Nature photographers and portrait photographers know there is an ideal time to take most outdoor photos. That time is what photographers often refer to as “sweet light” or the “magic hour.” The magical period is the hour or so right after sunrise and right before sunset .
If you will look around you the next time you are outdoors during the magic hours, you will see that the world is often transformed with beautiful colors, long shadows, and very soft light. When the sun is low to the horizon, its rays have to pass through much more atmosphere. than during the middle of the day The result is a softer, warmer (i.e. more yellow) light. This can make otherwise mundane subjects come alive. It is also a great time to shoot portraits.
For photographing people during this time, you will typically want to position them so that the soft light is falling on their face(s) at a slight angle. In other words, have them look toward the sun and then turn 30-45 degrees to one side. Because the sun is low, it is usually possible for your subject to do this without squinting. Typically the background will have nice, saturated colors in it. Because the light level is relatively low, it is easy to use a large aperture (a small number, like f/2.8 or f/5). If your camera is on automatic you will probably get this result, but to be sure, use aperture priority if your camera has that function. Set your aperture to a low number (preferably less than f/8). If this produces too slow of a shutter speed to handhold your camera (and you don’t have a tripod available), then you can increase the ISO setting on your camera to get a usable shutter speed.
A side benefit of shooting people during this time is that the wind is usually minimal. Also, if it’s in the summer, you’ll be shooting during the cooler part of the day, which is nice for your subjects. Most people don’t photograph very well – and don’t want to be photographed – when they are hot and sweaty and squinting and miserable.
Here’s a side tip: Do you know how slow of a shutter speed you can use while handholding your camera and not get camera shake? It’s simple – just use 1 over the focal length of your lens (35mm equivalent). For example, if you have a 100mm lens, most digital cameras (unless they are higher-end, full-frame versions) will effectively multiply that length by about 1.5 or 1.6. 100mm times 1.5 equals 150mm, so you should be able to handhold that lens at 1/150th of a second or faster and not get camera shake. A little experimentation will show you “how slow you can go.”
Of course if you can use a tripod or otherwise stabilize your camera (by resting it on something solid or using a camera with stabilization built in), then you can use an even slower shutter speed than the above rule. Just remember that the slower the shutter speed, the more your subject will need to hold still. Again, the great thing about digital is that you can experiment and check your results right away. Just be sure to zoom into your preview image on the camera to be sure your subject is sharp. The eyes are the most critical in a portrait.
Another advantage to shooting in the relatively low light during the magical hour is that you can also use (with a tripod) a small aperture (i.e. a high number, like f/16) and a slow shutter speed (like 1/2 second) to blur moving water. This can be difficult to do during bright sunlight unless you have a neutral density filter.
If the sky is overcast, the magic hour loses a lot of its magic. You still have a very diffused light and a low light level, but you lose the great colors and the long shadows. A smattering of clouds, though, may make the sweet light even sweeter. You may just have to find your subject and be patient while the light changes as the clouds move. That’s when you wait and shoot, then wait and shoot some more.
Of course the magic hour is when you’ll be able to shoot sunrises and sunsets . Just don’t forget to look around you AWAY from the sun to see what the light is doing to other subjects. You may find that this is your favorite time to shoot outdoors .