This is a free photography tutorial with five tips that will help portrait photographers schedule portrait sessions for the best natural light.
Question: Have you ever run out of light during a shoot? We have, and we’ll never forget the way it felt in the moment. The stress of it. Watching the sun slip behind the horizon and the skies get darker (by the minute) while our clients were still in their car changing outfits. When they emerged, we did our best to smile. To hide it. But we felt rushed. They could probably tell. We were talking-fast-and-walking-fast-and-posing-fast-and-shooting-fast and fast, fast, FAST! All because we were new photographers, and didn’t know how to schedule portrait sessions for the best natural light.
It wasn’t fun, like it’s supposed to be. And the photos didn’t look the way we hoped. We started at a convenient time for the clients, instead of insisting on what was actually best for their photos. We either lost light too fast, or weren’t working with the best light to begin with. We’ll never make that mistake ever again. We hope this post helps you avoid it altogether. Because you work too hard behind the scenes practicing you craft and building your business not to love the time you get to actually do what you want to do: take beautiful portraits. Which only happens when you give yourself enough margin to take a breath, look around, be creative and be present with your clients, instead of feeling rushed, stressed, distracted or frustrated. Remember, when the process is stress-free, usually the post–processing is, too. Just ask the students in our Shooting & Editing Course who’ve cut their editing time by 80% (or more) because they’re nailing their shots in camera for the first time.
In our experience, there are three big problems newer photographers face when they schedule portrait sessions:
Scouting the location, greeting client in the parking lot, helping them make final decisions on the props or accessories they brought, walking from spot to spot, changing outfits. It all steals from shooting time unless you account for it in advance. The last thing you want is for your client to arrive and you feel so rushed for time that you don’t have a chance to connect with them as humans and do that important photographer-subject trust and relationship building.
Because of busy schedules, a client might tell you that they’re only available in the late morning or mid-afternoon — exactly when the light outside is the worst. In the beginning, some photographers feel so desperate for the work, that they agree. Even though they know it’s not the best for the client or for them. But they agree to do it because they don’t feel empowered to educate their client about the benefits of scheduling sessions for the best light.
One of the ways we prep our clients for everything they need to know for their session, including why we schedule our sessions around the light and how to dress to look their best on camera, is by sending our couples our Engagement Session Style Guide and our families our Portrait Session Style Guide. If you want to send them to your clients, too, both are available in our online store.
You don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s OKAY. Nobody is born a professional photographer. The people who’ve “made it” (which isn’t even a thing if you ask us!) don’t have some special photographer gene that you don’t have. It’s just learning little by little, plus hard work, over time. So if you’ve ever scheduled a session for high noon, and ended up with harsh light all over the place and light that was challenging to work with and impossible to make flattering… you’re not alone. And there’s good news! You won’t ever do it again. The best mistakes are the ones we learn early in our businesses, that don’t cost us our businesses, that we never make again and can use to make us better in the future.
To help you with that, here are five quick tips that’ll show you how to schedule portrait sessions for the best natural light every time!
We keep a handy dandy online sunset calculator bookmarked on our computer. That way, when we’re scheduling a session for a client, we just have to type in the city where we’re shooting, the month of the session, and it tells use the scheduled sunset for every day that month. It works months (even years!) in advance — because science — so this works for scheduling sessions for next week and next year, too! We schedule portrait sessions for two hours before the scheduled sunset. So, if the sunset is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. and it’s a 90-minute session (45 minutes per outfit), we start at 4:00 p.m. to allow for greeting time, shooting time, changing time, shooting time, and pad time (in case the client hits traffic and is late). We once had a client drive 20 minutes to a session, realize she forgot her shoes, drive all the way back home to get them, and we still had enough time for a great shoot. So the main lesson is start earlier rather than later. Once time is gone, you can’t get it back.
We also use our sunset calculator to customize our wedding day timelines. If there’s ever a time you don’t want to lose the light or feel stressed or rushed, wedding days are it! If you’re interested in using our timelines, you can get them here!
Remember, the sunset time changes with the seasons, and depends on geographic locations. The sun sets much later in the summertime and much earlier in the wintertime. So your session start times will look slightly different every month. From month to month, the sunset can change by 20 or 30 minutes (depending on the day), so you can’t assume any two months will be the same. Also, if you’re in a northern state, like Montana, summer sunset can be as late as 9:00 p.m. On the same day in the Phoenix area, where we live, sunset might be 7:30 p.m. In the winter, those times might be dramatically earlier. That’s why it’s so important to check your sunset calculator every time you schedule portrait sessions — especially as you get busier and busier and have more and more clients booking farther out. For some of our brides and grooms, winter, weekday engagement sessions are hard, because we have to start at 3:30 p.m. for a 5:30 sunset — so they opt to shoot on the weekend or wait until springtime if they can’t take off work. Lastly, don’t forget about daylight savings time! We live in Arizona, the only state where the time doesn’t change, but for the other 49 of you, it’s critical that you’re aware of the time change when you’re scheduling sessions near the second week of March and the first Sunday in November.
Once we schedule portrait sessions, we don’t cancel them unless the wind or rain (no snow in Phoenix!) are so extreme that we won’t be able to deliver the images or experience we’re capable of. Which is VERY rare. That said, we always check the weather forecast (not obsessively) in the days leading up to a shoot. If it’s clear skies and sunny, we stick to our plan. If it looks like the sun is going to be hiding during our scheduled session time (cloudy or mostly cloudy) oftentimes we’ll ask our clients if they can start even earlier (maybe three hours before sunset) because depending on the thickness and position of the clouds, the best light might actually be better earlier in the day, when the sun is higher and stronger above the clouds. When the sun is setting behind clouds, it’s more directional and less powerful, which means it’s much darker.
If you’re shooting downtown, at a university campus, or somewhere with lots of tall buildings on both sides that will block the sun, make sure to treat it like a cloudy day and schedule portrait sessions to end before the official sunset. The buildings will act like clouds (except thicker!) and you’ll lose light a lot faster than normal. Unless you’re planning to shoot in-between the buildings for outfit one, and then move to a nearby field for outfit two. In that case, start two hours before sunset like normal. It’s not just tall buildings, though. In Arizona, oftentimes, we’re shooting in the middle of open desert, so there’s nothing standing in the way of the sun except the horizon line. So sunset means sunset. In places with rolling hills, high mountains or thick forest, however, the horizon line isn’t the same as the beach or desert. Even if the scheduled sunset says 7:00 p.m., if the sun drops behind the tree line at 6:30 p.m., then sunset for the session is 6:30 p.m. Not 7:00 p.m. So just keep that in mind if you’re shooting in a new place that you’re not familiar with! To see what we mean, the next time you’re downtown in the afternoon, pay attention to what the light looks like and notice how much darker it is compared to when you’re in an open field at the same time. This tip is especially important for photographers who live in places with high rises, like San Francisco or New York City. If you live in a big city or you’ll be shooting in one soon, we have a really helpful blog post for you called Five Tips for Shooting in Crowded Places that we wrote after our first session in Central Park.
You can always extend your sessions an extra 30 minutes as a gift to your clients if you’re loving the light, but you can’t do anything if the good light runs out or the sun sets before you’ve got what you need, so always put yourself in a position to win with light by getting ahead of it and never chasing it.
We hope these tips for how to schedule portrait sessions for the best natural light has helpful for you!
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