The Best Time of Day
The quality and direction of light changes as the sun rises, moves across the sky and sets below the opposite horizon. For photographers, the best time of day depends in large measure on what you're trying to do.
Most outdoor photographers will tell you that the best time of day to shoot is during the "golden hours" just after sunrise and just before sunset. No doubt I've even written so myself more than once. And even non-photographers can share a similar sense of appreciation for such times, perhaps going so far as to pull over on the side of the road to stop and watch the sunset in all it's colorful glory. We all enjoy a beautiful sunset. But only some of us have a camera and the desire to put it to good use. So when we're not madly firing away on the shutter release for a couple of hours a day, what about the rest of the time? If the golden hours are the best hours, what does that make the remaining balance of the twenty-four that make up a day?
I can only speak for myself of course. But as the magic show of sunrise starts to wind down when I'm out in the field, it usually starts dawning on me that I'm hungry. That makes perfect sense, or it might begin to as you read along here. Getting to my destination before the show begins means I'm typically up long before it's light outside. I really hate getting up early, and there isn't much other than knowing just how good the sunrise show can be that would entice me to set the alarm for oh-dark-thirty. I set it for whatever ungodly hour I thought I could manage at night, but sometimes must admit to having second thoughts in the cold of the dark, dark following morning. Ugh. But sunrise awaits. In order to get as much sleep as I can, I tend not to allot much time for eating before I set out. Back at camp after shooting, I can better afford the time for a real breakfast while I consider my plan for the rest of the day. Its then that the bacon and eggs get pulled out and the camp stove fired up.
Of course, if you've been bitten by the astrophotography bug, you would have had to get up even earlier than I did here. Or get up in the middle of the night and then try to get back to sleep after spending some quality time with the Milky Way. Newer cameras can record excellent results at ridiculously high ISO values, meaning you may be able to shoot star images not too differently than you would other subjects. If you shoot the stars without any terrestrial horizon included, a motorized drive will allow you to track the heavens and record even fainter stars details. But if you're going for a landscape with the stars for backdrop, you really don't want the camera moving during the exposure. Then there are ways to merge two shots, but I mostly find images taken in one to be the more impressive and, dare I say, realistic.
Anyway, back to where we were post-sunrise. If I'm shooting in the mountains, the nice morning light may last a good deal longer than when shooting on flatter terrain. It may take several hours after the official time of sunrise for light to reach over the tops of the neighboring ridges and peaks and into the valley below. But unless its overcast, sooner or later, the light will start to get a tad harsh. It can still be a good time for shooting some subjects though. Mid-morning and mid-afternoon can be great times to shoot macro subjects. You'll still get some directionality to the natural sunlight for creating shadows and accentuating texture, but any harshness that might otherwise cause problems can be controlled with one of those round light diffuser hoop things that may require some a bit of practice to successfully put back in its carrying bag. Hint: grab it by opposite edges and twist.
Such times can also prove to be excellent times for trail scouting and field work in search of locations to come back to at more photogenic hours of the day. There's really no good way to find out what the fall colors look like several miles down the trail without going for a hike to find out. It can be a bit of a bummer to dedicate a sunset as part of finding out, full camera bag slung over your shoulders all the way to your planned destination, only to find out the trees are well past their prime once you arrive. Rats, probably should have gone to that other place instead. Even if you ask in town or at the ranger station, their information may not be as timely as it sounds, or their expectations may not match up well with yours. You're probably hoping for peak color; they thought you just wanted color. But I digress. This really is the best time though to find out firsthand. If nothing comes up it, you can call it "getting exercise" and chock it up to experience. Oh, and in case you do find something at the end of the trail or along the way, you might consider taking at least some camera gear with you. Sometimes, the best time may simply be the time you find something. It may be raining the next time you go.
Lunch time has to fall somewhere between mid-morning and mid-afternoon. As with breakfast, my stomach will cast its vote at some point, and it grumbles if I don't take notice, so I usually relent. Yet, as you may have begun to guess as you read along here, there can be good shots to be taken even during lunch. With the sun high in the sky, most subjects will be at their least flattering, not always. I once felt compelled to set aside my lunch preparations when I noticed the glaring sunlight glinting off a fully formed spider web spanning between two tree branches right next to camp. Lunch things when back in the ice chest, and the camera bag came out of the car. When opportunity knocks, you know.
After too many days of getting up early and staying up late, I can find myself at a sleep deficit, making after lunch the best time to practice the ancient art of the siesta. In layman's terms, call it a nap. I'm not proud.
And before you know it, it's time to figure out where to be for sunset. Often, I have plans, but I may come up with something I like better as the day progresses. Many locations can be mentally tagged as being either a sunrise location or site better visited around sunset, depending on which direction they face. A view seen when looking east will also be facing into the rising sun. With clean lenses to minimize flare and prudent care to protect your eyesight, you can create some amazing images with the sun just poking from behind a foreground subject. The same is true looking west at sunset of course, although I find the vistas to be less reliably good depending on how much haze has built up over the afternoon. Looking opposite the sun lets you capture those moments when it's light first touches the landscape, an equally amazing sight.
The show doesn't end when the sun goes down either. So long as there is any color at all in the sky, you can get cool shots by just leaving the shutter open longer. They're cool to me at least because they let me see things beyond the ability of my unaided eyes. At low light levels, we see mostly in black and white, but a camera will record the color, if we give it enough time to. That makes before sunrise and after sunset one of the best times to get images that reveal a side of the landscape most never see. It may take a full minute or more of the shutter being open, but the time can be well worth it. Make sure your batteries are charged.
In the end it turns out every time of day can be a good time. After all that shooting, don't worry, you can always catch up on sleep tomorrow afternoon.