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When’s the Best Time of Day to Schedule Your Portrait Session?

Clients often ask, “What time of day should I schedule a portrait session?”

There’s one simple answer to this, but first, I’m going to tell you when you don’t want to schedule a portrait session.

When NOT to Schedule Your Portrait Session

There’s an ideal time to schedule your portraits. There’s also a terrible time to schedule them.

You should avoid any time of day when the sun is high in the sky. The direct sunlight will highlight wrinkles and acne and causes “raccoon eyes.”

Girl's face is in deep shadow caused, in part, from the high sun at that time of day.
This snapshot, taken near 11 a.m., shows some of the problems caused by light from a high sun.

The Best Time of Day for Your Portrait Session

If you read when not to schedule, chances are you know when you should schedule. That’s right, you want the sun to be low (or at least lower) in the sky. The absolute best time, in most photographer’s opinion, is during “golden hour.”

Golden hour doesn’t have a strict definition. Golden hour starts when the sun is approximately 10 degrees above the horizon. It ends at sunset.

You should also note that “hour” is a misnomer. It usually doesn’t last an hour. I’ve seen it be as few as 15 minutes.

Why is Golden Hour “Golden?”

Many people find it strange that golden hour is a good time for photos. After all, light is decreasing during that time. You need light for photos, right?

You’re right—partly. A certain quantity of light is needed. to make a photograph. But you can make more light with flashes and strobes. The quality of light is also important

Several characteristics can describe the quality of light. This article will only discuss two: contrast and color temperature.

Contrast

We’ve all been outside on a very sunny day. Have you ever noticed how sharp the shadows were … how there was a very clear border between the light and shadow? That light had a lot of contrast.

I know you’ve also been outside on a cloudy day or when the sun is low in the sky. If you can even see a shadow, the border between light and shadow is not going to be very sharp. That light had low contrast.

“Contrast” usually refers to the change from light to dark in an image. But when speaking about light, contrast can refer to the scattering of light.

When the sun is high in the sky, most of the light hitting you comes from one direction. This causes your shadow to be well-defined. There is more contrast between the light and the shadow.

On a cloudy day, though, the sunlight is bouncing around within clouds. Some light may exit the clouds in front of you, some to your side, and some to your back. The fact that the light is not coming all from one direction is what causes shadows to be less distinct on a cloudy day. There is less contrast between the light and shadow.

Similarly, when the sun is low in the sky, sunlight tends to bounce around more in the atmosphere. There is less uniformity of direction.

So what does less contrast have to do with anything? For a photographer, it makes it easier for a camera to capture the entire range of light in a scene.

Light with more contrast produces unflattering shadows on your face. This makes you look less than your best in photos.

Color Temperature

Each light can be though to have a different amount of red or blue in it.

The color of different temperatures of light
Color temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin. (Credit: Bhutajata [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons)

The color temperature of light is measured in degrees Kelvin (Illustration credit: Bhutajata, Color temperature black body radiation logarithmic kelvins, CC BY-SA 4.0)As you can see in the illustration above, light is measured in degrees Kelvin. Sunlight at noon on a sunny day, has a temperature of approximately 5500°K.Here’s the strange part. Notice that red light has a lower temperature than blue light. Yet, we call reddish light “warmer” than blueish light. That’s because we associate reddish light as coming from heat sources such as a fire. It may be because of that association, but we find warm light to be more pleasing and comforting.

 

a high school senior's portrait taken during golden hour
This photo was taken at the very beginning of golden hour. The warmer light is detectable in the leaves in the background.

What if You Can’t Schedule Your Portrait During Golden Hour?

Unfortunately, you can’t always schedule a portrait for golden hour. You can take some steps to give you some benefits of golden hour at a different time of day.

Open Shade for Less Contrast

Bright, direct sun is the enemy of a good portrait. The human face is not a uniformly smooth object. It would be pretty boring if it was.

We have noses, cheekbones, chins, eyes, foreheads, etc. All these parts of the face may protrude or recess, and that can cause unflattering shadows in bright light.

To reduce those shadows, we want to reduce the contrast in the light. One of the easiest ways to do that is to be in open shade.

Open shade is another one of those terms that’s easier to recognize in the real world than it is to define. I would say open shade is when you are standing in the shadow of another object, but reflected sunlight illuminates you.

Open shade has less contrast, giving you that benefit from golden hour. This reproduces the lower contrast present during golden hour.

Use Gels for Warmer Light

The photographer can apply gels to any artificial lighting used. A gel is a thin, translucent piece of colored plastic through which light is shined. Photographers use a CTO, or color temperature orange, gel to reproduce the warm light produced during golden hour.

 

A color correction gel designed for speedlights
 A color correction gel designed for speedlights

Use Autumn Leaves

You can replicate the effect of a CTO gel by using autumn leaves. The red, yellow, and orange leaves so common during autumn lend some of their color to sunlight filtered through them. So if you take a photo in a wooded area, the sunlight will look warmer when it shines through the leaves overhead.

 

couple standing by tree with warm, golden light falling through trees in background
Though not taken during golden hour, the sunlight filtering through the golden leaves gives this photo a warm tone.

Use the Other Golden Hour

Most people will not want to use this tip, so I put it last. There are actually two golden hours each day, but most people only want to use the second one.

The first golden hour comes immediately after sunrise. While I am a morning person, I recognize that few people are. Most would prefer to still be in bed at that time.

What about you?

Are you ready to have your portrait made, during golden hour or otherwise? Then contact me and let’s get started.

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