the prime window for portrait photography, owing to the warm, directional light it offers.

Understanding blue hour in photography

Blue hour portrait photography

In the realm of photography, another captivating phenomenon emerges: the blue hour.

This fleeting timeframe occurs before sunrise or after sunset, lasting around 20 to 30 minutes. During this phase, the sun rests below the horizon, withholding its direct illumination.

Portraits seized within the blue hour exhibit a distinct bluish cast and a heightened sense of moodiness. This interval offers a unique atmosphere for your compositions.

The only problem with the blue hour, much like the golden hour, is that time is your enemy. 

You need to shoot fast and plan your shots quickly to take advantage of the blue skies and the overall cool hue of the environment.

Outdoor portraits during sunrise

sunrise outdoor portrait

Sunrise and sunset might seem the same, but they're a bit different.

At night, when the sun goes away, the air gets cooler, and water in the air turns into dew or frost on the ground.

When the sun comes back in the morning, there's a short time when you can see this shiny dew, like little jewels on the ground.

In the morning, there aren't many clouds because the sun hasn't warmed the ground a lot. This makes it hard for clouds to form in the sky.

Both at sunrise and sunset, the sun is low in the sky, making shadows long. This special angle of the sun also makes the sky bluer and the warm colors like oranges and reds stand out. This can make the light look warm and nice on people's faces, hair, and clothes.

If you take pictures with the sun in front of you, your subject can look dark like a shadow. But sometimes, you might want to do that to make cool shadow pictures.

If your subject looks too dark, you can use extra light to help. Reflectors or even external flashes are a huge help this time.

Shooting portraits in the midday: It's challenging

Midday sun portrait

Moving into the middle of the day for photography, when the sun is right above us, isn't usually the best for outdoor portraits.


The sunlight from above can make shadows on faces look not very nice.

When the sky is clear, shadows become stronger, making a big difference between bright parts and dark parts in pictures.

This can be hard for cameras because they can't show all the details well. It's also different based on where you are on the earth.

Places closer to the middle might face bigger problems than places near the top or bottom.

You might want that strong look on purpose — it's up to your style. But if you don't, there are tricks to make the strong sunlight softer.

One simple way is to change how you stand, like lying down and looking up. This moves the shadows on your face in a different way.

To get away from the strong light completely, go to a shady spot. It could be under a building's shadow, trees, or you can make your own shade using something like a black side of a special reflector.

Just remember, don't go too deep into the shade, because it will get darker. Just know that you should only go as far into the shade as you need, so the light stays good like before.

Or you can make the light softer with something called a diffuser. It's like a special thing that spreads the light gently.

You can use a special 5-in-1 reflector for this. Put it between the sun and the person you're taking a picture of and keep it close to them but out of the picture. Hold it or have someone else hold it or put it on a stand.

If shadows are okay but you need a little more light, a reflector helps.

These come with different parts: white for soft light, silver for stronger light, gold for warm light, and silver/gold mix for something in the middle.

You can also use external Speedlites. When it's super bright outside, normal lights aren't very good. That's when an external light source work well because they're really bright.

Mixing artificial light with natural light is a new challenge though since you need to balance the output of each other. Otherwise, you will end up with an artificial looking image.

Outdoor portraits in the evening

Evening outdoor portrait

Let's dive into the cool world of evening light—it's like a sunset show in the western sky (if you're looking that way).

During this time, you can get those cool side and backlit effects, just like when the day starts. And guess what? Big puffy clouds might show up in the sky behind your subject, all because of the warm air making them dance.

Sunset doesn't just bring pretty light; it makes everything feel more alive. There are more people out and about compared to the early morning.

So, it's like the streets come alive with stories waiting to be captured. You can take photos that show the busy buzz of everyday life.

Imagine using this evening light to create pictures as the day winds down. The sun's warm touch can help you tell stories that feel like magic, capturing the cozy moments before night comes.

It's like making your photos shine with a touch of wonder and charm.

Play with night light portrait photography

Night portrait with neon lights

As the night comes after the sun goes down, something cool happens—it's like a blue moment.

The sun's bright light goes away, but the sky still has a bit of light that moves around. Everything looks in the shade and a bit bluer.

When the light gets less and less, it's a good idea to change the camera settings.

You can use a wider aperture to make the picture brighter. But this might also make the front and back of the picture not sharp.

If you want both parts to be sharp, you can change ISO or the shutter speed. But if you make the ISO really high, the picture can get noisy, so it's good to keep it not too high.

If you keep the camera open for a longer time, more light comes in. But be careful, if it's open too long, things in the picture might look blurry.

This can happen if the camera shakes (if you're holding it) or if the thing you're taking a picture of moves too much.

But sometimes we want things to look blurry on purpose, like when we take pictures of cars' lights at night. Or we can move the camera on purpose and use a flash to make something in the front of the picture sharp.

Outdoor photography lighting

mirror portrait

Illuminating our subjects is as crucial as setting up the shoot itself. Photography, after all, revolves around the dance of light and shadow.

Hence, pondering over how to best light outdoor portraits is essential.

In the daytime, when the sun reigns supreme, flashguns and studio strobes emerge as the superheroes of outdoor portrait lighting. Their intense, swift bursts of light are designed to either complement or outshine the sun's radiance.

Speedlights offer a portable advantage, often fueled by AA batteries—a cost-effective, accessible solution.

Studio strobes, although more potent, tend to rely on mains power, limiting their feasibility to locations near power sources. Yet, battery-powered variants exist.

For beginners, continuous lighting is a friendlier choice. Its steady glow allows them to gauge its impact on subjects and tweak camera settings without synchronization restrictions, such as those imposed on shutter speed with flash.

Continuous lighting also serves videography—a domain where flash falls short.

However, it's dimmer in comparison to flash, best suited for low-light scenarios like sunsets, twilight, or nighttime shoots.

Your lens choice matters

Man carrying a lot of cameras and lenses

Lenses have a big job in making pictures look different, especially when taking outdoor portraits.

Think of the focal length as a magic wand that changes how the picture appears.

Longer focal lengths make things in the front look sharp and softens the background.

And guess what? The coating on the lens matters too—it helps to avoid weird glares when taking pictures towards the sun.

Now, let's talk about the camera part. Camera bodies don't play the main role in outdoor portraits, unless you're taking pictures of fast-moving things like runners. Then, fast shooting speed matters.

But when it's not super bright, like at sunset, the camera's ability to see well and focus becomes important. Some cameras are better at this in low light, like when it's not very sunny.

So, now you know all about the best times to take outdoor portrait pictures and how to make them look their best.

Remember, the best way to learn is by doing! Take your camera, lights, and happy friends out at different times of the day. You'll see how each time gives a different feel to your pictures.

Aim Orallo