Here’s Why You Should Forgo Photography's Golden Hour for Sunrise Portrait Shoots

Here’s Why You Should Forgo Photography's Golden Hour for Sunrise Portrait Shoots

If like me, you’re tired of those overprocessed portraits shot during golden hour or at sunset that crowd your online portfolios or your Instagram feed, then perhaps you should consider rising early for your portrait session.

Of late, I have been shooting a lot in the afternoon, hunting that golden light on the west coast of Mauritius, the island where I live. There is something very poetic about the soft golden light and the warm sky hues of the afternoon. But then, I am a bit fed up of seeing so many photos of bikini-clad models or people next to bonfires or with sparklers shot during the golden hour. I am fed up of shooting the same kind of sun-kissed images over and over again. It dawned on me that I got quite dependent on that warm light, because changing settings and doing an entirely different thing during a sunset shoot would take me more time than it should. I was annoyed as during golden hour, every minute is precious.

Last week, I met with a client of mine who was doing a shoot for her brand for the first time. She had no idea how I conducted my shoots, and so she asked me at what time we should start shooting. I saw her mood board and I thought her style would work great in the afternoon light. It would be so easy to shoot at that time for me. But then I paused and realized shooting in the morning light would work as well. Instead of saying that we should shoot in the mid-afternoon at the beach, I said 6 a.m. I’d done it in the past, but now was the time to get back to it. So, we shot at 6 a.m. on a fine Monday morning, and I did not regret my choice, not for one second.

model, dress, sea, beach, blue sky

Here is a quick unedited picture from my last shoot. In addition to the direct sunlight, a silver reflector was used on the left-hand side to avoid some hard shadows.

While I love having shots of my models basking in the warm light of the afternoon, I find that morning is the best moment of the day for a portrait session. It has become my favorite playground. I say this because I noted how shooting subjects after sunrise can alter the look of your usual shoots for the best and refresh your style.

If your client does not have any requirements about the time he or she wants to carry out the shoot, then perhaps you can go for the morning light. Yes, it’s tough to drag your body out of bed at 4:30 a.m., but there are many advantages to rising early for a shoot:

  • Sunrise is the coolest time of the day and where the beauty of the morning light resides. Because the angle between Earth's surface and the sun is reduced in the morning, there are less dust particles and haze in the air. It adds more punch and intensifies the colors in your shot. Even on a foggy morning, you can still do wonders and make colors come out more vividly.
  • The morning light offers a bigger window than that of the golden hour. You can work longer with almost the same light and keep the same tones in your pictures, especially when you’re shooting with natural light only.
  • If you like dark blue skies, try shooting early in the morning with a circular polarizer or perhaps a graduated neutral density filter if you want some exceptionally dramatic skies. Adding a reflector to the shot can help light up your model almost like you had some artificial lights.
  • One of the best things about shooting so early is that you wrap up early as well. I love that I can go home at 11 a.m., have lunch, rest a bit, and still have time to reply to emails and do some editing for some other work.
  • And last, in case something goes wrong in the morning and you really have no option, you have a second chance to carry on with your shoot in the afternoon. It may not be what you wanted, but if your team is not available on another day, it’s better than nothing.

Morning light was streaming indoors for this shot. Photo by Emma Grigoryan.

In addition to morning light, a reflector was used here. Photo by Emma Grigoryan.

Do note that for such morning shoots, it’s always a must to have a good assistant to help you with the light. If you’re not using a strobe, just a reflector can go a long way to fill in those shadows on the face and body. I know how hard it is to wake up early for a 6 a.m. shoot, and you will need to convince your team and models to do the same. But give it a try and share your results and experience.

Images used with permission of Emma Grigoryan.

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26 Comments

Tyler Newcomb's picture

I actually did this recently for some engagement photos I was shooting. They wanted sunset, and I convinced them to do a sunrise shoot. Results are great, but I can't share them.

Khatleen Minerve's picture

Great !! I'm sure the pictures look fab !

Shintaro Maeda's picture

https://fstoppers.com/photo/145198

I like early morning shoots because there are less people out and about reducing the risk of them getting in your shots.

Khatleen Minerve's picture

You're absolutely right Shintaro !
And on another note, I absolutely love your cosplay shoot up there. Big fan of Samurai Champloo! The sunflower field was so appropriate! :)

Jim McCourt's picture

Did that for a maternity shoot recently and it worked out really well. One MAJOR piece of advice would be to make sure to acclimate your gear to the outside temp. Waiting for foggy lenses to clear up for 15 min plus is a mood killer and you waste light.

Khatleen Minerve's picture

Thanks for sharing Jim! Your image is so soft and nice !
I actually did have an issue with foggy lenses a few times before, and I got worried the 'fog' inside my lens would cause fungus ultimately or evaporation drops inside, but thank goodness, it never happened. But I would usually just take my lens off my camera and wait a few seconds.

Colin Johnson's picture

The "Golden Hour" is 30 minutes before sunset and 30 minutes after...

I personally feel the best light is the "Blue Hour" before sunrise.
This is the period of twilight early in the dawn each morning and late dusk each evening when the sun is at a significant distance below the horizon and the residual, indirect sunlight takes on a predominantly blue hue.

Khatleen Minerve's picture

Quite right, I put golden hour as a general term in the title just to illustrate those late afternoons during which we take those kind of pictures with golden light.

As for Blue Hour, I totally get you. It's something else entirely. It can yield great results with that blue hue, but unfortunately, the only thing that won't work for me for a fashion shoot, is that it's a small window of time to shoot numerous items, and the light can be too even on the skin, and I like getting some highlights on the skin. But then for a quick portrait session, shooting at dawn can be quite amazing.

Nomad Photographers's picture

Oh yes you're right. Right now I am in south of Spain where waking up in the morning is like a joke. As a result I had to do lots of sessions by sunset where golden hour is more like golden 5 minutes during summer. Everything is more complicated, assisting light is a pain in the back to set up and change every 5 shots and when you think you've got it right it's night time ! Great. I am a big fan of morning light but very seldom get people willing to wake up early enough (I get a lot of "yeah, morning no problem, around 10am, 11am")

Khatleen Minerve's picture

Haha! Too bad!
But I shot in the early morning in Mallorca and Granada once and it was tremendous! You live in an amazing area with tremendous locations for shoots.

Sunrise has the same colors of sunset......
I guess you are talking about the sun already high in the sky.

Khatleen Minerve's picture

Nope, I did mention waking up early at 4.30 to get done by 6am. So no, not midday.

Morning and evening light are most definitely not the same. I'd much rather shoot in the first light of the day than in the last. Morning light has a crisper, lighter quality to it and there are sound scientific reasons for this (density, humidity, turbulence, atmospheric pollution).

David Moore's picture

I think I'd do better staying UP to 6am to shoot rather than getting up. lol I've been wanting to do this lately.

Khatleen Minerve's picture

I feel you ! I did that a few times myself to be honest. I go to bed rather late every day, so waking up early is always a pain! :P

Mya Negroni's picture

I did a "mermaids" marathon and I have to admit my favorite portrait was of my first "mermaid" that morning. I used a strobe and love the results so much more than most of my sunset photos. I'm just not a morning person and don't know if I can do that again though. :-p

Tony Carter's picture

I recently convinced a fitness model that a sunrise shoot on the beach would be ideal for his pics, as there would be the least amount of people around, nice warming sunlight, and the orange-yellow sun will compliment the blue-green lake quite nicely. We were both happy with the results!

Brian Schmittgens's picture

https://fstoppers.com/photo/145904

It's rough getting up early, but I don't think I've ever regretted it.

some of us became professional photograpers so we could work for ourselves and not get up at 5am for work ;)

Khatleen Minerve's picture

Haha, I find freelance photography is even more demanding because of the discipline it takes.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Try to shoot models TFP in the morning 98% flakes guaranteed :D

"In photography, the golden hour (sometimes known as magic hour, especially in cinematography) is a period shortly AFTER SUNRISE or before sunset(...) "

To get the look of the two first pictures in Miami we need to shoot afternoon. Unless we will go to one of the keys and use west side...

Shooting early is really cool for many reasons, but as far as light quality it depends on your location. What works on west coast doesn't necessarily translate to east coast nor to other parts of the planet.

Pick time of the shoot based on the mood you are going for and your location. If you want blue sky and white clouds with model evenly lit with somehow high contrast, choose time when the sun will be below 40deg behind your back. Once it will go below around 20deg it will start looking warmer. Now these condition may be present in the morning or afternoon depends on the background (direction you are pointing the camera).

I recommend great app I use to forecast sun position - Sun Seeker.

I haven't tried Sun seeker yet, but Suncalc is great - http://suncalc.net/