Design, Photography, & Fashion

What Is the Best Time of Day to Take Photos Outside? Learn Photography Tips

Written by MasterClass

Apr 15, 2019 • 5 min read

The presence, or absence, of natural light greatly impacts the quality of a photograph. In order to get the best photos outside, learn how to adjust your camera settings in anticipation of shifting natural light.

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What Is Natural Light Photography?

Natural light photography is a style of photography that uses only naturally available light. Natural light is ambient light supplied by the sun or the moon—not a camera flash or other artificial light. Natural light changes every minute, as the sun moves across the sky. That’s why knowing exactly where the sun will rise or set on any given day is incredibly helpful when you’re planning a shoot.

What Is the Difference Between Hard Light and Soft Light?

Even though we think of the sun as a constant source of light, the reality is that light changes temperature throughout the day (because of the way the light passes through the atmosphere). If you’re working with natural (or available) light, you need to have a basic understanding of the quality, direction, and color temperature of light. Quality refers to whether the light is hard or soft.

  • Hard light is what light looks like on a sunny day, with deep shadows that have crisp, distinct edges.
  • Soft light is what light looks like on a cloudy day, where shadows are much softer, and the edge of the shadow is not distinct. Soft light is great for portraits, because people don’t end up with harsh shadows on their faces.

How Does Natural Light Change Throughout the Day?

The quality of light changes as the sun moves position through the sky.

  • At sunrise, the light is warmer, or yellower. Light will be soft and diffused, so your subjects will appear evenly lit.
  • At midday, the light is much cooler, a bluish white. This is sometimes considered true white. The midday sun casts harsh shadows since the sun is directly overhead, which often yields unflattering or extremely brightly lit results. However, on a cloudy day, the soft midday light can produce photographs with a dreamy quality.
  • Golden Hour: The 30 minutes or so before the sun sets is usually called “golden hour” because the light has a warm, golden hue. This time of day is best for taking photographs, and for good reason: it is easy to take stunning photos even with little experience or knowledge of how the light works.
  • Blue Hour: Blue hour, or twilight, is the half hour after the sun sets, but there’s still light in the sky. The sky will appear quite blue in photos. The soft blue light is flattering to most subjects, and provides an interesting perspective on common vistas.

Can You Use Natural Light for Night Photography?

Natural light photography is not limited to daytime. At night, the moon and stars provide enough light for photography, especially when there’s a bright, full moon. Night photography also provides unique opportunities for the following techniques:

  • Motion blur. Use a slower shutter speed to enlarge the camera lens’s opening and bring in as much light as possible. Slow shutter speeds allow for captivating motion blur images (as long as you aim your camera at a moving subject!). Learn more about motion blur photography here.
  • Long exposure. Low-light scenarios are ideal for long exposure photography, as the dichotomy between light and dark presents best during this time. Look for sources of light that will turn into light trails, like an endless flow of vehicles during rush hour. Learn more about long-exposure photography here.

How to Take Pictures Inside With Natural Light

You can still use natural light when taking photographs indoors. The soft early morning or golden hour light will still create the most attractive lighting conditions, and you can use these tips to get the best shots:

  • Get to know how the light streams through your indoors environment over the course of the day, and use it to your best advantage.
  • Place your subject near windows and doors to get the best natural light. Manipulate the ambient light coming through a window by playing with the placement of curtains or blinds.
  • Play around with the angle of your subject to the light source, and see what kinds of shadows and drama you can create. Mirrors are a great way to bounce natural light.
  • Be sure to turn off all artificial lights in the home or whatever indoor setting you are in, as a mix of natural and artificial light can be unflattering. This also means you need to turn off the flash on your camera.
  • Use a fast shutter speed when working indoors, because a slower speed will result in blur.

What Is the Best Time of Year for Natural Light Photography?

As the earth changes its position to the sun throughout the year, each season will have different kinds of light to play with, and different techniques to make the best of the natural light available. If you know the characteristics of the light in each season, you can use the light to your advantage and capture images that reflect the time of year.

  • Fall light has a beautiful golden hue, as the sun comes in from an angle and provides slanted light. Autumn is a great time for nature or portrait photography.
  • The winter sun is lowest in the sky, and offers more slanted light as opposed to the sun being directly overhead. However, with shorter days and less light, you will have less time in a day for a shoot, and your winter photography may require slower shutter speeds.
  • Springtime also offers softer light. Like the fall, spring offers a softness for natural light photography that is flattering for portraits and makes for easier landscape photography.
  • The summer sun is highest in the sky, with clearer skies and full beams of bright light. This can create difficult lighting conditions for natural light photography, because the overlight sunlight casts harsh shadows and flattens subjects. Sunrise happens earlier in the summer, so photographers will have to get up earlier in the summer to catch the morning light.

3 Types of Photography That Use Natural Light

Natural light is a useful resource for most types of photography, including:

See Jimmy Chin’s Photography Tips for Using Natural Light here.