Don’t listen to anyone that tells you that wonderful portraiture can’t be created during anytime of the day or night. There are great ways to shoot equally great portraits during the day or night and they don’t always involve the use of a flash. Instead, they rely more on a photographer’s ability to see and understand light. For starters, you’re going to tell you to use spot metering. Now that you’ve got that locked in, here’s how you make great portraits.
Dawn, or sunrise, is one of the Golden Hours. This is typically a time where the sun is very warm and low to the horizon. It in effect creates hard shadows if you meter normally. But it’s also easy to work with to instead just get really great colors when shooting portraits.
Something that I love to do in a situation like this is backlight a portrait subject or side light them in some way or another. The amount of time where you’ll be able to use the warm sidelighting though is usually really short. So if you just want consistency, try just placing the sun behind your subject and backlighting them.
Use a lower ISO setting if you’ve got a faster lens.
By the time 9AM comes around, the sun is typically in full bloom already. That can sometimes make portraiture tough. So instead of shooting in an area of direct sunlight, I typically recommend finding some shade. Trees and buildings provide fantastic cover from the sun.
When you shoot a portrait in the shadows, you get more consistent even lighting vs being out in the sun.
As you may have noticed in the previous image though, the sun can still be a bit difficult to work with. So I usually tend to overexpose my images very slightly unless you don’t mind slight shadows at all in your images.
Here’s what 9AM sun typically looks like when it’s more direct. It’s still pretty soft, and if you’re okay with that then cool! By underexposing you can sometimes find a way to make this look really cool. I stress the word sometimes there.
This photo could have also been fixed a bit if I angled her nose and face slightly more into the sunlight. Remember to keep in mind angles and the shape of a person’s face.
Now here’s 9AM sunlight in the shadows. Again, see how we’ve got more consistency when we’re not in direct sunlight.
Noon is also a tricky bird. Generally speaking, the sun is at its highest point in the sky and will also offer really unflattering shadows when it comes to portraiture. But just like at 9AM, you can make it work simply by working in the shadows.
When you’ve got decent shadow coverage, you won’t need to worry about those shadows at all. This is also a time when I specifically never recommend shooting outside in the direct sunlight. Even backlighting a subject can be a bit tough because of the sun’s position in the sky.
Cloudy weather is truthfully every portrait photographer’s dream. Some people say that it’s a softbox look. But essentially what you’re getting is constant coverage of the sun as it tries to get through the clouds. When shooting in cloudy weather, go nuts and do whatever you’d like. No matter what, you’re going to get great lighting.
3PM is very personally one of my favorite times to shoot portraits. It’s when the sun will start to get lower in the sky again as it prepares to go down for the day. I very much so consider this the pre-Golden Hour. Backlighting, sidelighting, it all works during this time honestly.
If you’re indoors, it will work with window lighting.
It also works with back/side lighting.
Plus you can shoot in the shadows and get a nice tint of warm light.
At 6pm, you’ve got some time right before golden hour when the sun is at its lowest before it’s going to start going down. There’s no good reason to go shoot in the shadows during this time. Simply just backlight your subjects.
At 6pm, I love trying to make my lens flare as much as possible and if possible.
Sometimes you can do stuff like backlighting and having the light bounce off of buildings.
Golden hour, like dawn is the time that so many photographers love to go shooting. Backlighting and sidelighting during this time is best.
Many photographers love talking about the Golden hour, but I tend to like the Blue Hour a bit more. Granted, it’s VERY difficult to shoot in. What I like to do is find some sort of main light source like a flash or a street lamp if they’re already on. Then I put the sky behind my subject and shoot.
During this time, I also like switching my camera’s white balance to Tungsten to get an even more deep blue effect.
During the night time there are lots of options. Street lamps provide a sense of controlled lighting, and it’s always best to face your subjects into the light vs trying to backlight them. Otherwise, you can use a flash and blend the two.
What also works fantastic are lights from buildings and giant glass windows.