What’s the best time to take pictures outside? When should you head out if you want beautifully lit photos?
As an outdoor photographer, I’ve spent literally thousands of hours taking photos in all sorts of light – and through careful review, I’ve determined the best types of light for outdoor photography, as well as the types of light you’ll want to avoid.
Specifically, I’m going to discuss:
- My favorite type of light for soft, intimate images
- The two types of light every scenic photographer must use
- The one type of light that pretty much every photographer should avoid
(As well as plenty of additional outdoor lighting tips and tidbits.)
So if you’re ready to become an outdoor lighting master, then let’s get started!
The Five Types of Outdoor Lighting
Broadly speaking, you’ll encounter five different types of outdoor light:
- Golden hour light
- Blue hour light
- Night light
- Overcast light
- And midday light
Let’s take a closer look at these lighting scenarios, starting with:
Golden Hour Lighting
Golden hour refers to the time one to two hours after sunrise, and one to two hours before sunset.
Why is it called golden hour?
Because the light is beautifully soft and golden!
It looks like this:
Of course, to get true golden hour lighting, you can’t just head out around sunset and hope for the best; the sky should be relatively clear, without clouds blocking the sun.
Now, golden hour lighting is great for photography.
In fact, it’s often referred to as the best light for photographers, and plenty of photography educators emphasize the importance of shooting during golden hour.
Personally, I like golden hour, and I think it’s great for photographing quite a few subjects.
But it’s not the only type of light that’s great, and it does come with some drawbacks.
While golden hour lighting is soft, as the sun gets farther from the horizon, it starts to harden – so that an hour after sunrise offers subtly harder lighting, and the light two hours after sunrise is harder still. These relatively rapid changes can be annoying, especially as the light becomes unusable for certain subjects.
Specifically, while golden hour lighting offers great landscape and macro opportunities at peak softness, a slightly higher – but still golden! – sun often produces too much contrast to be useful. Whenever I’m shooting flower photos at sunset, for instance, I work in the shade until the light has reached its golden hour peak, at which point I’ll come out into the sun and appreciate the soft, golden light.
Related Post: Best Landscape Photography Settings
On the other hand, golden hour lighting is great for plenty of photographic genres.
For instance, you can capture beautiful street photos in golden hour light, where you use the low sun to create long shadows:
And you can do some beautiful bird photography, too, because the light is soft enough to be flattering, but strong enough for the requisite fast shutter speeds.
Portrait photographers love the golden hour, too. You can create warm, golden compositions:
And you can even create fun silhouettes:
So if you’re ever in doubt about when to head out and take photos, golden hour light probably won’t disappoint – it’s a safe option, and a good one, too!
Blue Hour Lighting
Blue hour refers to the few minutes or so before sunrise and after sunset when the sky takes on a soft blue color.
The length of blue hour depends on your location and the weather, but it’s often far less than an hour – so if you’re out with your camera, you must act fast.
But what’s so special about blue hour?
During this time, the light is soft and ethereal – in fact, blue hour lighting is even softer than golden hour lighting, so you can take shots like this:
Plus, as you can see in the examples above, blue hour skies are stunning, full of pastel blues, pinks, and yellows. That’s why landscape photographers love shooting during blue hour, as do plenty of portrait photographers, street photographers, and architectural photographers.
(Can you tell that I’m a huge fan of blue hour lighting? It’s simply amazing.)
Now, as with golden hour, blue hour lighting comes with some drawbacks. Chief among these is the quantity of light; blue hour lighting, while stunning, is very, very weak. So if you want to capture clean, non-noisy images, you’ll need a tripod.
And while a tripod will allow you to capture stunning blue hour landscapes and silky long exposures, the lack of strong light will limit your ability to photograph some subjects. For instance, shooting action during blue hour is tough, because the world is just dark. Most moving subjects will be rendered as blurs, unless you compensate with a high ISO, which causes other problems – such as noise and reduced dynamic range.
Therefore, while blue hour is great, there are times you’ll want to avoid it altogether.
Once blue hour fades, you get into true night – a time that’s challenging for photographers, but can still offer plenty of opportunities.
Yes, the night is dark. You’ll need to take steps to compensate for this, such as widening your aperture or lowering your shutter speed, or increasing your ISO (or all these things at once).
Personally, I love shooting at night, but I pretty much always do it with a tripod. I could boost my ISO, but I’d have to set it way high, and the noise is pretty intolerable.
So if you do want to shoot at night, I really would recommend going with a sturdy tripod (plus a remote shutter release, so you can take photos without causing camera vibrations).
Now, what can you actually shoot at night? What subjects work for night photography?
Landscapes, for one. You can capture some stunning scenics or astrophotography, like this:
But you’ll need to use a tripod and a very long exposure (often 10+ seconds).
You can also capture stunning cityscapes at night, again with a tripod and a long exposure.
And if you don’t mind a grainy look, you can try shooting street scenes lit by streetlights; these can look haunting and mysterious and all-around great, provided you’re careful with your shutter speed and aperture (go as slow and as wide as you can without introducing blur!).
Here’s the bottom line:
While nighttime might not offer a lot in the way of lighting, you absolutely do not need to pack up your camera. You can capture some stunning night photos, as long as you have the equipment and know-how to get it right.
Overcast lighting occurs on cloudy days, and it’ll give you beautiful, soft light:
In fact, there’s a common misconception about overcast lighting: that it’s boring.
While it’s true that overcast lighting isn’t as dramatic or colorful as golden hour or blue hour lighting, it has some significant perks.
For one, as I mentioned above, overcast lighting is soft. The clouds act as a giant softbox, diffusing the hard light from the sun to produce beautifully lit images.
And overcast lighting reduces harsh shadows, plus it’ll help bring out colors (which is why flower photographers love overcast light!).
I shoot on cloudy days all the time. Sure, overcast light isn’t inspiring to look at, but when applied to the right subject, overcast lighting looks insanely good.
For instance, you can use overcast lighting to create stunning macro images:
Or flattering portraits:
Or moody landscapes:
The possibilities are endless!
For that reason, I’d label overcast lighting as the most versatile outdoor light.
What are its drawbacks?
Well, overcast lighting can be pretty weak, especially when cloud cover is heavy. So you’ll often need to widen your aperture or increase your ISO to get sharp overcast shots.
And since overcast lighting isn’t directional, it doesn’t produce strong shadows – which limits its dramatic potential. Don’t expect to create a fiery, intense landscape shot with overcast light; instead, aim for intimate, evenly-lit results.
Midday light spans from just after golden hour at sunrise to just before golden hour at sunset.
And it’s terrible for most forms of photography.
Seriously. Avoid midday lighting at all costs.
You see, midday lighting is directional, in that it casts strong shadows – but because the sun is high overhead, the shadows are not flattering.
And midday light is harsh, too. It serves up boring, desaturated colors, like this:
Pretty unimpressive, right?
In fact, the number one mistake beginner photographers make is heading out during midday.
The results just look bad. For portrait photography, landscape photography, macro photography, product photography, and more.
If you must shoot during midday, stay in the shade, and use a reflector to bounce some light up into the shadows.
There is one type of photography that looks great with harsh midday light:
Here, the intense shadows can add a lot of interest and mystery, plus the harsh light works for graphic images, like this:
Note that you’ll often want to turn these images to black and white, so you can rid yourself of muddy, midday colors.
(In truth, you can do street photography in pretty much any light; it’s a very versatile genre of photography.)
So if you’re doing street photography, feel free to head out at midday.
And if you’re not doing street photography, make sure you stay home!
The Best Time to Take Pictures Outside: Conclusion
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know the absolute best time to take pictures outside – depending on the type of photos you’re after.
Golden hour is great for most genres of photography.
Blue hour goes well with landscapes (provided you have a tripod).
Overcast lighting is versatile and flattering for flowers, portraits, street scenes, and more.
And you should always avoid midday light, unless you’re a street photographer.
The golden hour refers to the hour or two after the sun has risen and the hour or two before the sun sets. The low sun produces very warm, soft light, which is perfect for most types of photography. Though note that the length of the golden hour and the time at which it begins changes constantly over the course of the year (and depends on your location, as well).
There are several great types of light for outdoor photography, rather than one single best type. Personally, I’m a huge fan of both golden hour and blue hour, but it can also be great to shoot on an overcast day for softer results. And shooting at night can be a lot of fun, too!
Both morning and evening work great for taking photos. But morning tends to offer still water (because the wind hasn’t yet picked up), so you can shoot cleaner reflections, if that’s something you’re interested in. Also, insects tend to be more sluggish in the morning, which is helpful for macro photographers. It’s easier to come up with compositions for sunset photography, though, because you have plenty of light in the preceding hours.
The blue hour is the time just before the sun has risen and just after the sun has set. It offers a colorful (often blue) sky that looks amazing in photos. Note that the length of the blue hour changes depending on your location and the seasons, and it generally does not last an actual hour (you’ll often have blue hours in the 20-40 minute range).