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This post was most recently updated on September 25th, 2022

Photography is a beautiful way to portray the way you see the world and the people in it. It is also subjective to each individual, it’s art. Although photography comes with a lot of technicalities with settings and equipment, there is no right or wrong way to take a photograph unless it’s extremely under or overexposed.

There is a method to take a ‘perfect’ photograph, which essentially means it’s perfectly sharp and the exposure is spot on producing a crisp image. This kind of photography is often required for commercial work or sports photography.

This requires having the right light and camera settings (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) and learning some technical skills. However, some of the best photographers in the world have won awards for technically ‘imperfect’ photographs, blurry, dark, overexposed, grainy, the list goes on.

Natural lighting is something that varies throughout the day, the year, the part of the world, and changes dramatically whether you’re indoors or outdoors. Some people prefer a slightly dark portrait with harsh contrast, whereas other photographers may prefer a brighter photograph with more clarity and less contrast.

There are many different ways to achieve beautiful portraits. In this article, we will discuss some different natural lighting and what it offers the photograph, and which is the ‘ideal’ for portrait photography.

Pre Sunrise Light -The Blue Hour

In the short time before the sun rises you get a very soft light and flattering light. There is no direct light on your subject but there is enough residual light in the sky to softly light someone’s face or body.

This light produces a very soft image, the skin is smooth, often making subjects appear more flawless in terms of skin tone and inconsistencies. This is a very flattering light but due to the lack of direct sunlight, the photograph will be missing the element of highlights and shadows that direct light brings.

If you are trying to achieve a portrait with a lot of detail and highlights then this won’t work. If you are trying to achieve a softer image, then this light can be very beautiful.

Sunrise Light (Golden Hour)

This is essentially the morning version of the ‘golden hour’. Sunrise light is one of the softest direct lights the day has to offer. It brings a warm tone to the photograph and due to the sun being so low it has a flattering effect on the skin illuminating the subject in a mesmerizing fashion.

This can be some of the most beautiful light to shoot portraits and is one of the best lights to highlight the eyes. It also provides the option of casting shadows over the subject and highlighting areas you want to highlight and darkening areas you may feel adds artistic value.

The shadows are soft at this time and coming from a low angle.

Midday Light

Midday light offers a bright and contrasting light. Due to the sun being directly overhead, this casts strong shadows down the face, often shadowing the eyes themselves if the subject is positioned normally. This light isn’t ideal for softer portraits due to the brightness and the angle of the sun.

The overpowering nature of midday sun highlights all the details in someone’s face.

If this is the look you are going for, for example, if the photographer aims to highlight an older person’s wrinkles and flaws to bring power to the photograph, showing the effects of age and a face full of a lifetime of emotions, then this light can be good.

However, often the angle will cast a shadow over the face so if this is the desired light for your portrait then be sure to get the subject to angle themselves so the light hits more directly for the portrait, whether it’s tilting the head towards the sky or lying down.

This light can be cool for ‘gritty’ and ‘edgy’ portraits with a lot of clarity and detail. Like I mentioned above, photography is art, and art is subjective. So it depends on what you are going for.

Late Afternoon Light

This light is a mixture of midday harshness and sunset softness. Around this time 5-6 PM (depending on the time of year) the light has lost its midday strength but hasn’t quite softened to the point of pre-sunset light.
This light can offer a nice balance between contrasting and softer portraits. However in my opinion this is a bit of a ‘nothing’ time to shoot. Ideally, you’d go for one of the others as they both offer stronger images in different ways.

The plus side of starting your shoot at this time as it gives you time to test your work into the coming golden hour light, so by this point you’ll have your photograph composed and everything ready to go for that gorgeous evening light.

Evening Light (The Golden Hour)

Evening Light (The Golden Hour)

The Golden Hour has its name for a reason. This light turns the world into a mesmerizing golden ocean of warmth and beauty. Casting its magnificence on everything and everyone. This light can make the most trivial of things sparkle in a transcendent way.

When it comes to portraits your subject will never look more beautiful and flawless than they do in this light. It’s important to realise that the light gets more and more flattering the lower the sun gets in the sky. Up to the point where you lose the last ray of light.

A good time to start shooting is approximately 1 hour before the sunsets. The same rules apply to morning light but in reverse. The hour after sunrise is the best time to shoot for the perfect lighting.

Post-Sunset Light – The Blue Hour

Many think this light is the same as pre-sunrise light, it is very similar. But pre-sunrise light offers a little more warmth to the tones compared to the morning. This light casts a shadowless soft light due to residual light in the sky. This is beautiful for soft portraiture photography much like pre-sunrise light.

Light Direction

Subject facing the light source – Light varies depending on the direction you are facing.

If you want to illuminate all of your subject then standing them facing directly into the light will help you achieve this. Depending on the tilt of the subject’s face or body will determine which way the shadows are cast on the face.

Subject with their back to the light – If you the photographer faces into the light and your subject has their back to the light, you will achieve a backlit portrait, darkening the subject into more of a silhouette style shot.

This can be very good if you are trying to highlight the outline of someone and produces light flares in the image which is something photographers go crazy for. Shooting into the sun produces a very warm golden vibe to the image, but shadows your subjects’ features due to the light being behind them.

Side Lit – Lighting the subject from the side will cast light onto one side of the subject, in turn shadowing the other side. This can be a very useful technique when trying to get the half and half portrait with one side highlighted and the other darkened.

Conclusion

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, photography is subjective. It is art.

Every photographer has a different idea of what looks beautiful and what does not. Various lighting techniques are part of this. It’s widely known and accepted that sunrise and sunset light is the most flattering for portraits and most other things.

However, as we discussed earlier, this is assuming you want to go for that style of photography. If you want harsher, more contrasting light to highlight features to bring more power and emotion into the photograph then the brighter light will be better.