When I first started experimenting with photography on a more serious level, I had very little concept of natural light and how it changes throughout the day. While I have loved my journey as a self-taught photographer and wholeheartedly believe that all the knowledge you need is out there if you intentionally seek it out, one of the challenges of taking this route is having to learn the hard way on a lot of topics. I knew in my mind the kind of light I wanted to capture. Soft, golden, hazy, delicious light. I wanted my backlit subjects to be softly framed and enveloped by this dreamy glow that is universally flattering. But I kept booking portrait sessions at 10am, or 1pm, or 3pm. The result was a harsh, heavily contrasted light, yucky shadows on smiling faces, blown out backgrounds, squinting eyes, underexposed subjects… need I go on? When I learned about this magic little timeframe that photographers refer to as the golden hour, I just about lost my mind with excitement. When I learned that, to get soft, dreamy, hazy light, you need to be shooting an hour or two after sunrise or an hour or two before sundown, all of a sudden I could produce the images I saw in my head.
I wanted to find a way to illustrate this concept clearly, so I enlisted my 1-year-old to be photographed in the same location, by the same photographer (me), with the same equipment, on the same day, at different times. Have a look at the photos below.
The goal of this little exercise wasn’t to take mind blowing photos that would push my limits of creativity – they were snapped quickly throughout our day between naps and meals and playtimes and diaper changes, and my girl was less than impressed with the crate after our initial mini session. But the point of these photos is more about the changes in light than it is about composition and style. Make sense? Furthermore, I intentionally kept these images clean with only minor editing (although they all underwent the exact same editing process) to really emphasize the natural effects of the light.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at the 7am and 7pm shots. Do you see that gorgeous flattering haze? Dreamy, yes? The only difference between the way these two photos were taken is that Neve was facing different directions so that in each, the light source (sun) was behind her. I love backlighting my subjects, but many photographers also enjoy photographing their subjects facing the sun at these times, with great results (just not my style). Either way, the light at this time is delicious.
Now, look at the 11am photo. It’s not horrible. But it’s not great. Look at the ground. Do you see how contrasted the light is? My driveway (because that is the oh-so glamorous location these photos were taken in) is literally divided in half – shadow and light. Look at the 3pm photo – there’s no escaping the sun. No shade in sight, and regardless of which direction my girl is facing, the sun is in her eyes. Look at those harsh shadows on her face… yuck. Now, there are times (like at a daytime outdoor wedding, for example), where you can’t avoid these types of midday lighting. In these cases, when possible, we look for open shade to protect our subjects’ faces from the harsh sun. But as you can see in the 11am image, by correctly exposing the subject (who is in s spot of open shade), the background is blown out. Alternately, if I had exposed the photo for the sunny background, my daughter would have been severely underexposed. (have you ever been there? You’re enjoying a day at the beach with a camera set to AUTO, you snap a photo in the midday sun and you end up with dark faces you can barely make out?)
Now – a good photographer can make it work if they need to. If we are outside in this type of lighting, there are things we can do. As I mentioned earlier, we can look for vast areas of open shade. We can also look for covered areas with directional light. We can use a reflector to brighten faces and a deflector to block the sun at certain angles. We can use fill flash if we really need to. We can take several photos at different exposures and try to get the best possible result in post processing. I will always do my best to ensure that my clients get the best possible results, even in tricky situations. (remember, the photos above were taken to intentionally show the effects of light, very little was done to try and improve the natural conditions.) But when we are shooting at these times, especially on sunny days, a lot of effort will go into “fixing” the conditions and trying to “make the best” of the light, instead of being in a situation where we are so blown away by the breathtaking golden sun that our creativity skyrockets.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that even on a cloudy day, when the harsh sun is tucked away, the midday light falls flat compared to the dreamy evening glow. Check out these examples below.
With that said – when you do have a choice about the timing of your session, do yourself a favour and book during the golden hour!
I understand that for many families, aiming for the morning golden hour is nearly impossible, and that early evenings are prime time for dinner preparations, bedtime routines and everything else on your plate. Now that I’m a mother, I understand more than ever the importance of respecting bedtime. If my girl isn’t well on her way to being asleep by 7 (7:30 if we’re pushing it), it’s not a good situation. But if you’ve decided to make the investment and pay to have your photos taken professionally, it might be worth looking at a temporary adjustment to your schedule to get the best possible light. Also, don’t forget that with changing seasons comes shorter days, which means that while right now the best time for evening photos is between 7pm and 8pm, in a few months is will be between 4pm and 5pm, which might make it easier for your family to make it work.
I promise if you try to align your session with these prime shooting times, you won’t be disappointed. And you’ll have a very happy photographer.