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When you step outside and notice it's a bright sunny day, there's nothing you want to do more than grab your camera and get out to enjoy the fresh air. But sunny days are usually not the best time for photography. In fact, they often make many subjects look worse. On a clear day, the sun acts as a very hard light, casting sharp shadows on buildings, faces, tree, etc. Unless you have some way to balance out the sun, such as a flash or reflector, the high contrast will often make your photos look very amateurish. To avoid this, you want to shoot outside at times when you don't have a bright overhead light bearing down on your scene.
An Hour Before Sunset or After Sunrise
Many photographers suggest shooting during sunrise and sunset, but shooting an hour after and before, respectively, can also give your photos a very interesting look. During these times, the sun provides a strong side lighting so that one side of everything is in the sun, and the other side is in shadow. Side lighting can look very dramatic and casts long and unusual shadows. Use these effects to your advantage when shooting.
Sunrise and Sunset
A very popular time to shoot, this is what many photographers and filmmakers call the “magic hour.” This refers to the time where the sun is behind the earth, but the sky is still lit. The reason for its “magic” is that during this time there are no shadows. This is something that is very hard to achieve using artificial lighting, but the sky acts as a kind of giant globe of light which produces a very soft, shadowless light. The unfortunate thing about magic hour is that it doesn't last very long. Despite its name, it usually doesn't even last a whole hour, meaning you have a very limited time frame in which to capture photos. The light is also changing, growing slowly dimmer at sunset and brighter at sunrise. Once the sun breaks the horizon, you suddenly have shadows again. But despite this small window, most photographers will tell you to get up and shoot at sunrise if you want good light and good photos.
Cloudy days are wonderful to shoot on for a plethora of reasons. First of all, the sun is diffused into a nice soft light. This causes those sharp shadows to blur into a gentle eye-pleasing gradient from light to shadow. Also the ratio from bright to dark is not as high, so you rarely have to worry about blowing out your subject or losing detail in the shadows. Secondly, if it's cloudy all day, you can shoot all day, giving you a much more relaxed time restraint than shooting at sunrise or sunset. Last but not least, cloudy days are perfect for shooting people. Producing this same kind of soft light with artificial lights takes a series of strobes and a space large enough to set it all up. Plus you don't have the scenery you get from outside on the streets or in nature.
Before and After Storms
This goes particularly for nature and landscape photographers because storms often produce the most interesting skies. Clouds often form unusual shapes, and at times the color of the sky can vary from subtle shades of red to green. Pockets of light sometimes burst through the clouds giving you a unique spot of light on the landscape while keeping the overcast sky. After a rain, roads become blacker and leaves become greener giving you a natural boost in saturation while still maintaining a low contrast.
All in all, it's best to experiment to see what times during the day you prefer to shoot. Photographer's preferences will vary depending on their subject and their preferred look. Just don't go out shooting at the same time everyday and expect to get new and exciting photos. Shooting at different times is an excellent way to learn lighting and expand the look of your portfolio.
Image credit: 7horses / 123RF Stock Photo
Written by Spencer Seastrom