How to Make Light Work for You

Reader Question: What’s the best time of day to take pictures?

My Answer: Most photographers love early morning and late afternoon. There are many good reasons for this.

Typically, the light is coming from a lower angle. That makes the scene have more depth and 3-dimensionality. At these times the scene also has lower contrast between bright areas and dark areas.

Our cameras can’t see as much as we can with our eyes, and having the scene more tonally compressed makes for a better picture. Another reason is for more interesting color. Photographers refer to the time from approximately a 1/2 hour before sunrise to a 1/2 hour after (and correspondingly at sunset) as the golden hour.

The sun shining through the atmosphere has that typical golden glow. But, it is important to note that we don’t like that light because we want to take sunset pictures; those are a dime a dozen. We’re more likely to turn our back to the sun and photograph the objects or people that the golden light is falling on.

In these situations it’s important to have your white balance setting set on Daylight instead of Auto to make sure your camera doesn’t “correct” the warm colors you worked so hard to find.

Final word: Next time you find yourself on a beach at sunset, turn your back to the sun. You might be amazed at what you see.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.


  1. gayatrsharma
    July 14, 2013, 12:24 am

    great advise

  2. bwambale jockim
    May 23, 2013, 10:40 am

    thanks for the pictures, they are so nice and I’ve really leaned alot from all the magazines . bravo bravo

  3. Gaurav M.Rau
    Hyderabad, India
    May 23, 2013, 5:32 am

    Dan, Thanks for every thing you give to all.
    You are to me, one of the best photo-art teachers, to say the least.
    All your suggestions are applied in nature; thats’ the beauty.
    Take care Dan.

  4. Jismy
    May 23, 2013, 12:45 am

    being an amateur I wonder what makes for that right click? which would be the most crucial one among creativity, angle, light or is it any other element??

  5. teresa
    Arequipa, Perú.
    May 22, 2013, 8:28 pm

    Me gusta mucho la fotografía, sobre todo las de los viajes y las que tomo de los paisajes naturales. Gracias por sus buenos consejos .Pienso que es una forma más de acercarnos entre los que nos gusta la fotografía.Gracias.

  6. Lori
    United States
    May 22, 2013, 5:19 pm

    I enjoyed your article on lighting…It’s exactly what I have been experimenting with when taking photos, and I love the results!! My first pic ever taken was at sunset, which it now needs to be retouched, but I still have it :) My fav pics lately were #Cherry Blossoms on the Tidal Basin in #Wash DC, in any light… I entered my first photo contest, then i was not able to attend the tweetup! It was worth hanging out in DC all day anyway.

    Thank You for sharing your wisdom & photography tips!

  7. Stew Shore
    Sherwood Park, Alberta
    May 22, 2013, 12:23 pm

    As an Amateur Photo Bug, I am always looking for Tips and Tricks. Unfortunately, when you are travelling, you are not always at the locations around Sunrise and Sunset. So, we need to take advantage of what light is around us.

    Dan, Thanks for the tips!

  8. Michael
    S.E. Idaho
    May 22, 2013, 10:27 am

    I use film, and I enjoy using film. However, it is difficult to find a workshop that will incorporate film. I understand the reason. I however, I do not have the money to spend on new camera (DLSR) especial when my old school film (SLRs) produce as good if not better images.

  9. Luis Patacão
    May 22, 2013, 9:04 am

    Just a small correction, the indicated WB setting for this light is not “Daylight” but “Cloudy” as the temperature of the light is warmer than daylight!

  10. Jeff Anderson
    April 29, 2013, 11:09 am

    While the hours around sunrise and sunset are certainly the best for taking pictures, many times, especially when traveling, I don’t get a chance to photograph scenes at those times. So, I have tried to work with what ever light is available. Some turn out good and some don’t, but that’s the good thing about digital. Just keep the good and learn from the others.

  11. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, United States
    April 26, 2013, 10:27 pm

    Great advice. As an amateur photographer I prefer the hour or so before dusk, especially if I am taking pictures with a body of water in them. The lighting and reflection of the sunlight on the water makes for some stunning photos (usually without the sun in them).
    I actually love the hour after the sun sets even more though, with a few second exposure I have captured some of my favourite images, and I don’t even have to touch them up with photoshop.

    Ian Faulds