Tips and Techniques - The Golden Hour

It's warm, the sun is shining high in the sky, and the kids are out playing.  A good time to snap some pics, right?  Actually, no.  It's really the WORST time, because the sun is far too bright.  Your eye can adjust to the bright sunlit areas and the dark shadows, but your camera's sensor can't.  The photos will have bright 'blown out' areas with no information other than pure white, and also have dark underexposed areas.  Meaning the children's pictured faces will have overexposed cheeks and underexposed eye sockets.  If you must photograph in high sunshine, have your subject turn their backs to the sun and shoot into the sun, placing the sun itself behind a tree or other object when you can.  

But this doesn't mean sunlight is never good for photography.  Au contraire, there is a special time of day when the sun is low on the horizon which is regarded as the BEST time for pictures.  The light is soft, not too bright - the Golden Hour.  It's the hour right after sunrise or right before sunset.  The light is gentle, pleasingly warm, giving subjects golden 'halos' of rim lighting on hair and bodies.  Plus nothing compares to the carefree mood that a sunlit photograph suggests.  It's worth waiting for, and that's why many photographers only schedule outdoor family portraits at this time of day.  The results can be spectacular.  

To photograph someone at the golden hour, your subjects can look directly into the sun, or even better, have the sun behind the subject for that wonderful 'rim' lighting effect.  You can consider using 'fill flash', which helps bring the subject's brightness up, or make a similar adjustment in post-processing.  If there are no clouds or haze lowering the sun's intensity, you may still need to moderate the brightness of the sun's orb itself by placing it behind a narrow object like a tree trunk, or filtering it through foliage.  You can also decide to have the orb in the photo for some 'sunburst' ray effects, or have it just off camera to avoid sunbursts.  Finally you'll often see 'flower hoods' on professional lenses too - these protect the surface of the lens from direct sunlight during a shot, because such light can produce haze and wash out colors.  A nice effect at times, but one you want to control. 

As an aside, do you think fog is the worst condition to photograph in?  NO, it's actually one of the best times, because the fog acts like a giant natural 'softbox', giving your subjects flattering, even skin tones.  If you have the opportunity to capture your kids in fog, take it, and enjoy the soft skin, perfect exposure, and thoughtful mood you'll effortlessly achieve.  

So if you're setting out to take print-worthy photographs, schedule the shoot during the golden hour, and you'll be rewarded with beautiful sunlit images with good exposure, tone, and a happy feel.      

This image was taken 30 minutes before sunset at McFarlane Nature Park in East Cobb, with the setting sun filtering through the trees.  Notice the golden tones and halo of 'rim lighting' on her hair.