The Secret To Amazing Golden Hour Portraiture

by | Dec 1, 2016 | Tips & Tricks | 4 comments

You know, I learned something new today. Quite revolutionary, actually. Something so helpful that I have a feeling it is completely transforming how I plan and carry out portrait shoots in the future.

It was sort of impromptu, but I had a grand time doing a family photoshoot today here in Texas.

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While there are many similarities between portrait photography and landscape photography (and it’s certainly easier to move between the two if you’re good at one or the other), one must also realize that each certainly has it’s own nuances that are certainly unique to itself. Here’s what I mean…..

Golden hour is awesome. In landscape photography, shooting between 90 and 180 degrees from the sun offers beautiful views of golden light painting a golden landscape under a rich blue sky. Shooting toward the sun, on the other hand, is a lot more difficult. You run into lens flare, silhouetting, dull white skies, etc. Not the sort of things that are traditionally used in landscape photography.

Now, I have always assumed it was the same in portrait photography. You still want those rich colors, right? Well, sometimes maybe, but perhaps not always. If you’ve ever done a portrait shoot at golden hour, like the one I did today, you’ll soon find out that’s not always what you want. When you’re shooting away from the sun, yes, the landscape behind your subject is beautifully golden and the sky is perfect blue….but what about your subject? Your squinting, yellow-faced, black-eyed subject? Not that flattering.

So, how did I cope with this today? I took them into the shade, where I wouldn’t have to deal with the sun. And that is certainly one way to deal with it. But then what’s the point of golden hour?

Looking back over the best shots from the day, I think I now understand the difference between the two genres. In some ways, portraiture is the opposite of landscape when it comes to the golden hour. Shooting more toward the sun than away from it actually works better in portraiture. Think about it. Lens flare adds to the warm, glowing effect, silhouetting isn’t a problem if you’re exposed for the subject, and white skies are fine since you already have a clearly defined subject.

Here’s an example:

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This shot I’m basically shooting away from the sun. Nice blue background, but extremely high contrast in the face and a challenging editing job to tone down glowing yellow skin.

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Exact same spot, just at a different angle, this time looking in the basic direction of the sun. Certainly overexposed in the background….but that’s ok. My subject is well exposed and evenly lit. An easy editing job, nice hair light, and an overall soft and flattering look.

I can’t believe I hadn’t really applied this before!

I suppose I had been told (or read it) a million times, to utilize backlighting in portraiture at golden hour. But it makes all the difference in the world when you’re actually out in the field figuring out how to apply that head-knowledge. I finally understand now. Golden hour is just as awesome as it used to be and more so now that I actually know how to work with it.

I just never stop learning!

Which reminds me….

Everything I just said doesn’t necessarily work all the time. Did you know that I successfully conducted a family photoshoot last Sunday (at the exact same location!) only with all my subjects looking directly toward the sun? No backlighting that time; this is front lighting! And it still turned out amazing! See for yourself:

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Why? In retrospect, I know exactly why now. But there’s not time to explain why here. I’ll save it for the next PRO Report, scheduled to be released next week (UPDATE: as it turns out, this article was not published in “the next PRO Report”, but it will be published in the January 2017 PRO Report). Wait till then, PRO members, and I’ll tell you when you’d better use front lighting instead of backlighting in portraiture.

Until then, enjoy the following images from today’s photoshoot. Perhaps you’ll look at the direction of light a little differently than you would have before reading this post….

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  1. Pearl Morley

    Beautiful pictures, James! Good to see the familiar faces of the David Waller family!

  2. Frazer Family

    I’ve used that technique before too… though rather differently. It’s very useful when shooting passport or other official card photos: putting the subject in the shade while placing a white sheet of sheet rock in the sun behind them. Exposing for the person makes for a perfectly white background without washing out any part of the subject.

    I think my favourite is 161201-James Staddon_2782 where both the subjects and the background are shaded, though 161201-James Staddon_2606 ranks really close. The silhouettes are nice too. So beautiful! I’m gathering ideas for our next family photos! 🙂

  3. James Staddon

    Thanks for the tip, Frazer Family! When it comes to portraiture, it’s all about even light. 🙂


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