It is said the photography is all about capturing the light so I think is useful to learn which time of the day is the best for outdoor photography:
- first, anybody should know the strong light of the middle of a sunny day is the worst for a lot of types of photos: portraits, flowers, even landscapes. It is bad due of the intensity, which creates strong highlights and deep shadows, with heavy contrasts and also is bad due to its direction, for example in portraits it will create unpleasant shadows under the eyes and nose. Avoid it at all costs;
- however, if you have to take a shoot in the middle of the day, the best solution is to move your subject in an open shade, for example under a tree or on a porch. This way the bad direct sunlight is blocked and there is a lot of reflected light available from the surrounding. Use skylight instead of sunlight. This way the shadows on your subject are softer and more pleasant. You don't want complete shade, which will require long exposure times and even worse will eliminate the all the shadows on your subject - photography is an 2D medium, we need the shadows to understand the shapes and the relief;
- a much better time of the day for photography is the so-called "golden hour", which happens twice a day: a few tens of minutes before the sunset and a few ten of minutes after the sunrise. Then the light has an awesome, magical, quality with tints of gold, orange, red or purple. I find the color of the skin and people faces just beautiful on this light, but the buildings and landscapes look good too. Take care of the long shadows, created by the low position of the sun;
- cloudy, overcast days are also awesome in a lot of cases: shooting people, street, architecture. The clouds work as a huge softbox in front of the sun, creating soft shadows and allowing to capture pleasant details. Just stay away for photos (usually landscapes) where the sky is visible: the white or gray sky of an overcast day is boring, uninteresting. It will ruin your photo.
If you MUST take photos in the direct mid-day sun and you can not move the subject in an open shade (say it must be near a fixed object or there is no shade available) there are still some things you can do:
- use a reflector: a foldable piece of cloth on a frame, with a sliver, golden (for warmer light) or even white surface with which you can reflect some available light towards your subject and soften the shadows. You may need the help of an assistant to hold it;
- a diffuser is pretty much like a reflector, but it is a transparent white cloth, allowing to cast a shadow on your subject;
- fill flash: use the light of a flash unit to reduce the shadows created by the sun light. It may sound weird at first, but there are cases when you put the flash light to compete with the light coming from the sun.
Speaking of flashes, another thing you must do is to avoid using the on-camera flash at all costs, it will ruin your photos: the light source is too close to the lenses and will produce bad shadows, a flat image and a very strong direct light. Due to the position it is also very likely you will get the undesired "red eye" effect. On-camera flash will also beat your cat and kill your goldfish (kidding!). Of course, if you are in pitch-black and the only available flash is the on-camera one, take the photo with it, a bad photo is better than no photo, but don't have big expectations about the result.
A better option is to use an external flash, with its additional benefits:
- even put on the camera shoe, is is a bit further from the lenses, the light source has a slightly different position, the shadows are not that bad, the red eye effect is less likely to happen;
- you can use an extension cord or wireless transmitter allowing you to move the flash far away from your camera: at an arm length, on a frame or hold by an assistant;
- almost all external flashes have a moving head, so you can turn it at an angle and have the light bounced from the ceiling or a wall, obtaining a soft light and pleasant shadows;
- on an external flash you can mount a softcap or small softbox to reduce the light intensity or redirect it.
Regarding the light, there is also an important in-camera setting called White Balance, which a surprisingly large number of camera users do not take advantage of. In addition to the intensity or direction, an important characteristic of the light is its temperature: for example the temperature of the sun light is about 5200K (with slight variations during the day), the light temperature in the shadows is about 7000K or the temperature of the light coming from a bulb (tungsten) is about 3200K.
Probably you saw in many cases your photos looking blueish or yellowish: this is caused by a wrong setting for the white balance. If you set the light temperature to a lower value than in reality, the image will have a blue tint (colder) and if you set it to a higher value the tint is yellow (warmer). With the perfect setting the white is supposed to look white, not blue or yellow.
When shooting in RAW format the white balance is not an issue, you can correct it easily when importing, but for some reasons you may prefer (I do) shooting in JPEG (smaller file size, writing speed, less post-processing, etc.) and then setting it right before taking the photo is important. While the new cameras produced these days do a better job with automatically detecting the light temperature and setting the white balance accordingly, it is far from perfect so manual adjustment it useful. You can also take advantage of White Balance for special effects, making the photo colder or warmer on purpose.
Some cameras have the ability to set a custom value for White Balance: put a white surface (a sheet of paper) in front of your camera and tell it "this is white".
So consider the best time of the day for taking the photos, make the best in-camera setting and the difference will be visible.