Understanding Light

When scheduling a photo shoot, whether it be a bridal portrait, senior session or a family – my options are limited. While scheduling is definitely at the mercy of my clients availability, my own personal schedule (which is unpredictable to say the least, with three small children), and the overall weather – I’d venture to say that the sun itself dictates the time of the shoot more than anything else.

The time of day and the position of the sun can change an image drastically, and knowledge of the implications of different kind of light are vital to creating professional images.

Everyone with a digital camera has had those “lucky shots” – where you seem to be in the right place at the right time. The light was perfect – our subject back lit by amazingly soft and supple light and the arrangement was spot on. Then in the following weeks, discouragement snuffs our creative spark as we struggle to understand why we can’t recreate an image as awe-inspiring as that one. This is where many give up their interest in digital photography and cameras become a permanent fixture in the closet. The knowledge of light and how to manipulate it is vital if you want to take your images to the next level.

We’ve all heard the term “natural light photography.” While this sounds like a simple term (natural light is all around us, right?), to perfect this takes education and a whole lot of practice. Since beginning my professional career in photography, I have become quite literally, a ‘light chaser.’ Daylight is ever changing – every minute, every second – from the moment the sun breaks the horizon until it sinks down below.

Here are a few ideal times to get outside with your camera.

Before the sun comes up

I know what you’re thinking – NO. Just, no. But hear me out, this one is worth it. The pre-dawn light often offers a totally unique, steel blue quality to the images, as the warm sun rises over the cold earth. This time of day is ideal for low light landscapes, particularly in the colder months.
My favorite pre-dawn shoot that I have shot was in the city of Seattle when my husband (then – boyfriend) and I woke up at 4 am and made it to the water by Alki Beach on the other side of the city. We sat huddled together on a fishing pier in January as the sun came up over the city. In front of us, a dedicated fisherman sat in waiting for a bite and boats made their way back and forth. It was awe inspiring. It was the perfect time for a long exposure shot on my tripod. It remains one of my favorite memories for many reasons, but this day lit my fire for photography like never before.


Since you’re up and awake (with a huge coffee in your hand), stick around and keep your finger on the shutter. Sunrise will deliver dramatically different results, as the light changes quickly while the sun is rising over the horizon. Depending on the temperature outside, the fog may act as a giant diffuser. If light rain is falling, the suns rays may appear huge and stretch for miles.
If you can find clients to cooperate with this time of day (maybe promise to pick up the caffeine), this light is amazing for portraiture. Get there prepared with your ideas though, as this light is fleeting and the ideal shooting time will be over before you know it.


Golden Hour 

Aw yes, golden hour. I’m just as guilty as every other professional photographer – calling this time of day my ‘absolute favorite’. You can’t beat golden hour. Its the magical time of day, roughly an hour before the sun sets where the sun is the lowest on the horizon. This time of day is where you get your beautifully backlit portraits with all the color of a summer evening. Your subject hair seems to be surrounded by a halo and it looks like God took a giant paintbrush and doused the landscape with light.
Because the atmosphere is the most dense during this time of day, the sunlight has a warmer feel to it. If you’re observant, you’ll also notice that during this time of day, the shadows of your subjects and their surroundings are at their longest – adding a lot of texture and detail in your image.



See sunrise – but with a much warmer feel. This time of the evening is so versatile, depending on what your subject is. Everyone loves a beautifully painted, multicolored, vibrant sunrise. However, because this is entirely weather dependent, you may not get that lucky. The sun never sets the same way twice and there is some flexibility in how you use what the Lord has provided for that evening. I’ve stuck around well after golden hour with engaged couples to get that special silhouette with Eskimo kisses (bonus points if you’re on a mountaintop).

Matt & Sadie -53

Blue Hour

During twilight, you’ll notice that the sky will turn different shades of blue – ranging from lighter and airy to deep and dark. Remember your tripod that you had at sunrise? Bust that out again – you’re going to need it. Shooting in low light means that you’ll need a steady base as your shutter speed will need to be slowed down (not a bad idea to look into a release cable as well). Reflective surfaces, such as water, lakes, and wide open spaces can add dimension to your photographs during this time of night.

There you have it. Dig out your camera, dust it off and get back into it. Every photographer began with a whole lot of trial and error, and no one was born knowing how to shoot in manual, manipulate light, or create the perfect preset for their style. We all started somewhere, and we all walk together -learning new things every day! The best way to further yourself in your photography knowledge and skill is to practice!

Happy shooting!

In Him,