Best Lighting for Outdoor Portraits

The best lighting for outdoor portraits is completely dependent on where the sun sits in the sky at the time of the session.  Where that sun sits can make or break a portrait.  The time I prefer to photograph for outdoor portraits is sun rise or sunset AKA “The Golden Hour”.  “The Golden hour” is a period of time approximately 2-3 before sunset and 1-2 hours before sunrise.  Photographing at these times helps prevent harsh lighting that create dense shadows.

 Sun Location

The location of the sun in the sky has the largest impact on natural light portraits.  The easiest way to think about this is to pretend you are telling a ghost story and holding a flash light over the top of your head (mid day sun). This can be explained by thinking of where the sun is in the sky through out the day.

Earlier morning the sun is rising and the sun ray are not yet full strength and is lower in the sky therefore producing a more flattering light on a face.  During the mid day the sun is sitting high in the sky over top of the subject and therefore produces a light that has harsh shadows under eyes, nose and chin.  Lighting in this way (in my opinion) does not produce the best lighting for outdoor portraits.  Which is why photographing around sunrise and sunset is the best time of the day for me to capture a portrait session.  Last but not least, the end of day sun is going back down again and the strength is lowering again, therefore producing a light that isn’t as harsh, is warmer and produces softer shadows.

Lighting Example

horrible lighting






This example shows a light placed over top of the head.  The dark shadows under the brow line, under the eye sockets and under the nose simulate mid day sun.

Outdoor Portraits | Locations

To set up a portrait session for success I also have to take into account the location.  The location can be an area that has an abundance of trees, open fields, water, buildings, pavement etc.  These areas can have a large impact on the best lighting for outdoor portraits as well.


Trees can impact the light that is displayed on the faces for portraits.  In a heavily wooded area, lighting can be harder to come by as the sun is being blocked by the trees but trees can be useful to create a filter to soften mid day sun on a face.


Open fields can be hard to photograph for portraits during the mid day sun as there is nothing that can be used to diffuse the direct sunlight to soften the shadows on a face.  Photographing in an open field during mid day sun does not make for the best lighting for outdoor portraits.  Open fields can however produce beautiful images during sunrise and sunset when the subjects are placed properly.


Water can be tricky to photograph portraits by, as the sun reflects off the water and can make harsh shadows onto face.  Water can also produce absolutely stunning images as long as the subject is place appropriately . Pavement can also reflect the sun and have the same effect as water on faces.


City buildings can create a number of shadows by blocking the sun and produce flat images.  Flat images are when there is no shadowing on a face at all.  While flat images are photographed by some photographers, flat images are not my style of photography.  I find they do not produce the drama and dynamic images I prefer for outdoor portraits.  I tend to find flat imaging very boring as they lack dimension that keep a photograph interesting.  In this scenario I would utilize some reflectors to create shadows and dimension to faces for an image.

best lighting for outdoor portraits

As I have explained there are many factors that are involved in every portrait session.  Every single one of these factors all have to be taken into account to produce the best lighting for outdoor sessions.  Lighting is subjective in the eye of the artist and taste can vary significantly. Some photographers prefer to bring lighting and equipment to help with lighting.  I prefer to find the best scenario in any situation to produce beautiful images.  This is why my photography services pricing is structured the way it is, you are paying for the expertise and style of the artist while they find the best lighting for outdoor sessions.

When Should you Shoot?  sun rise vs mid day vs sunset

Best Times of the Day for a Photo Shoot