Best times of day and sky conditions for outdoor pictures

As a photographer who likes to shoot outdoor color images, I don’t get too excited about sunny blue skies in the afternoon. In fact, I whine about them. This is because I consider sunny afternoons to be some of the worst conditions for shooting pictures for several reasons:

  • First, our eyes and cameras see things differently. Our eyes can process more contrast in light than our cameras can. The harsh shadows created by direct sunlight may not look as distracting to our eyes as they will later in our pictures.
  • Second, colors wash out under bright conditions. This is why the three dozen pictures you took from scenic viewpoint highway pull-offs during your summer vacation look hazy and ugly. Overcast conditions, on the other hand, will bring out deeper and richer colors in pictures.
  • Third, patchy light is generally distracting. Our eyes tend to go to the lightest part of the picture. Distracting light spots in the background pull the viewer’s attention away from the subject.

I find the following times and conditions to be much better for shooting outdoor pictures:

  • Sunrise and sunset. Everyone appreciates a great sunrise or sunset, especially over a landscape or body of water. Notice the warmth of the light in the picture below. You can still get that same warm, angled lighting for a short while after sunrise or before sunset.
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Silhouette of an elegant woman putting her toe in the water during sunset

  • Twilight. Twilight is the time between dawn and sunrise or between sunset and dusk. Depending on the conditions, you usually have around 15-20 minutes during which the sky turns a deep, cobalt blue. This is a great time for city shots. The blue sky looks much better than a black sky which would have been the case 20 minutes after I took this shot.
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Chicago skyline and the Bean just after sunset

  • Cloudy conditions. Remember, clouds are your friends (sometimes) because they diffuse direct sunlight, eliminating harsh shadows. However, if you are including the clouds in the image, you need clouds with texture, such with storm clouds. Otherwise, you’ll have a washed out white sky in your picture which usually ruins the image. In that case, you are better off excluding the sky from your composition.

Although there are exceptions to every rule in photography, my experience is that the above holds true in most cases for outdoor color images.

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