Tips for Making the Most of Morning Light for Portraits


There’s something about taking photos in the magical morning light that makes my heart so happy. Maybe it’s because of the extra effort it takes to be outside in the crisp morning air when your family is still in bed. It could also be because morning sessions are more uncommon, so they feel a little more special. Most likely it’s because that soft, beautiful light just glows, and looks just a little different from the light later in the day, or evening.

How to Make the Most of Magical Morning Light

If you’re a night owl, and can’t imagine getting out of a nice warm bed just to take some pictures, let me try and convince you to give it a try. You might become a morning person, just for that incredibly gorgeous morning light.

Time it Right

The best time to start a morning session is right around sunrise. I have an app on my phone that will tell me what time the sun rises in my area on any date. I like to start about 15 minutes after sunrise. The light level is usually fairly low right at sunrise, so I give a little bit of time for things to lighten up before starting.

The nice thing about using that morning golden hour versus the evening golden hour is that you can take as much time as you need. In the evening you have to decide when it’s the exact right time to start. You want to use the best light right near sunset, but you don’t want to start too late and not have enough time before it’s too dark. If you start too early, you could be done before the beautiful golden sunset light shows up.

Morning light at sunrise takes care of that problem. You start with that gorgeous glowy light and shoot until you’re done. No light is ever wasted.

How to Make the Most of Magical Morning Light - portrait

Morning Weather is Usually Good

Depending on where you live, you might have better luck with the weather in the morning. In my area, it’s usually less windy than it can get in the afternoon. Most mornings are calm and still. Oftentimes there’s a light hazy cloud cover that makes any shooting direction work, so you can use your backgrounds to their fullest extent.

More often the rain and storms come a little bit later in the day. It’s not always the case that you get beautiful weather in the morning, but more often than not, it’s perfect conditions for shooting.

The only negative would be during the colder times of the year when mornings are brisk, or even downright freezing. I just instruct my subject to dress warm, and I wear fingerless gloves and a coat with pockets, so I can try to keep my hands as warm as possible.

How to Make the Most of Magical Morning Light - golden portraits of two girls

Morning Light has a Special Quality

There’s a softness to morning light that you just don’t see most afternoons and evenings. It feels like it wraps around the subject a little more, and has a bit less intensity compared to light later in the day. It can be easier to work with because you won’t have as much glare in your lens when backlighting (facing your subject away from the sun).

You can face your subject toward the sun easier too, because the light isn’t quite as harsh, so they don’t squint as much. The shadows on faces aren’t as pronounced, and everything feels a bit softer. The light isn’t usually as warm as it is in the evening, so sometimes I warm the photos up a bit more in post-processing, but there are times when the cooler light is simply stunning.

How to Make the Most of Magical Morning Light

Be Different, Learn Something New

Many times when I’ve shared photos from a morning session, people have told me that they love the photos, but they don’t quite know what makes them so special. Most photographers are out there during the evening golden hour, and that little bit of difference you’ll see in a morning photo will set you apart from everyone else.

Your photos will have a quality to them that other photographers might not be able to put their finger on. I don’t do every photo session in the morning, in fact, most of my sessions are later in the day, but doing something different, outside of the norm, sets you apart from other photographers, and it also opens you up to more inspiration and creativity.

Every time we do something a little different, we learn new things, and sometimes discover something new that takes our photography to the next level. Shooting in the morning is just one of those things you can do differently, but it’s a big one. It might even be a game changer for you.

How to Make the Most of Magical Morning Light

Wake Up

How do you convince your next photography subject to get up early in the morning and get ready for a photo session when they could be sleeping longer? How do you convince yourself to get out in the brisk morning air with your camera when you could be snuggled under the covers?

The best way to convince anyone is to look at the results. I’ve had clients get up at 4:00 am to be ready for a session because beautiful photos were more important than a little bit more sleep. They can always take a nap later. If you can convince one person to give it a try, you might convince a lot more to do it too, once they see those photos.

You will love the feeling of accomplishing something wonderful first thing in the morning, and then having the rest of the day to edit and play. So, set that alarm and give that morning light a try!

How to Make the Most of Magical Morning Light

Are you a lover of a beautiful sunrise and glowing morning light? Share your morning photos, people or nature, in the comments. I’d love to see what you’ve captured while your neighbors were still in their pajamas!

How to Make the Most of Magical Morning Light

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Melinda Smith was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.

  • camilla zaccheo

    I’m completely agree with you! morning light makes the shooting more special, intriguing and of course beautiful, I did it just one time because I’m a lazy person ( lol) but I can’t wait to do it again

  • Click and Learn Photography

    Really good article, and I couldn’t agree more about the dawn light having that special quality about it. I much prefer it to sunset, although I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is!

    I’ve actually written an article on how and when to use backlighting, sidelighting, and fronlighting when outdoors which might be useful:

  • Your landscapes are breathtaking!! I am in love with all of the photos in your article. 🙂 Thank you for sharing!

  • Stunning photos! I love the lighting, and I especially love the passion and feeling in them! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  • Click and Learn Photography

    Thanks a lot Melinda, really kind of you to say! Your portraits are infinitely better than anything I can manage though haha!

    If you ever want to exchange guest posts feel free to give me a message as well.

  • Ricki

    Love this article! Including photos from several different sunrise sessions helped me to get a more complete feel for the point you were making, and has definitely inspired me to try sunrise shoots- though maybe not until its a little warmer out!

  • It is definitely harder when it’s cold outside! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  • Joyce Rivera

    Wonderful article and I really need to get up earlier so I’m going to try this. I did notice that the sky seems to be blown out in most of the pictures. There’s probably no way to avoid that unless using flash, right? Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • Lj

    Great article, Melinda!! I totally agree that getting out of bed when it’s still dark outside and especially when it’s cold and/or rainy, is one of the hardest things to do, especially on a day off from work. But I absolutely agree that the results are almost always totally worth it, there’s never a crowd to compete with, and the results have an ethereal quality that isn’t quite the same at sunset.

    Thanks for posting!


    You can check out my portraits and headshots in Asbury Park at sunrise on my site.

  • If you shoot with the sun at your back, so the sun is directly on your subject’s face, you should be able to get the sky/clouds to be exposed in the photo. I love the look of backlighting (sun behind your subject), and a blown out sky doesn’t bother me. My focus is on the subject. Everyone has a different style, though, so find what works for you! 🙂

  • Such a great point that I should’ve thought of for the article… you rarely have to fight a crowd in the morning!

  • Joyce Rivera

    Thanks for your reply. I just always worry when I blow out the sky but I’m glad to hear it doesn’t bother you. Your pictures are amazing and I need to learn how to be more like you in that respect.

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