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The Complete Guide to Timing in Photography

The Complete Guide to Timing in Photography

In photography, timing is everything! Selecting the best time for photography is particularly important when shooting in outdoor conditions, allowing you to optimize light, exposure, color, and detail in your images.

In this complete guide to photography timing, we look at how to select photos based on the time they were shot, bringing a particular lighting mood to your designs and campaigns. 

Read on to discover how to literally light up your projects with beautifully-timed photography, shot during Golden Hour, Blue Hour, or even at night.

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Iren_Geo, ecstk22, biletskiyevgeniy.comand, and TgTsibe.

What Is Timing in Photography?

Timing in photography is largely dependent on four factors—time of day, weather conditions, season, and opportunity

In this article, we will be focusing mainly on the role that the time of day plays in creating stock photos, as this can be more easily controlled by the photographer (on the condition that they don’t mind getting up early to make the most of Golden Hour!).

The quality, amount, and color of light changes throughout the day, giving photos a particular mood and aesthetic. Scroll down to find out more about the best time to take pictures during the day.

Photography timing can also be affected by the weather and time of year.

For example, shooting during an overcast day limits the overall amount of outdoor light and reduces contrast in stock photos.

At the other end of the scale, a very bright, sunny day can—in some contexts or environments, such as deserts or coastal areas—produce an excessive, harsh level of light which “bleaches” out highlighted areas in images, creating a high-contrast effect.   

In terms of seasonality, winter light is often cooler and starker than light conditions in summer, with snowfall casting photos in a cool, blue tint.

Towards the end of the summer and into fall, light conditions become warmer as the sun moves through a lower arc across the sky, diffusing the light and creating a “golden glow” effect.  

Light in the winter months is often cooler as the sun moves in a lower arc through the sky, with more blue tones reflected from snowfall, ice, and frost (left). In the summer months, the tone of light is warmer as the sun traces in a high arc across the sky, and becomes more pink and golden moving into late summer and fall (right). License these images via Erik Mandre and Ondrej Prosicky.

Opportunity is also a significant factor in achieving just the right timing in photography, and this can be found both outdoors and in a studio environment.

Capturing a person’s face as they break into laughter, or having the luck to see two elements interact at just the right moment for the camera shutter to close. These are both examples of opportunity, and these are really only found as you patiently spend time photographing a subject over a period of time . . . or simply through good fortune! 

A beautiful female kingfisher diving for and catching fish
Timing in photography is as much about patience, opportunity, and sheer good luck! License this image via Ivor Ottley Photography.

In this article, we’ll explore timing in photography in more detail, looking at how the time of day contributes to beautiful aesthetics in stock photos, including golden hour photography and night time photography.

Read on to find out more about:

  1. Golden Hour (Morning)
  2. Midday and Afternoon
  3. Golden Hour (Evening)
  4. Blue Hour
  5. Nighttime
Panorama view of famous Hallstatt lakeside town in the Alps in mystic twilight during blue hour

License this image via canadastock.

1. Golden Hour (Morning)

When is the best time to take pictures outside? Most photographers would claim that Golden Hour or Magic Hour (the hour just after sunrise, or just before sunset) is the best time for photography outside.

At these times, the light is diffused and soft, bringing a dewy, ethereal aesthetic to stock photos. 

Shortly after sunrise, the light is warm with a slightly rosy pink hue, which brings an ultra-flattering glow to portraits, landscapes, and nature photography.

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Farjana.rahman, Photobox.ks, and Alena Ozerova.

When Should You Use Morning Golden Hour Photos?

Photographers have to be early risers to take advantage of the morning Magic Hour, but it’s well worth those few lost hours of sleep. The warm, hazy light brings an optimistic, hopeful aesthetic to portraits that communicates renewal and rejuvenation.

Wellness brands and beauty businesses love Golden Hour stock photos for this reviving emotional effect. 

Golden Hour photos are rarely edgy and dramatic. Instead, they can be used to bring softness, calm, and approachability to designs.

Try Golden Hour pictures on email campaigns to be sent out first thing in the morning, or use for campaigns themed on health, lifestyle, leisure, or travel to bring a sense of optimism and anticipation.

In this portrait, the photographer has shot the image close to sunrise to bring out the warmth in the light (left). We can enhance the Golden Hour effect even further by increasing the saturation of golden and pink tones in the photo, creating an even more optimistic, glowing effect (right). License this image via

2. Midday and Afternoon

While Golden Hour is often considered the best time to take pictures, the middle of the day is sometimes considered the worse!

At noon, the sun is high in the sky, casting harsh light downwards. The result? High contrast, shadows in areas that are undesirable (read: eye bags), and loss of detail in highlighted areas. 

The strong light of midday can be a challenge for photographers but, if carefully managed, noon light can create striking, impactful stock photos.

Making careful camera adjustments to manage the excess of light (such as lowering the ISO to limit exposure) and tempering midday’s harsh light by shooting beside an indoor window or using shaded shelter such as tree cover can help to turn noon to the photographer’s advantage.

By mid-afternoon, the sun’s light moves lower and becomes slightly softer, so many photographers choose to set up shoots for this time of day, leading into the super flattering light of evening’s Golden Hour, as the day progresses. 

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Kiselev Andrey Valerevich, Sean Xu, – Yuri A, and evrymmnt.

When Should I Use Midday and Afternoon Photos?

Midday photos are best used when you want to make contrast and strong lighting a part of your design. Stock photos shot in the middle of the day make a strong statement, with very pale highlights and very dark shadows. 

Black and white photography can benefit from noon light, which emphasizes the contrast between light and dark tones, and midday photography can also be used to give the impression of high summer, bringing a vacation feel to portraits or accentuating the heat of a setting, such as desert dunes, beaches, or jungles.

Mid-afternoon light is a good compromise for high-contrast photos which still have details preserved. Sunny afternoons are also the perfect setting for energetic shoots, such as sports or outdoor activities, as the light feels vibrant and dynamic, rather than the sleepy, hazy light of morning and evening.

Midday is the perfect time to take action shots, as demonstrated by this photo of a cliff diver (left). You can enhance the stark drama of action photos even further by increasing the contrast and light intensity in your images in post-editing (right). License this image via EpicStockMedia.

3. Golden Hour (Evening)

Almost all photographers would agree that the best time for photography is during the two Golden Hours—early in the morning and late in the day. 

While the hour just after sunrise offers subtle rosy light for delicate, pink-hued photography, the hour just before sunset can feel richer and more golden, as well as more colorful.

At dusk, the atmosphere thickens with a greater number of particles than at sunrise, filtering out blue and violet light, leaving jewel-like red and orange tones behind.

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Nadezhda Akimova, 365_Visuals, and Dulin.

When Should I Use Evening Golden Hour Photos?

Because of its flattering, warm light, Golden Hour is generally considered to be the best time for photography outside. The diffused light softens flaws, making it the perfect time to take beautiful portraits, or to highlight the beauty of natural landscapes at one of the most spellbinding times of the day. 

As evening progresses, the end of the Golden Hour creates striking shadows, giving images contrast and drama. This is also a great time to photograph subjects with strong angles and edges, such as architecture, textures, and mountainscapes, which will benefit from a balance of strong shadows and warm light.

In this striking image of a bridge taken at Golden Hour (left), the warm light and strong shadows emphasize the lines and structure of the architecture. In a very subtly edited image (right), slightly more warmth and contrast emphasizes the shadows even further, giving this Golden Hour photo even more structure. License this image via Ambience Design Studio.

4. Blue Hour

Blue Hour actually refers to a period of around just 20 minutes at the start and end of the day, just before sunrise and just after sunset. Offering more light than nighttime, but retaining its beautiful blue tones, Blue Hour photos are ethereally beautiful, serene, and tranquil. 

The levels of light at Blue Hour are lower than during the day, which means photographers will often need to use a tripod to steady the camera while it works with slow shutter speeds, ensuring a sharp photo result.

Due to its limited duration, it certainly takes some pre-planning to shoot during Blue Hour. Photographers often choose to focus on a single subject and set-up over this short period, but the results are well worth the effort. 

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Unai Huizi Photography, Henri van Avezaath, and Luciano Santandreu.

When Should I Use Blue Hour Photos?

With its cool tones and serene atmosphere, Blue Hour brings a sense of calm and quietness to stock photos. Photographers often choose to shoot subjects which match this mood, such as serene landscapes or sleepy cities.

A little artificial light is useful when photographing in minimal light, so Blue Hour photos often include street lighting or candlelight to introduce more light and add to the atmosphere. 

Because Blue Hour stock photos have a natural serenity, you can use Blue Hour photography to foster a calm mood in your campaigns.

Try using these cool-hued pictures on designs themed on travel and escapism, or use as soothing backgrounds for websites and social media banners.

In these two images from the same photoshoot, we can see how Blue Hour quickly deepens over a short amount of time into early nighttime. While the rapidly disappearing light can prove challenging for photographers, the results are serene and atmospheric, and can be boosted with the inclusion of artificial light. License these images via saravutpics and saravutpics.

5. Nighttime

When the sun goes down, photographers face the ultimate challenge—working with little or no light. Subjects disappear into blackness or blur at the slightest touch of the camera, requiring careful consideration of light sources, weather conditions, and camera stability. 

Nonetheless, nighttime photography can be incredibly rewarding on an aesthetic level, resulting in atmospheric stock photos that always surprise. Most photographers look for carefully placed artificial light, such as street lamps and neon signage, or rely on brightly moonlit nights for dramatic natural landscape shots or astrophotography

Nighttime photoshoots tend to bring out edges and silhouettes rather than complete subjects, and the juxtaposition between what is hidden in darkness and what is illuminated with light sources, such as candles or screen lights, can create a really intriguing and contrasting photographic result.

Time-lapse photography is also particularly effective at night, allowing photographers to capture the night sky as it moves in a circular arc across otherwise still and sleepy landscapes. 

Clockwise, from top left: License these images via Master1305, MKM Creations LLC, and Harsanyi Andras.

When Should I Use Nighttime Photos?

Nighttime is not often considered the best time for photography outside, but some of the most atmospheric photos can actually be achieved after dark. 

In your own campaigns and design projects, nighttime photography can amp up the drama, bringing mystery, moodiness, and depth to social media posts, email campaigns, or event flyers.

Try using cityscape nighttime shots to advertise events such as festivals, club nights, or concerts—or enhance a mood of wonder and solitude for travel websites or wanderlust blogs with after-dark landscapes or astrophotography.

In this nighttime portrait, the photographer has made use of artificial light sources, such as the laptop screen and glowing tent, to bring light into the image (left). In the final edited image (right), the nighttime mood is enhanced by darkening the outer edges of the image, preserving light only on the subject’s face. License this image via Dean Drobot.

Conclusion: Timing It Right

There’s a right time to do anything, and photography is no different. As the level and tone of light changes throughout the day and into the night, photos can benefit from widely different moods and aesthetic effects, from the optimistic rosiness of dawn’s Magic Hour to the soothing serenity of twilight’s Blue Hour.

You can treat timing in stock photography as a useful way of incorporating a particular emotional mood into your projects.

Want an email campaign to feel go-getting? The stark light of midday stock photos will bring a dynamic, sporty energy to your message.

Looking to convey a sense of mystery and magnetism in a website design? Nighttime photography will set exactly the right tone.

In search of the perfect Golden Hour portrait or nighttime landscape for your next project? We’ve got you covered.

With Shutterstock FLEX, you’ll have all-in-one access to our massive library, plus the FLEXibility you need to select the perfect mix of assets every time.

License this cover image via Master1305.

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