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You have probably heard the saying, “The early bird gets the worm,” and in some ways that phrase can be repurposed to apply to photographers as well. “The early photographer gets the picture” isn’t always true in a literal sense, but learning to recognize changes that happen throughout the day, and how they affect your pictures is critical to developing a deeper understanding of photography in general. If you’re looking for a way to enhance your own photography, get better shots, or just try something new, getting up early to take some photos in the morning hours can have a dramatic impact on your pictures.
What you will see below is a collection of shots that are similarly-composed, but taken at different times of the day. The idea is not necessarily to see which picture is better, but to help you visualize and understand how much impact the time of day has on your outdoor pictures.
One advantage of shooting in the morning is that the sun is not directly overhead, which means light is diffused in the sky, and essentially coming from all directions. This helps your subjects have more even lighting, and makes it easier to get a good overall exposure since there isn’t the same degree of high contrast between light and dark areas that happens later in the day. This picture of some flowers in the morning illustrates the concept, and shows how diffused morning light can affect not just the shadows, but the color and vibrance of the picture as well.
Revisiting the same scene later in the day revealed an image that is similar in overall composition but quite different in some significant ways. The colors on the orange flower are not as rich and vibrant as they are in the morning photo, and the individual petals create harsh shadows that can be somewhat distracting.
While taking photos later in the day often means you have more light available, it comes with an important tradeoff: the midday sun often often leads to a greater degree of contrast with brighter highlights and darker shadows. However, this is not to imply that shooting later in the day is an inherently bad idea. Learning to shoot at different times of the day is not just about knowing how things are lit, but understanding how nature itself changes. Different times of day are not necessarily better or worse, but each has its own set of opportunities and challenges.
Notice how the pink flower has opened up and is much more vibrant than in the morning. No amount of early sunlight can coax a flower into full bloom, and sometimes you simply have no choice but to shoot later in the day if you want to get a particular picture. Wildlife shooters often take pictures in the morning or evening, but not necessarily because of the light. They do it because many animals are simply much more active at that time, than in the middle of the day.
One of the best solutions, which is not always possible but does offer some creative opportunities, is when you can get pictures in the middle of a cloudy or overcast day. That scenario gives you the nature advantages of shooting in the middle of the day, with the lighting advantages of morning or dusk. In this final picture, which was taken during a moment of thick cloud cover, you can see how the pink and orange flowers are in full bloom, while the light is much more similar to the morning image. The shadows are soft and diffused, which lends a warm and pleasant feeling to the image.
One nice thing about shooting pictures in the morning is how the early sun can cast a nice even light on your subject. But, there are other elements of a photographic composition to take into account as well. Here are two pictures of some seed pods on a magnolia tree, taken a few hours apart. In these examples you can see that the morning light doesn’t just affect the color and shadows on the subject, but has a notable impact on the background elements, and other parts of the picture as well.
In the first image the subject (i.e. the seed pod in the foreground) is evenly lit, with nicely saturated colors, and the composition has a nice warm tone overall. There are a few drawbacks though – the building in the background which faces to the east is so brightly lit it’s distracting, and the sky does not yet have the rich blue tones that can happen later in the day.
Here’s the same composition taken a few hours later, which illustrates that shooting in the bright sunlight has some tradeoffs tradeoffs that are both good and bad. While the building in the afternoon photo is not overexposed and the sky has more of a pleasing blue tint, the subject is somewhat backlit which causes a bit too much contrast for my liking.
Again, the message here is not about why taking pictures at a particular time of day is better or worse, but understanding the effect it will have on your images. Some of the problems with the afternoon picture could be mitigated if I simply took the picture from a different angle or used another subject. I could also have used the pop-up flash on my camera as a fill flash which would have fixed some of the shadows on the subject. These challenges also become a little easier to work with if you are taking pictures of people and not immovable inanimate objects because you can tell them where to go, bring umbrellas, or use structures to manipulate the light.
I already gave some examples of how the early morning sun can have a pleasant effect on a single subject, but it can also cast an entire scene, or even a landscape, in an entirely different light compared to the afternoon. This image of a path on the Oklahoma State University campus is one of the most pleasing examples of how shooting in the morning can give you an incredible advantage when it comes to just working with light. The entire scene is evenly lit, and even the undersides of the tree branches are green. There are no harsh shadows and the morning light creates a warm and welcoming feeling overall.
In the next image you can clearly see evidence of some of the challenges posed by midday sunlight. The image is awash with contrasting areas of light and dark, and the shadows on the path are disjointed and distracting. There is no one clear focal point for the image, and the undersides of the leaves are so dark they are almost unrecognizable. It looks like an entirely different scene, even though it was the same location.
The final image in this series illustrates one additional hurdle that must be overcome when shooting during the day – other people. In most parts of the world, and especially on a college campus, there simply is not much human activity in the early morning. Later in the day you will usually find yourself contending with workers, pedestrians, students, tourists, children playing, or a variety of other types of individuals who might inadvertently get in the way of letting you take the picture you want.
Almost any outdoor photographic situation will have far fewer people around in the wee hours of the morning, which can not only give you better pictures, but a greater sense of peace and calmness as you go about the business of taking photos. The other point to note about the image above with the students walking, is that even though there was plenty of cloud cover which meant nice evenly-diffused lighting, the undersides of the trees are much darker than in the 7:30am photo. This illustrates how even though cloudy and overcast days are great for photos, there are still some aspects of shooting in the morning or evening that can be advantageous.
Finally, here’s one more example of how pictures in the morning can be much different than pictures later in the day. This bronze statue is a friendly sight for shoppers and drivers in downtown Stillwater, Oklahoma. Taking his photo as the sun is creeping over the horizon yields a well-lit image with a hometown feel, as the shops of main street recede into the background. Colors are even and not overly-saturated, and there is neither too much, nor too little, contrast on the statue itself.
The same photo in the late afternoon looks dramatically different, but not just because of the lighting. In the second picture (below) the light is clearly coming from overhead, as the top of his shoulders and side of his hat are much brighter and the contrasting light is creating much deeper shadows on his overcoat. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the result is an image that shows more texture on the statue, even though one of the tradeoffs is that the side of his head is shrouded in shadow. However, the most critical difference here is the background, which is now filled with passing shoppers and parked cars. The picture seems cluttered, the focal point is less obvious, and instead of a friendly small town main street it now seems like a sterile commercial shopping center.
Hopefully these examples give you a better idea of how the time of day in which you take pictures can dramatically affect not just the lighting, but many aesthetic elements of your photographic compositions as well. What are your favorite tips for shooting at different times of the day? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.